21 March 2007 – The new/old scapegoat
This morning’s Harvard Crimson reports that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer are preparing to publish a book this coming September that develops the argument they made in their infamous paper last year—namely, that a shadowy “Israel lobby” controls American foreign policy and steers it in a pro-Israel direction that is supposedly at odds with America’s real interests in the Middle East.
The paper’s argument has been thoroughly refuted, by Alan Dershowitz and others. However, it continues to enjoy credibility, not just from knee-jerk Israel-haters but from otherwise respectable and intelligent people. I participated in a study group at Harvard’s Institute of Politics last semester, and the eminent person who convened it was convinced that Walt was right about the power of the “Israel lobby.”
Walt addressed our seminar on the subject of American foreign policy in the Middle East more generally. I took notes patiently, and uncovered what I think is the key flaw in his thought (leaving aside, for the moment, the question of latent antisemitism): he believes all outcomes in the Middle East are America’s fault, refusing to assign agency to Iran or terror groups or any other local actors.
If you believe America is responsible for everything that happens, even when events run against American interests, then you will naturally look for the source of America’s (mis)fortunes within America itself. But that alone cannot explain why Walt and Mearsheimer focus exclusively on the “Israel lobby,” when other actors and interests—notably the Saudis and the oil lobby—may have more clout.
I’ve read Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper, and it really does seem to be nothing more than a re-heated version of the old Jewish conspiracy theory, which had been frozen on the political margins for decades. The fact that the theory has been out of circulation for so long may account for some of its appeal, since it may strike the uninformed as a new idea, whose familiar (if ugly) tropes give it the ring of truth.
But the main reason the theory is becoming more popular is it offers a way to explain America’s apparent failures in Iraq. In other words, the “Israel lobby” is a classic scapegoat. And since, as the most recent issue of the Economist shows, few people bother to distinguish between the “Israel lobby” and the “Jewish lobby,” this scapegoat is not actually new, but an old one. And this should arouse grave concern.
What we are seeing today is not dissimilar to what happened in Germany in the interwar years, where defeat in war was blamed on Jews, who were not only a vulnerable minority but one that had long been viewed with prejudice and which was easily portrayed as “foreign” to the national body. A conspiracy theory was already available from Czarist Russia, which had lost a war to Japan in 1905.
We all know the end result in Germany. Jews are not in danger in today’s America, but the conspiracy theory may lead to other unpleasant results, including a turning inward in America’s foreign policy that would leave the Middle East unstable and that might have the same negative effects as U.S. isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly it would allow Iran to continue in its attempts to destroy Israel.
The Crimson article includes the following about historian and Jewish Israel-baiter Tony Judt’s views on Walt and Mearsheimer:
“New York University professor Tony Judt, who wrote a New York Times op-ed supporting the pair shortly after their article appeared, said in an interview yesterday that the professors’ work has forced a discussion of the Israeli lobby’s influence, a previously taboo topic.
“The article and subsequent furor have opened up the debate as never before [and] the book will presumably do more of the same,” Judt said.
Judt added that the book will likely include more “technical detail and primary sourcing” and “address the formal criticisms made of the article, some genuine, many in bad faith.”
There is nothing more dishonest, and more damaging, than the idea that discussion of the “Israel lobby” was previously “taboo.” There was nothing preventing anyone from attacking the “Israel lobby” before, except perhaps the embarrassment of supporting conspiracy theories and fundamentally wrong ideas about American foreign policy and the Middle East, which is a deterrent to most intelligent people.
No one is attacking the fact that Walt and Mearsheimer attacked the Israel lobby. Walt and Mearsheimer are being attacked on the merits of their claim, and the “taboo” charge, ironically, is actually an attempt to quash debate. Judt does not attempt to defend the paper, but in invoking the “taboo” label he attempts to defend its central and fatal claim: that the “Israel lobby” controls debate in America.
What Judt is doing with the “taboo” claim is reinforcing the attempt to scapegoat Israel and the Jews for America’s foreign policy failures. It is amazing that an esteemed European historian cannot see that history is repeating itself. But he is not alone; various left-wing Jews are backing Walt and Mearsheimer, presumably because they perceive a common interest in attacking the Jewish mainstream.
If so, it is a misperception, and a dangerously short-sighted one at that. The new/old scapegoat of “world Jewry,” the “Israel lobby,” “neo-Zionism” or whatever else it is called is a monster that cannot be tamed once it is brought to life. The Jewish left is at much at risk as other Jews, or anyone else, from the idea that Jews control U.S. foreign policy, which is a motivating belief of Islamist terror movements.
The sad irony is that the closer you get to Ground Zero, the fewer people who seem to understand this. I have heard people in Manhattan defend suicide bombings, without shame, in front of supportive audiences. We are living in an age of profound cognitive dissonance. The reality of what we are facing in the Middle East, and what it will take to deal with it, is one few people are prepared to grapple with.