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Jul 23 2013

How the Israel lobby works and why it is failing

Anyone who writes anything critical of Israel in a public forum can expect pushback from members of what has come to be known as ‘the Israel lobby’, those individuals and groups that seek to silence any honest discussion of the Middle East.

In their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy (2007), John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt said that the Israel lobby, like all the other lobbies that operate in US politics, is not a single entity nor a cabal or a secretive organization, but a loose collection of individuals and groups that share a common policy goal. In this case the group comprises those who think that the interests of Israel (especially those of a particular right-wing expansionist segment of the Israeli political spectrum) and the interests of the US are synonymous, and that the US should use its economic, military and political clout to uncritically and unhesitatingly support and advance those interests. In particular this requires that the US treat as an enemy any nation or group that Israel sees as an enemy, which is what we see now with Iran and earlier with Iraq.

Walt and Mearshiemer emphasize that the lobby is not comprised exclusively of Jews nor even of the majority of Jews, many of whom are opposed to the policies being pursued by the lobby. Some of its most ardent members are neoconservatives and evangelical Christian groups like Christians United For Israel (CUFI) led by John Hagee that, because of their weird end-times eschatology, see the complete occupation of the occupied territories by Israel as the necessary trigger for Jesus to come again, and so urge warlike and destabilizing policies, because the Bible foretells that Jesus will come when that region of the world is engulfed in war. These members of the lobby actually look forward to the Rapture when Jews and other non-saved people will be slaughtered. Stranger bedfellows than those in the lobby have rarely been seen.

In the third part of my three-part review of the book written back in 2007, I described how the lobby operates.

As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks says “[W]hat’s most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn’t that it’s savage, unfounded and fantastical. What’s most troubling is that it’s typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn’t possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism.” (p. 329)

Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the reason for this swift and almost hysterical response to criticisms of the policies advocated by the lobby is because those policies cannot really withstand open scrutiny. The only way those policies can be implemented is if there is no debate at all either of the policies themselves or of the lobby that is agitating for them. This silencing strategy takes the form of alleging that those who raise such issues are either anti-Semitic or resurrecting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuating the ‘blood libel’. The point of making such allegations is not because they are credible but to shift the debate from the merits of the policies to the motives of the critics of the policy.

The purpose of such criticisms is so that the people at the receiving end of them are them supposed to then spend time and energy defending themselves from these bogus charges, and the hope is that they get tired of having to do so over and over again, and decide that the easiest thing to do is avoid criticisms of Israeli policies altogether.

But that tactic is increasingly failing. More and more political analysts are not only not following that script, they are turning the tables on the lobby. They are simply ignoring these charges (because they are without merit and their critics are not interested in the facts anyway) and instead using them to point out that this is exactly how the lobby operates. As a result the lobby is increasingly being exposed as a paper tiger. The only place the lobby still holds sway, unfortunately, is in the halls of the US Congress, and in the top levels of US government teams involved in Middle East diplomacy, and this constitutes a significant reason why those ‘peace talks’ never seem to go anywhere but keep allowing more settlements to be built.

In my case, for example, I can say what I believe about anything and I don’t give a damn what the lobby or anyone else thinks, because they cannot do anything to deter me. Whenever I write something critical of Israeli policies, I can predict with certainty that I will get responses implying that I am some sort of quasi-Nazi, and find it highly amusing when those comments appear right on cue. These efforts at deterrence and to derail the discussion into other channels are so transparent as to be laughable and easily ignored. In a perverse way, such criticisms are stimulating because they serve as evidence that the criticisms of Israeli policies are hitting a nerve.

The only problem is that since I am basically a C-list blogger, I attract only C-list members of the lobby and their responses tend to lack originality, substance, and gravitas, essentially consisting of variations of the cliché that I am “throwing Israel under the bus”. My ambition is to one day attract people like Alan Dershowitz or John Bolton or Bill Kristol or (dare I dream?) John Hagee. Then I will know that I have arrived as a political commentator. Until then, I can only watch in envy as Mearsheimer, Walt, Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Philip Weiss, M. J. Rosenberg, draw the ire of the cream of the lobby. But as the number and quality of the critics of current Israeli policies are increasing, I fear that I will never reach the top tier.

48 comments

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  1. 1
    Tabby Lavalamp

    slc1 hasn’t commented yet? I’m honestly surprised…

  2. 2
    irisvanderpluym

    Neither Dershowitz, Bolton, Kristol nor Hagee offer originality, substance or gravitas on the subject of Israel (or on any other, for that matter). Their “arguments” essentially consist of the same poo-flinging as every other uncritical supporter of right-wing Israeli policies. As you point out, this is precisely because those policies cannot withstand rational or moral scrutiny, and even their high-profile defenders are not interested in facts. Drawing their personal ire or attention isn’t a requirement for you to make A-list quality arguments against them, and the “top-tier” critics you mention are not nearly as mainstreamed as Dershowitz & Co. Not even close.

    You have a really groovy platform here that some bloggers (*cough*) would die for, and consequently a real opportunity to add your voice to the growing chorus of criticism against Israeli policies. I cannot help but get from your post that it’s more important to you to “have arrived as a political commentator” than it is that Israel reverse course on the settlements.

  3. 3
    jamessweet

    Walt and Mearshiemer emphasize that the lobby is not comprised exclusively of Jews nor even of the majority of Jews, many of whom are opposed to the policies being pursued by the lobby.

    It’s not tremendously important other than as a matter of academic curiosity, but I wonder about the assertion that the “majority of Jews” are not part of what might be loosely called the “Israel lobby”. Certainly, my experience with my wife’s family is pretty uniform, ranging across both the political and theological spectrum: The only things that my (liberal, Reform) mother-in-law and her (conservative, Orthodox) brother seem to agree on, for example, are that Israel walks on water and that Palestinians (oh, sorry, “Arabs living in Palestine”) are little better than animals. With the conservative uncle it’s not so surprising, but with the more liberal members are her family, it’s frustrating that there’s like this weird mental block preventing them from even seeing that there might be different ways of looking at the crisis.

    Like I say, it’s not really important politically: Even if all American Jews held such inflexible views, the majority of the political push in America would be coming from evangelicals. But I do wonder… in my (admittedly narrow) experience, it seems like Israeli Jews collectively tend to be less dogmatic about it than American Jews, as counter-intuitive as that is. But again, most of my experience with American Jews comes from my wife’s family, so that is a pretty narrow selection — could just be a family culture thing.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    He’s right here: Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn’t possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism.

    I’m sure he’ll be along to tell us that it’s not as bad as what the syrians do, or some other batshit insane false equivalence.

  5. 5
    richardrobinson

    “Whenever I write something critical of Israeli policies, I can predict with certainty that I will get responses implying that I am some sort of quasi-Nazi, and find it highly amusing when those comments appear right on cue.”

    I’m being expected and preemptively dismissed is probably discouraging.

  6. 6
    slc1

    Since I am not a member of any of the organizations referred to by Prof. Singham (I would not want to belong to any organization that would have me as a member), I’m not even a C list commenter.

    However, it is notable that the good professor so admires the likes of Mearsheimer, Walt, Weiss, and Chomsky, (what happened to Finkelstein?) Israel bashing anti-semites all. I don’t include Rosenberg in that category as he is just naive. The only reason he doesn’t include Don Black along with them is that his racism is too blatant.

    The notion that all our problems in the Middle East are caused by the Israel/Palestinian issue I find rather quaint. If Messrs Netanyahu, Abbas, and Haniyeh were to sign a peace treaty tomorrow morning, it would not have the slightest effect on what’s going on in Egypt and Syria. In fact, if Haniyeh and Abbas were foolish enough to sign such a document, they would become targets of the mad mullahs in Iran for their perfidy.

    Prof. Singham’s claim that animus towards the State of Israel is on the rise in the US reminds me of the claims of the Dishonesty Institute that the Theory of Evolution is on it’s last legs. The polls of the American populace don’t seem to support that particular hypothesis as they indicate that support for Israel is at an all time high.

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    Support for the state of Israel is not the issue, it is support for specific policies by the government of Israel.

  8. 8
    slc1

    They why are you including Alan Dershowitz in your list? He doesn’t support the settlement building activity of the current Israeli Government and has opposed that policy since 1967.

  9. 9
    slc1

    If Prof. Singham were to be offered a faculty position at Harvard or Yale, he might well find himself on Prof. Dershowitz’s list. Remember Juan Cole.

  10. 10
    David Hart

    ‘Quasi-Nazi’ is a beautiful visual half-rhyme. Pity it doesn’t work when you say it aloud :-)

  11. 11
    Raging Bee

    The only place the lobby still holds sway, unfortunately, is in the halls of the US Congress, and in the top levels of US government teams involved in Middle East diplomacy, and this constitutes a significant reason why those ‘peace talks’ never seem to go anywhere but keep allowing more settlements to be built.

    True, but in fairness, there’s plenty of intransigence, religious testeria, ethnic bigotry, and mindless shouting-down of sensible debate on the other side as well — particularly on the part of Arab governments, who, on the one hand, can’t or won’t make any real effort to retake what they lost to israel, and, on the other hand, hardly did jack shit to repatriate displaced Palestinians, and instead chooses to keep them virtually homeless and use them as cannon-fodder in a war they’re willing to wage, but not to actually win.

    And while those Westerners who mindlessly cheer on the likes of Begin and Netenyayhoo deserve nothing but scorn, those who just as mindlessly cheer on undisciplined mass-murderers as “freedom-fighters” are just as deserving of our scorn, if not more so.

  12. 12
    henry_pet

    I’m Jewish (though I don’t practice, and I’m not involved in the Jewish community). I also read and sometimes respond to racist comments on an email list, which equate Jewishness with Zionism. Often the posters go further, with hoary and disgusting comments about Jewish elites’ control of banking etc. It’s hard for me to advocate for the rule of law in Israel / Palestine (e.g. demanding Israel cease illegal colonization, cease its blockade on Gaza, be held to account for the murders on the Mavi Marmara and so on) in the face of anti-Semitism. On the other hand somehow I got on the White House email list for Jewish Americans, and it assumes that everyone on the list backs the Administration policy of uncritical support for Israel.

    Israeli politicians – and their American political allies – do all they can to conflate a Jewish identity with blanket support for the state of Israel. So do anti-Semites.

    Isn’t it great when even enemies can agree?

  13. 13
    Brian M

    The problem, though, is to many on the Israeli right the State of Israel is by definition a tribal, religious state which doesn’t have room for “the other”, even if “the other” were there for generations.

    Israel is not alone in this, and certainly the nasty elements of the Arab right share this world view, as well as the more frightening elements of the American Tea Party right share this viewpoint (Christian White America!)

  14. 14
    Reptile Dysfunction

    Ha. ‘Religious testeria’. Good one.

  15. 15
    frankniddy

    slc1, I’m sure you have evidence that the people you named are anti-Semitic and aren’t just critics of Israel or Israeli policies. After all, that is an amazing claim, so you must have amazing evidence that they all hate Jews and don’t just disagree with Israel’s policies.

  16. 16
    frankniddy

    You say that as if that isn’t a sort of McCarthyism at work.

  17. 17
    Paul Jarc

    But I do wonder… in my (admittedly narrow) experience, it seems like Israeli Jews collectively tend to be less dogmatic about it than American Jews, as counter-intuitive as that is.

    One of the shortcuts built into the human brain is characterizing a group by one typical, represenatative member. This leads us to perceive groups as being more uniform than they really are. But when we are immersed in lots of information that defies the simplified model, for example when we are members of the group in question, we get a more detailed mental representation. In that light, the difference in dogmatism is not surprising.

    But again, most of my experience with American Jews comes from my wife’s family, so that is a pretty narrow selection — could just be a family culture thing.

    Right. Your perception is very uniform, but with a wider sample, you would probably perceive more variety.

  18. 18
    Rob Grigjanis

    It works if you say it as Winston Churchill did.

  19. 19
    invivoMark

    As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks says, “… In the United States today, it just isn’t possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism.”

    Wow, slc1, Dr. Brooks must know you!

  20. 20
    nrdo

    I think that if you have to define something so broadly as a “loose collection of individuals and groups that share a common policy goal” then the classification is almost meaningless and serves only to inhibit good-faith discussion. The existence of a “loose collection of individuals” who support a position is so trivially obvious that it should not need a book written about it unless the authors do intend to suggest that it is a “cabal” of some sort. Mrs. Mearsheimer and Walt could certainly have written a book arguing that ‘US supporters of policies X, Y, Z are wrong and here’s why . . .” but it wouldn’t have been as attention-grabbing as accusing a group of people of “controlling” US policy.

    In fact, the (slight) weakening in pro-settler sentiment seems attributable to the growth of a pragmatic Palestinian bureaucracy coupled with a better-organized progressive Zionist movement. I don’t see much evidence that the academics who spent their days arguing about the “legitimacy of Israel” or the “existence of Palestinian nationhood” had anything to do with it.

  21. 21
    slc1

    Since I have called Benjamin Netanyahu a liar on numerous occasions, I don’t consider myself a knee jerk supporter of everybody in the Israeli government. However, the absence of the religious parties in the current government is a step in the right direction.

  22. 22
    slc1

    Hey, how many times to I have to call Bibi a liar to join the anti-Bibi marching and chowder society.

  23. 23
    slc1

    If Mearsheimer and Walt had written a book such as you describe, it wouldn’t have sold worth a damn. It was the provocative thesis of the book that caused it to sell well. Controversy sells!

  24. 24
  25. 25
    Mano Singham

    You know, disliking Benjamin Netanyahu is a very low bar that proves hardly anything.

  26. 26
    slc1

    There is a big difference here. Dershowitz opposed the appointment of Juan Cole to a position at Yale. He did not call for his dismissal from his current appointment at the Un. of Michigan.

  27. 27
    invivoMark

    No one ever said you’re not a hypocrite.

  28. 28
    Nepenthe

    Do you find books written about Christian dominionists equally invalid?

  29. 29
    slc1

    I don’t like a number of Knesset members, including Moshe Feiglin who is a racist and Avigdor Lieberman who is a crook. I have mixed feelings about Naftali Bennett whose views were crucial to excluding the religious parties from the current Government and who is a strong supporter of economic development, including encouraging more Arab women to enter the work force to improve the economic situation in the Arab sector in Israel. On the other hand, his regressive views on the peace process, such as it is, are unproductive, although possibly he can be bought off with a promise of a referendum to approve any settlement with the Palestinians (it should be noted that Mahmoud Abbas has also promised a referendum amongst the Palestinians to approve any such settlement).

    Unfortunately, the prospects are very dim. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes, we have been here before and have left the table empty handed. About all one can say here is to quote Winston Churchill: “Jaw jaw is better then war war”.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-22/kerry-s-mideast-fool-s-errand-ignores-reality.html

  30. 30
    nrdo

    Christian Dominionists are more clearly delineated as a group because they share more than just a particular position on one issue (they actually share a particular theological interpretations). But more broadly, the answer is yes; if a book came out arguing that a massive subset of the American population from different backgrounds and religions all engaged sought to undermine the country, you should be:

    1) Skeptical of the extent of the “cabal” and the extent of its influence
    2) Cognizant that some, perhaps a majority, of the people whom the authors are accusing may not endorse the most fringe dominionist goals like the overturning of the constitution. Their support for things that dominionists want, like public prayer, may be incidental. Some of they may even be amenable to engagement and compromise.

  31. 31
    Matt G

    Ironically, the biggest anti-Semites in America are found in right wing Christianity.

  32. 32
    Matt G

    I’ve had similar experiences. I knew many Israelis in my research career and they were not knee-jerk supporters of Israeli, while a huge number of American Jews I’ve met in NYC seem to be. I realize my sample size is small and limited.

  33. 33
    2up2down2furious

    Unlike Finkelstein, who did most likely lose his job at Depaul on account of Dersh.

  34. 34
    Marcus Ranum

    Israel bashing anti-semites all

    Those things are not connected (except in your head)
    One can disagree with the policies of Israel without hating jews.

  35. 35
    Marcus Ranum

    For example

    Note that it was you, above, who said that Prof Singham supports Mearsheimer. Can you connect the dots and show us where Prof Singham voices support for Mearsheimer – or, more significantly, Mearsheimer’s support of Hitler apologists and holocaust revisionists?

    Because otherwise, you’ve just red-herringed the discussion and tried to hang that stinky red herring around Prof Singham’s neck. Which is dishonest – for starters.

    You’re very good at characterizing someone’s attitude as “similar to so-and-so’s” and then acting as if, by implication, they actually agree completely with that person’s stated views. It’s ridiculously intellectually dishonest of you.

  36. 36
    Marcus Ranum

    Well, that’s because they can’t wait for the rapture, when jebus comes and fucks up everyone.

  37. 37
    Marcus Ranum

    Hey, how many times to I have to call Bibi a liar

    What you seem to fail to understand is that it’s policies that matter. Not words. You can call Netanyahu clam chowder, but still support aparthied/genocidal policies. See how that works?

  38. 38
    Marcus Ranum

    Often the posters go further, with hoary and disgusting comments about Jewish elites’ control of banking etc. It’s hard for me to advocate for the rule of law in Israel / Palestine (e.g. demanding Israel cease illegal colonization, cease its blockade on Gaza, be held to account for the murders on the Mavi Marmara and so on) in the face of anti-Semitism.

    So your morals are dependent on whether the other person is saying things that you completely agree with? That must be remarkably flexible!

    If some idiot says something stupid and racist, you’re then OK with genocide, because you don’t want to agree with the idiot about some other issue that they happen to be right about? That’s quintessential tribalist exceptionalism on display, right there.

  39. 39
    Jeffrey Johnson

    Here is Mearsheimers defense of himself against the charges made by Goldberg.

    http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/09/25/mearsheimer_responds_to_goldbergs_latest_smear

  40. 40
    henry_pet

    Huh??

  41. 41
    slc1

    Re Marcus Ranum

    Hey, Prof. Singham is the guy who ofter cites Walt and Mearsheimer for his anti-Israel rants. When you get into the pen with the pigs, you must expect to emerge with a coating of mud.

  42. 42
    slc1

    Re 2up2down2furious

    Technically correct. Dershowitz opposed DePaul giving Finkelstein based on, in his opinion, the inadequacy of the latter’s scholarly contributions. However, I suspect that furious didn’t object about the statements of many faculty outside Iowa State University who wrote that school opposing granting tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez.

  43. 43
    slc1

    Ranum keeps blathering genocide. I don’t think he has the slightest inkling of the meaning of that word. What’s going on in Syria is skating close to genocide.

  44. 44
    Raging Bee

    I think what Hentry was trying to say is that it’s hard to carry on a moderate critique of certain Israeli policies, when the conversation is dominated by irrational emotional extremists on both sides. And that, of course, is a well-known extremist tactic that brought the world so much misery in the last century: extremists of both sides work together to demonize and shout down the moderates, then point to each other to make themselves look good.

  45. 45
    Corvus illustris

    [Dershowitz] did not call for [Juan Cole's] dismissal from his current appointment at the Un[iversity] of Michigan.

    Dershowitz is a seasoned litigator. These lawyers don’t go to trial in a case they know they’d lose. When he submitted his entirely unqualified opinion at DeP (that was no law-school appointment) he must already have known the fix was in.

  46. 46
    Raging Bee

    How is that ironic? Do you not expect right-wing Christians to be bigoted against Jews?

  47. 47
    nrdo

    Exactly. Criminal acts have been committed by individuals on both sides, but fundamentally, the Israel-Palestine conflict is a stupid dispute over a piece of land the size of Rhode Island that could easily be shared if the parties compromised on certain key demands. The idea that it’s a genocidal struggle of civilizations is nonsense perpetuated by people who want to keep the conflict going and want to cast it as a zero-sum game.

  48. 48
    Raging Bee

    Calling Bibi a liar doesn’t mean shit when you’re consistently supporting his calls for an unprovoked — possibly nuclear — attack on Iran; and when you’re consistently shouting “settlements to the far horizon, settlements forever!”

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