Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mearsheimer and Walt Land Book Deal, and Cooper Union Stages Tense Debate

Crowd Favorite Rashid Khalidi

Mearsheimer and Walt simply refuse to lose. The Jewish Daily Forward reported last week that the two political scientists have signed a deal with the prestigious American publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux to expand their controversial article "The Israel Lobby," which first appeared in March in the London Review of Books, to book length. “I think there’s a lot of interest in these ideas,” said Philip Weiss, who has covered the debate surrounding the article for The NY Observer and The Nation. “The conversation’s just begun.” And this from Sam Freedman of Columbia U.'s journalism school:
The imprimatur of being published by FSG is hard to match... When a publishing house with its credibility and its reputation acquires a conspiracy theory, it can’t help but make that conspiracy theory look more valid than it deserves to look.
Contrary to Amos's post from Thursday on the "Tony Judt Affair," Walt and Mearsheimer have not withdrawn their biggest claims. Yesterday I watched a video of Mearsheimer defending all the original theses at a public debate dedicated to the question of the Israel lobby and its influence, held three weeks ago (Sept. 28) at Cooper Union in Manhattan and sponsored by the London Review of Books. The event doesn't seem to have been covered in the New York Times, but it definitely appeared in the Jewish papers The Forward and The Sun. I encourage everyone who has the time and interest to watch the video webcast of the two-hour debate, which I liken to an academic equivalent of a heavyweight boxing match. It was an open, passionate, balanced and well-moderated discussion, more reminiscent of events I used to attend at Columbia than the farce I was witness to on Sept. 7 at the "teach-in against war" at UC Berkeley--correctly described in the pages of Kishkushim as a "sickening exercise in group-think" (the very opposite of the open discourse its speakers purported to support, I might add). I guess it's not entirely fair to compare the two events at all, given that the latter was not an open exchange of ideas but rather, with little exception, a convention of students and teachers congratulating themselves for opposing Israel. For those of you willing to trust my reportage, what follows is a digest of what happened; I've tried to be as objective as possible in my analysis.

Officiated by Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, the contenders included:
Bizarrely, the panelists were introduced like athletes--or contestants before a game show, as Slaughter said--as they walked on stage to take their seats on the panel. Rashid Khalidi, who after Edward Said's death a few years ago took over the mantle of most prominent advocate of the Palestinian cause in American academia, garnered the loudest cheers from a very participatory audience.

Slaughter opened with a question for Mearsheimer that's been the touchstone of much of the discussion since March: "Do you think your article was antisemitic?" Mearsheimer obviously denied it. Indyk offered that it "is, rises--or lowers--itself to the level of antisemitism" by defining the pro-Israel "lobby" in America as a "loosely aligned group" of anyone who at one time or another has supported Israel, amounting to a sort of "cabal." Dennis Ross essentially agreed with Indyk on this point. Ben-Ami, consistently the most reasoned voice on the panel, said that M&W's article "lends itself to the accusation" of antisemitism by presenting a "single-cause explanation" for American foreign policy blunders.

The last two to speak on the first question were Tony Judt and Khalidi, who sounded similar notes throughout the debate, namely, what they've been writing in New York Times op-eds and in other publications: that American public discourse on Israel is stifled and even censored. Khalidi said, “If you believe that there are two sides to the debate in this country on this issue, then you are out of your mind.” Judt recounted an anecdote about the famous Stalinist-turned-anticommunist Hungarian-turned-British-Jewish writer Arthur Koestler, speaking 60 years ago in Manhattan about the danger of the emerging Soviet bloc, when he was accused by an audience-member of fueling Nixonism (later known as McCarthyism); according to Judt he responded by saying, "You cannot help it if idiots and bigots share your views for their reasons. That doesn't mean that you can be tarred with their views." He worried that when an article like Mearsheimer's appears, American intellectuals immediately rush to assess whether or not it is "antisemitic" instead of dealing with its actual content. I agree with Judt that efforts by people like Abe Foxman, who "tar" Mearsheimer with the names of David Duke and Pat Buchanan, can and do stifle open discourse. It should also be noted, however, that Judt went the rest of the night without so much as one peep regarding the actual content of the Mearsheimer article. Perhaps he felt that others on the panel would do it for him? Or maybe he just didn't want to jeapordise his position as the voice of the "left"? Either way, I found it somewhat hypocritical, intellectually and politically irresponsible. (Let me go on record saying that otherwise I have the highest regard for Tony Judt's scholarship.)

After the first round of answers, the battle lines were drawn. There was a clear divide between the agendas of the speakers. The political scientists and establishment figures--Ben-Ami, Ross, and Indyk--wanted to keep the debate to the topic of Mearsheimer's article in order to expose its errors and bury it once and for all; the non-establishment professors--Judt and Khalidi--clearly thought the panel should be about how censored and one-sided the "discourse" around Israel is in the U.S. The tension resulting from these divergent agendas (not to mention views!) made for some nasty exchanges and probably could have degenerated into an actual fist fight had the speakers been 30 years younger and hadn't been held in check by Slaughter. It didn't help that Ross, the current director of a think-tank Khalidi once called "the fiercest of the enemies of the Arabs and the Muslims" and "the most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States," was seated directly next to him. [Kudos to whoever orchestrated that.] As if it were planned, about midway through Ross's microphone failed, and Khalidi gave Ross his and said, "You mean, this is the first case of a Palestinian giving permission to narrate?" The audience roared joyously at this quip. Ross had some disappointing comeback about his having always tried to empower Palestinians, but he stood no chance against the crowd favorite.

To the accusation of having created the impression of a Jewish cabal, Mearsheimer replied that the Israel lobby was not secretive, thus not a cabal. He repeated his typical argument that interest-group politics are completely legitimate and normal in a democracy, and then proceeded to quote a passage from "Chutzpah," the 1991 best-seller by Alan Dershowitz (whose name drew spiteful laughter from the audience): "My generation of Jews became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fundraising effort in the history of democracy. We did a truly great job as far as we were allowed ourselves and were allowed to go." Mearsheimer used this to show that the very Dershowitz who came out most vociferously against the M&W paper admitted the Lobby's power. Indyk rebutted that what M. lumps together as the "Lobby" is actually a fractious group of people and organizations that often differ wildly on policy issues; for example, Indyk himself was branded by AIPAC as "anti-Israel" when he pushed the Netanyahu government to work toward peace. Furthermore, Indyk continued, M.'s use of words like "distort" and "bend" (as in, the Israel Lobby distorts and bends American foreign policy) and "ubiquitous" implies a sort of Jewish conspiracy.

Judt then intervened: "If I can just shift the angle of the conversation..."

Slaughter: "Maybe."

"Okay, try me." Judt went on to say that it is the nature of lobby groups to "distort" -- just as the NRA distorts foreign policy. "This is the crucial point about the Israel lobby--or group of lobbies, or whatever you want to say: there are hundreds of distorting lobbies. It's one of the ways in which our political system is defective. This is the only significant lobby I know of which not only acts to advance the interests of its cause but acts constantly and very effectively to silence criticism of its cause. This is not the case with other lobbies."

[RAUCOUS hollers and applause]

Ross: "[...] Tony maybe you haven't paid a whole lot of attention to the NRA. I think they're pretty good in terms of trying to silence their critics [...]."

Khalidi jumped in at this point, in a way only a professor would. "I think there are several problems with the whole discussion that's preceded," he said. To my surprise, unlike Judt Khalidi did actually voice his disagreement with Mearsheimer on the issue of the the Israel lobby's influence over American foreign policy - in particular its influence over the decision to invade Iraq, which Mearsheimer believes would not have been made without it. [Note: at one point in the debate, when M. said, "[...] in [the Lobby's] absence, we probably would not have had a war," the crowd erupted in hoots and hollers applauding him.] But if M. overestimated the lobby's influence in that regard, Khalidi claimed, he UNDERESTIMATED it with regard to domestic legislation and "public discourse" in the U.S. Khalidi then made several vague and cryptic remarks that seemed, at least to this observer and to at least one audience-member who asked about it in the Q&A session afterwards, to imply a type of Jewish domination over Congress and American media. What bothered me was that he never came out and said it; instead he danced around the issue, protecting himself in a cloud of ambiguity - but his point was fairly clear. Slaughter correctly recognized that Khalidi's argument about the power of the Israel lobby was "actually far broader than Mearsheimer's." In essence, he was saying that Mearsheimer had identified the culprit but mistaken the crime: The Israel Lobby wasn't responsible for the Iraq war (thanks, Rashid!), but it WAS guilty for post-9/11 legislation limiting civil liberties and for the stifling of "public discourse" on the Middle East. Again, he never actually said the words, but to me there was no mistaking the implication.

Indyk drew hisses when he claimed that there had been no censorship on discussion of the Mearsheimer article since March, and loud "boos" when he said that "if [the article] wasn't published in America, it was probably because it was such a dreadful piece of scholarship." [Indyk was the audience's clear choice for villain of the debate.] Judt replied on the question of censorship that when he submitted an op-ed to a "very well known North American newspaper" (most likely the NY Times, where he published this on the M&W debate), the editorial page editor asked him whether or not he was Jewish. "But they published it!" Indyk said. Judt responded, "I told them I was Jewish!"

Finally, after the Khalidi-Judt tag-team intervention, Slaughter directed the speakers back to the content of the M&W article. Ben-Ami, insisting again and again that the Israel lobby should not be scapegoated, had some great lines. For example, "You [Americans] have elected, twice, a president who is a political theologian without Jewish votes. [The war] is an American responsibility... [The Bush administration] doesn't NEED a Jewish lobby to do the things that it does." He also made the important point that the government of Israel is almost entirely absent from Mearsheimer's account. Israel as an entity is in common dialogue with the U.S. administration as a major ally. On the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied zones [Ben-Ami is an outspoken opponent of them], Ben-Ami said that we must hold Knesset politicians responsible, not the American Israel lobby. Various geopolitical factors, not AIPAC, prevent the United States from "imposing peace" on the region or pressuring its ally to force out settlers. Indyk concurred, adding that sometimes, you can't get sovereign countries to do what you want them to do. Judt, like Gideon Levy (see Amos's recent post) a vocal advocate of U.S. "strong-arming" in Israel, predictably countered that most of the time the U.S. can get what it wants.

At another point in the debate, Judt, raconteur par excellence, told another story about a party in the 1960s given for the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the United States. Amos Elon, senior Ha'aretz editor, was overheard asking the unnamed ambassador [Avraham Harman?] off the record what his greatest achievement during his time here was, to which the latter answered, "to convince American politicians that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism." It brought to my mind a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Harvard in 1968 equating those two things. "We need to unravel this connection," Judt said. But Judt never explained what he meant by "anti-Zionism"; he remained narrowly focused on how inhospitable a place America is to have a conversation about Israel.

Regulation period ended with a final word from Ben-Ami, then it was on to the audience Q&A session (15 minutes). The first question was for Khalidi:

"You have said that the influence of the lobby is far greater than Mearsheimer said. This reminds me of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [boos and hollering from the crowd]--other people here who believe in freedom of speech will allow me to finish my question!--How would you distinguish your views from the Protocols, which are very popular in Muslim countries? How great is the Jewish domination of America?"

Khalidi smugly replied that the question demonstrated part of the problem in this country. The impact of the Lobby--for him it seems to be a capital-L--is "both greater and less" than Mearsheimer holds. Less on foreign policy, but more on domestic legislation and public discourse. I found it horrifying and cowardly, though not entirely surprising, that he could suggest such a thing without backing it up with even a shred of evidence.

The rest of the final period passed fairly uneventfully, with the usual combination of students and crackpot conspiracy theorists lining up at the mic. The undisputed question of the night came from a man who claimed to report for the venerable American Free Press, a copy of which he held prominently to his chest (these types never miss the opportunity for a plug!). His question was, "Don't you feel that one of the factors in the drift toward war is the growing British influence in this country?" And it was directed to Tony Judt, of all people!

The panelists were granted the opportunity for brief final statements. Indyk took one last jab at Mearsheimer: Now that we've had an open and vigorous debate about his article, M. can no longer play the underdog, he said. When they neglected to discuss the Arab lobby in the U.S., and in particular the oil lobby coming from countries like Saudi Arabia, and its infuence on American foreign policy, Walt and Mearsheimer proved their approach to be unbalanced. This drew some applause but an equal amount of boos from the audience.

Khalidi retained his title as crowd favorite, receiving loud, extended applause. Slaughter thanked the participants, the audience, and the London Review of Books, and the meeting was adjourned.


Amos said...


Thanks for this astounding piece of reporting and commentary. I got a great sense of the atmosphere (all too familiar - especially the audience reactions) and the rhythm of the debate.

There is a lot here to discuss. I'll try to pick out some things that struck me over the next few days.

First, like you, I am really sick of the people complaining about “how inhospitable a place America is to have a conversation about Israel.” I wish they would talk about their real visions of the Middle East already. I want them to tell me how much aid to Israel they want to cut, and what they think should happen to the state over the next few years.

Second, I also wanted to add something about that story Judt told about the former Israeli ambassador to the US about his greatest success having been "to convince American politicians that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism." Judt seems to have told this story to demonstrate that anti-Zionism does not equal antisemitism. The argument is actually quite reminiscent of one of M&W's main premises, which you can find in the first footnote to the paper:

"Indeed, the mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact. As Richard Gephardt, the former House Minority Leader, told the American‐Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), 'Without [your] constant support . . . and all your fighting on a daily basis to strengthen that relationship, it would not be.'"

Now, for Judt, the fact that the ambassador admitted that it took work to convince people of the anti-Zionism and antisemitism connection was evidence that such a connection is artificial, a distortion, indeed, a lie. He seems to assume that if something is true or if a “real” connection exists between two things, people would simply understand this on their own. But the kinds of truths at stake here are not self-evident; indeed, one could claim that few truths are. They are established (and perhaps later dismantled) when people argue and convince each other of them.

In the same way as Judt, M&W appear to imagine that America would naturally pursue its best interests if it weren’t for the distorting forces of the Lobby. But are American interests so unambiguously identifiable that they would be perceived by any untainted observer? Despite all of their appeals for open discussion, it seems to me that in M&W view such a debate is hardly necessary, as the interests and proper policies to follow are self-evident and arise from the objective conditions themselves.

John said...

Great post!

derek said...

thanks for a summary.

Amos said...

J.J. Goldberg published an interview with Judt on Friday. Check out the last paragraphs of his article:

Which brings Judt to the Lobby. “In the end,” he said, “there are lots of lobbies that use all sorts of tactics to influence policy — the oil lobby, the chemical lobby. The one thing that’s distinctive about the Israel lobby is that part of its agenda is to silence criticism of itself.”

And that is where Tony Judt, for all his protestations, comes closest to conspiracy theory. Like many critics of Israel, he’s been stunned and infuriated by the tsunami of hate mail and formal protest he’s encountered since his infamous 2003 essay. He can’t believe it’s a spontaneous outpouring of rage from angry fellow Jews. Instead, he’s convinced himself it’s orchestrated by big Jewish organizations.

But it isn’t. It’s the grass roots screaming at him. The anti-Judt postings on the Internet aren’t from the ADL but from bloggers and militants. American Jews by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, live in daily fear for the fate of Israel and of the Jewish people. When they see a threat, or the shadow of a threat, they shout.

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