Back in the spring of 2006, two distinguished but otherwise largely unknown American political scientists managed to break out of the obscurity that is generally the fate of academicians. And the debate about Israel and its supporters hasn't been quite the same ever since.
The two, John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, co-authored an essay titled "The Israel Lobby" that was published in the London Review of Books.
The lengthy piece painted a scary a picture of how a cabal of American supporters of Israel had gained control of U.S. foreign policy, and promoted policies good for the Jewish state but injurious to America's own interests.
It was as virtually every objective observer soon noted a complete crock. Though the academic pedigree of both would seem to inoculate them against attacks (or, at least, they must have thought), the essay was filled with errors of fact. The incendiary charges it promoted were also so broad that it was hard to take seriously. After all, how could Israel and its American fans work a conspiracy so massive as to ensure the control of Congress and the media?
In the immediate wake of the publication of the piece, the two were roundly condemned by an array of academics, politicians and journalists who, whatever their opinions about the wisdom of Israeli policies, knew that U.S. backing for the Jewish state was not the work of a cabal.
Moreover, at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise around the world with Jew-haters using anti-Israel invective as the cover for their base beliefs the idea that these men should be promoting conspiracy theories of this sort was condemned as being, at best, irresponsible, and at worst, a shameful justification of hate.
That the vast majority of non-Jewish Americans and their political representatives strongly support Israel in its struggle for survival is something that no "lobby" nor its conspirators could create. As Michael Oren's indispensable history of American involvement in the Middle East, Power, Faith and Fantasy proved, backing for Israel has roots in American culture that go back 200 years before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee hit the halls of Congress.
Later in the year, former President Jimmy Carter stepped into the controversy by issuing his own anti-Israel tract Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, which, along with many of his own original slurs (the scurrilous title comparison of Israel's presence in the territories to South African apartheid being the most notorious), supported the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy thesis, and also alleged that such critics of Israel were being "silenced" by the all-power "Lobby."
And though the two men publicly complained that they were suffering for their beliefs, it was little surprise that they soon obtained a publisher for a book-length version of their screed that has just rolled off the presses and propelled them onto the talk-show circuit.
Rather than Walt and Mearsheimer's bloated book version of their "Lobby" canards being ignored by the mainstream press, their comeback has generated even more attention. And the more notice they've received, the more they cry that they are being silenced and falsely accused of anti-Semitism. Contrary to the claims of victimhood on the part of Israel's accusers, if anything, it's the pro-Israel position that at times struggles to be heard in national forums.
A case in point is a column authored by Michael Smerconish in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 9. Smerconish, a right-of-center, Philadelphia-based radio talk-show host who has also appeared as a commentator and host on various national cable-news shows, has earned a reputation as a supporter of Israel.
Yet his column, titled " 'Anti-Semitic' label curbs talk of Israel," took the position that Walt and Mearsheimer were right when they said anyone who criticized Israel "stands a good chance of being labeled anti-Semitic." He thinks their conspiracy theory deserves a fair hearing. And though the same could be said of any group on any issue, Smerconish claims an instance in his own career, when a sentence he uttered in a report from Israel was taken out of context by some listeners, proves the pro-Israel crowd will hammer anyone who's not in complete agreement with their position.
In a conversation two days after his piece appeared, Smerconish professed astonishment that his call for more debate about an idea, which is both discredited and draws heavily on anti-Semitic stereotypes, generated a storm of criticism. He claims the massive negative reaction to his piece has led him to see that "there is some truth" in their thesis, even if he still says he doesn't buy into it completely.
Smerconish, who has justly earned plaudits for his willingness to take on both Carter and the Islamists at the Council of American Islamic Relations in the past, is not the problem. But his choice to use his loud voice to lend credibility to a pair of charlatans is significant. That he used former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, himself the author of Imperial Hubris, a book that, in part, put forward its own scurrilous version of "The Lobby" thesis, as a respected authority, is also profoundly troubling.
As Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman has written in The Deadliest Lies, his own recently published book refuting Carter, as well as Walt and Mearsheimer, what this lugubrious trio are selling are nothing less than "bigoted canards of great antiquity."
What the ongoing kerfuffle about "The Lobby" has illustrated is the enduring appeal of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Foxman's analysis is that by using "classic conspiratorial analysis invoking the canards of 'Jewish power' and 'Jewish control,' the duo are feeding and strengthening the false and deadly beliefs that foster anti-Semitism."
While they disavow any anti-Semitic intent and even disingenuously assert support for the right of Israel to exist, Foxman asserts that "by promoting these beliefs and giving them a veneer of academic respectability, Mearsheimer and Walt are playing into the hands of the David Dukes of the world. And it is not an accusation of guilt by association to say so."
True to his calling in talk radio, Smerconish's position is that everything is fair game. Every topic, including pernicious 9/11 conspiracy theories, deserve a full airing, he says. But free speech does not obligate us to parse every stupid, vicious lie put about for clearly ill-intentioned purposes as if it were a fine point in Plato's Republic. While no one disputes the right of Walt and Mearsheimer to speak, they have no intrinsic right to spread their distortions on the air waves or the pages of supposedly respectable newspapers. As history has shown, such lies can have murderous consequences.
Agnosticism about "The Lobby" does Smerconish and anyone else who defends it no credit. When otherwise responsible persons profess neutrality about things that no decent person should be neutral about, something is very wrong.