Re­con­sid­er­ing ‘The Is­rael Lobby’


Five years ago, I be­gan teach­ing a course seg­ment on US-Is­rael re­la­tions. This is a some­what less dra­matic task than it may seem. My univer­sity has rel­a­tively lit­tle ac­tivism on the is­sue and my stu­dents tend to ar­rive with open minds. Nonethe­less, it’s a hor­net’s nest of a unit to put to­gether. No mat­ter what read­ing I as­sign, I’m re­minded of five or 10 oth­ers that would pro­vide use­ful con­text or coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. The syl­labus never seems quite fin­ished.

Ul­ti­mately, I de­cided that, among other works, I would have my stu­dents read John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s The Is­rael Lobby, a con­tro­ver­sial book that ar­gues pro-Is­rael in­ter­ests have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate, dele­te­ri­ous im­pact on US pol­icy. Over­all, I’ve been happy with this de­ci­sion.

Most of my class, in con­trast to the hys­ter­i­cal head­lines you may read, tend to the think of Is­rael as just one coun­try among many. Is­rael’s re­la­tion­ship to the United States, how­ever, is any­thing but stan­dard, par­tic­u­larly as it re­lates to fi­nan­cial and mil­i­tary aid. The Is­rael Lobby has thus served to shake up com­pla­cent stu­dents, give pause to those who sup­port Amer­i­can aid to Is­rael un­think­ingly, and in­di­cate to all the im­por­tance of ques­tion­ing ex­ist­ing power struc­tures.

How­ever, the book has al­ways had its lim­i­ta­tions and re­cent de­vel­op­ments have made th­ese all the more ap­par­ent. Given to­day’s rapidly chang­ing world of po­lit­i­cal dis­course, it is time for a re­assess­ment.

The Is­rael Lobby emerged from a world in which Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and me­dia main­tained a sense of rel­a­tive calm and co­her­ence. It was pub­lished dur­ing the rise of can­di­date Barack Obama’s uni­fy­ing rhetoric and at a time in which big, tra­di­tional me­dia in­sti­tu­tions had yet to face their cur­rent mo­ment of cri­sis. It was, as Mearsheimer and Walt ar­gue, a world in which the sim­pli­fied nar­ra­tives of­fered by pro-Is­rael ad­vo­cates could more eas­ily es­cape crit­i­cism. The cur­rent mo­ment is a very dif­fer­ent one.

Most no­tably, the fail­ure of AIPAC and its al­lies to de­rail the Iran nu­clear agree­ment has dis­rupted any story premised on the lobby’s sup­posed in­vin­ci­bil­ity. Re­lat­edly, to­day’s land­scape of Is­rael-re­lated lob­by­ing is a more com­plex one, with some­what bet­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion on the part of pro-Pales­tinian groups and a ma­jor new player on the pro-Is­rael (and pro-peace) side: J Street.

In The Is­rael Lobby, “pro-Is­rael” lob­by­ing is equated with ad­vo­cat­ing for the pref­er­ences of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment. J Street, which de­fied Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu in sup­port­ing the Iran nu­clear deal, has man­aged to di­ver­sify the sort of Is­rael ad­vo­cacy that can im­pact the high­est lev­els of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. It is un­clear that Mearsheimer and Walt’s ar­gu­ment leaves space for this sort of com­plex­ity.

Ad­di­tion­ally, few US stu­dents to­day en­ter the class­room hav­ing been shel­tered from crit­i­cism of Is­rael in the fash­ion that Mearsheimer and Walt de­scribe. Although the most fa­mous voices in Amer­i­can me­dia still tend to sup­port Is­rael, many out­lets with con­sid­er­able reach are quite will­ing to of­fer crit­i­cism.

In par­tic­u­lar, Ne­tanyahu, with his easy use of ethno-na­tional chau­vin­ism, has joined Don­ald Trump and Vladimir Putin as a tar­get of wide­spread scorn from left-lean­ing news sources. It is ques­tion­able whether me­dia dis­course was ever as lim­ited as The Is­rael Lobby ar­gues. It is cer­tain that to­day’s world of ex­pand­ing me­dia choices gives a greater range of per­spec­tives.

Per­haps most dis­turbingly, there is the ques­tion of resur­gent an­ti­semitism. In The Is­rael Lobby, Amer­i­can an­ti­semitism is pre­sented as a relic of the past and de­scribed as a “lin­ger­ing” phe­nom­e­non with a “de­spi­ca­ble le­gacy.” I must ad­mit that, when I first as­signed the book in 2012, this sub­tly dis­mis­sive po­si­tion seemed more or less cor­rect.

But Trump’s cam­paign, Char­lottesville and count­less other events have shaken my con­fi­dence. Too much dog-whistling and out­right ha­tred has been aired for an­ti­semitism to be be­lit­tled as an old thing peo­ple now use to si­lence Is­rael’s crit­ics. I fear that The Is­rael Lobby im­plies that an­ti­semitism is not a clear, present con­cern, and in class I have to ac­tively com­bat this per­cep­tion.

And yet, even as I grap­ple with th­ese prob­lems, I con­tinue to teach The Is­rael Lobby. Why? Be­cause it is brave enough to ask ques­tions that still need an­swer­ing.

The United States has, for decades, re­fused to take con­crete steps to in­flu­ence the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment down a path that re­flects Amer­ica’s of­fi­cial po­si­tions on oc­cu­pa­tion and set­tle­ment build­ing. Amer­i­can aid to Is­rael re­mains largely un­ques­tioned and, de­spite the broader range of avail­able me­dia per­spec­tives, our politi­cians still refuse to step out of line with the sta­tus quo.

Most damn­ingly, when Pales­tini­ans are a part of US po­lit­i­cal dis­course, it is only rarely out of con­cern for their rights, free­doms, and safety.

I by no means want my stu­dents to be­lieve this re­al­ity has a sin­gle cause. I of­fer them cri­tiques of The Is­rael Lobby and a num­ber of com­pet­ing texts to en­sure this. But part of the an­swer, cer­tainly, can be un­der­stood through Mearsheimer and Walt’s anal­y­sis of the fun­da­men­tals of the Amer­i­can lob­by­ing sys­tem.

Fur­ther­more, given the hys­ter­i­cal re­sponse the book found at its re­lease, it might be long while be­fore an up­dated, sim­i­larly com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis emerges. Un­til then, or un­til the facts change for the bet­ter, I’ll em­brace my un­ease, add some of those other five or 10 read­ings, and work with what I’ve got.

The writer is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­ter­na­tional stud­ies at Bos­ton Col­lege. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @me­di­as­tud­ied.


SPEAKER OF the House Paul Ryan speaks to the Amer­i­can Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee pol­icy con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton in March.

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