By Ira Forman
Published in New York Jewish Week
Of all the lessons I learned in 19 years of school, none was more useful than this: “Minority groups maximize their political influence by organizing intensely and focusing narrowly.” This notion, which came out of an undergraduate course in government, is simple yet powerful. It almost perfectly summarizes the success of the so-called “Israel Lobby” in the United States during the last 40 years.
Now in a new book — “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (Farrar Strauss and Giroux) — John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University provide a very different interpretation of how the lobby operates. The book, out this week, has already received an enormous amount of attention because of the authors’ argument that the Israel lobby is not only responsible for warping U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also for pushing America into a war in Iraq.
This is controversial material, and Walt and Mearsheimer would have written a much better, if less “sexy,” book if they had kept in mind my professor’s simple description of how minorities maximize political power.
Walt and Mearsheimer’s narrative begins with the argument that current levels of U.S. support for Israel cannot be justified on either strategic or moral grounds. Once they dismiss these justifications, they “examine” how the lobby operates and conclude that it is the lobby’s extraordinary power that is shaping much of U.S. foreign policy.
The authors pursue Israel with a one-sided, prosecutorial zeal that echoes the same arguments that Israel’s critics have made for decades. However, even more damaging to Walt and Mearsheimer’s credibility is the question of how well they understand the role of American Jews in domestic politics.
In fairness, the two professors demonstrate a basic understanding of how the Israel lobby operates. They recognize the central role the American Israel Public Affairs Committee plays in lobbying Congress and to a lesser extent the executive branch. They note the participation of a large array of other Jewish organizations and Zionist Christian groups. The authors also point out the significant levels of political contributions that come from American Jews. They even have some understanding of how the power of the lobby has grown and evolved over the last 60 years.
Moreover, Walt and Mearsheimer have extensively reviewed both the American Jewish press and the English-language press. As a result they are familiar with the internal arguments within the Jewish communities in both the United States and Israel and they support their narrative with over 100 pages of footnotes.
However, in the final analysis, “The Israel Lobby” does not accurately reflect the realities of the U.S.-Israel relationship or the extent of the lobby’s power. Though the authors appear to understand the high level of political organization in the Jewish community, they totally misunderstand the limits of the lobby’s power. In particular they fail to understand that a narrow, laser-like focus on the U.S.-Israel relationship is what enhances the lobby’s power.
The American Jewish community’s ability to influence U.S. policy toward Israel is dramatically enhanced because of the unique role of Congress in American democracy. Members of Congress, unlike representatives in parliamentary systems, are extremely sensitive to voter and interest group opinion. The Jewish community’s political strength, combined with the weakness of the opposition and the public’s general support for Israel, allows the lobby to strongly influence U.S. policy toward Israel.
But as soon as a minority community tries to extend its organizational power to other public policy arenas, its power to affect policy is significantly reduced, as it must compete with other powerful interest groups. A good example of this dynamic is the battle over the 2007 Lobbying Reform Bill.
Walt and Mearsheimer argue that AIPAC won this legislative fight. While it is true that AIPAC’s position on third-party funded congressional travel was adopted, AIPAC failed in its attempt to allow congressional lobbyists to travel with members of Congress on such trips. AIPAC was no match for a public opinion environment where the notion of “lobbyist and congressional travel” became synonymous with scandal. For the same types of reasons, the lobby has never had a significant impact on campaign finance reform legislation. Walt and Mearsheimer don’t understand such subtleties of congressional behavior or the limits on ethnic group power.
The authors’ most spectacular accusation — that the lobby has significant responsibility for the Iraq war — is also an illustration of their limited understanding of the Israel lobby. The professors describe how a group of neoconservatives conspired to push for a war with Iraq, and they conflate these neocons with the Israel lobby. Not only do the authors attach a significant amount of blame to the Israel lobby for the morass in Iraq, but they go on to warn that any future military action in Iran must inevitably be laid at the door of the lobby.
To argue that a gang of largely Jewish neocons was able to bully Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush into a war against their will is absurd. Even more ridiculous is the notion that these neocons were the Israel lobby.
At the beginning of the book Walt and Mearsheimer define the Israel lobby as a loose coalition of organizations and individuals. Thus in their worldview, organizations as diverse as the Israel Policy Forum and the Zionist Organization of America are part of the Israel lobby. Similarly, individuals as diverse as former UN ambassador John Bolton, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, former Senate Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Sen. Russ Feingold constitute parts of this powerful lobby.
Even if one defines the lobby as “loose coalition,” it presupposes some degree of coordinated action and information sharing toward specific legislative and policy goals. I can assure Walt and Mearsheimer that Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean have never joined the AIPAC staff on any phone call to discuss how to defeat a Saudi arm sale, let alone how to ensure a U.S. military strike on Iran.
The real Israel lobby (whether you define it as AIPAC or a bit more broadly to include a number of other organizations) did not meaningfully participate in the debate on Iraq because it did not have the power to meaningfully impact that debate — not when large arrays of very powerful interest and ideological groups clashed over the question of America going to war.
There are other portions of the Walt and Mearsheimer narrative that also fail to reflect the realities of the domestic politics behind the U.S.-Israel relationship. For example, in one chapter the authors attempt to demonstrate that the Israel lobby dominates the public relations battle. If the authors had bothered to interview nearly any Jewish communal leader, they would have found that the Jewish community’s lack of a public relations strategy on behalf of Israel has been a source of contention for decades.
For all of the book’s footnotes, there are a great many factual errors in the text. For example, the authors inflate the Jewish percentage of the U.S. population by 50 percent. At another point in the narrative they state that AIPAC’s former executive director, Tom Dine, was “reportedly” fired in 1993 because he was insufficiently hawkish. This was not the case, and a check of the authors’ own sources (as listed in the footnotes) contradicts their claim.
One of the professors’ arguments — their complaint that they and others who criticize Israel or the domestic Israel lobby are subject to charges of anti-Semitism — is not totally lacking in merit. Some of us in the Jewish community too quickly resort to the charge of anti-Semitism. Terms like anti-Semitism and racism should be reserved for only the most obvious cases lest they lose some of their power to shock and shame.
But if the charge of anti-Semitism is, at times, overused it appears that Walt and Mearsheimer are guilty themselves of overusing the charge of censorship. Time and time again they tell their readers how difficult it is to challenge Israel and its defenders. They tell us how difficult it is to find a forum for their views and complain of the personal price they must pay to speak the truth. Yet the authors have gained a great deal of press and fame for their original essay and this book. To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “methinks the gentleman doth protest too much.”
Yes, if this book were an undergraduate paper it might receive a passing grade — if nothing else for its extensive footnoting and basic understanding of how the Jewish community and allies are organized for Israel advocacy. And yes, as an ideological polemic it also has some merit — particularly for the straightforward way that it makes its debating points. But as a serious academic work that effectively shines the light on the domestic politics of the friends of Israel, it deserves a big fat “F.”
By all appearances Walt and Mearsheimer started with their conclusions and then shoehorned their research into a narrative that fit their conclusions. It’s not what you’d expect from a couple of professor from Harvard and Chicago.
Ira Forman is the co-editor of “Jews In American Politics.” He currently serves as the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). From 1978-1981 he served as a lobbyist and the first political director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).