When in the spring of 2006 two professors from distinguished institutions, the University of Chicago and the Harvard School of Government, published a paper in the London Review of Books called “The Israel Lobby,” it raised alarm bells about the spread and impact of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in America.
As part of our agenda at the Anti-Defamation League to combat anti-Semitism and extremism, we are all too familiar with racist and extremist groups who engage in conspiracy theories about Jews. Accusing Jews of controlling America (ZOG = Zionist Occupied Government) is a stock-in-trade for groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, the National Alliance.
We don’t underestimate the dangers from such groups – remember, it was such influences that produced the terrorism in Oklahoma City. Still, if these theories remain in the domain of the extremists, we can contend with them because the haters have no credibility with the American people and our exposure of their views and intentions brings widespread condemnation of them.
It is quite another matter when conspiracy views about Jews come from the mainstream, from the establishment. Then the challenge is far greater. There is a tendency by the public to give them much more of a hearing and, if the writers are smart in how they go about their work, the whole enterprise can gain legitimacy.
That is essentially what deeply concerned me about with the paper by the two aforementioned professors, John Mearsheimer of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. When their article appeared, I hoped there would be widespread rejection and condemnation of it and their views.
Despite their respectability, their bias toward Israel and American Jews was transparent. I pointed out at the time that one didn’t even have to be pro-Israel to recognize that their assessment of the Arab-Israeli conflict over the years was completely flawed. For them, Israel is, in effect, to blame for every event in the conflict. Far worse, they saw control by the Israel lobby as the reason why America supports what they consider a wayward country to the detriment of American interests.
Unfortunately, there was little condemnation – and it came mostly from Jewish voices. One that stood out amidst the general silence was that of Ned Walker, longtime State Department Middle East hand and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He pointed out that he had been involved in the making of U.S. Middle East policy for years and there was nothing in the paper he could recognize in how policy is actually made. This was biting criticism from an insider, but was one of too few critiques.
Instead, I began to hear that Mearsheimer and Walt had made an important contribution to the discussion on U.S. Middle East policy, that they had spoken “truths” that others had not said, and that this would be a welcome addition to curricula on campuses around the country.
At that stage, I concluded that there was a need to provide students, journalists, activists and the general public a more comprehensive and integrated perspective as to the dangers of their thesis and how it fits into some broader challenges to Jewish life in America.
I saw the works of Mearsheimer and Walt, Jimmy Carter, Tony Judt and others surfacing in America, the place of the greatest comfort level for Jews in the history of the Diaspora, at a time when dangerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were growing overseas, as was violence against Jews. The last thing we needed, I concluded, was to have the spreading legitimacy of the Mearsheimer-Walt-Carter thesis about U.S. Middle East policy and the Jews be left to responses on op-ed pages and in blogs.
So when I was approached about doing a follow-up to my first book on anti-Semitism, Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, I said that what was truly needed and what I wanted to do was write a serious critique of the American-style conspiracy theorists.
The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control (Palgrave Macmillan), is, I believe, a reasoned, temperate critique of dangerous works that masquerade themselves as legitimate criticism of Israel and American Jews.
Meanwhile, Mearsheimer and Walt expanded their original article into a book of their own, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Nothing truly new here. While they have toned down some of their more extreme statements from their article about Jewish lobbying activities and intention – now insisting they never were questioning the right of Jews to lobby for Israel – their efforts to appear more innocuous are for naught.