Who’s afraid of the ‘Israel Lobby’?

NICHOLAS GOLDBERG is editor of the Op-Ed page and the Current section.

The idea of a powerful “Jewish lobby” that has its gnarled fingers in the machinery of the government is an old and repugnant canard. Along with the Jews who supposedly own the media and those who reputedly control the banks, the cabal of sinister,

third-column Hebrews who whisper into the ears of our leaders is a classic in the traditional checklist of anti-Semitic fulminations.

So it’s no surprise that in the modern era, even to broach the idea of a “Jewish lobby” is unacceptable. It’s just not done in polite society -- even in situations in which there’s some truth to it. Few would deny, after all, that there are people who lobby for various Jewish issues, including, of course, Israel (just as there are a lot of Jews working in Hollywood and just as Jews do own the New York Times). But even though we know these things, we generally don’t talk about them.

That’s why it was a bit of a shock last week when a 12,000-word article by two eminent professors -- Stephen Walt, the academic dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago -- appeared in the London Review of Books under the title “The Israel Lobby.” Not quite the same words as the offensive phrase above, but close enough to raise a ruckus.


According to the two academics, the United States’ “unwavering support” for Israel -- including the $3 billion a year we give in direct assistance, as well as the decades of unequivocal military and diplomatic support we’ve provided -- is justified by neither strategic nor moral imperatives.

Perhaps Israel was a strategic asset during the Cold War (oil embargo aside), but more recently it has inflamed Arab and Islamic public opinion and emboldened the world’s Osama bin Ladens, they say. It has made us more -- not less -- vulnerable to terrorism. What’s more, Israel routinely ignores U.S. requests (to stop building settlements, say, or end “targeted assassinations”). Our acceptance of its nuclear arsenal makes us look hypocritical on proliferation issues.

Nor is our support of Israel morally justifiable, according to Walt and Mearsheimer. Despite the common view, Israel is, in fact, the Goliath in the Middle East, not the David. It is not a truly democratic country, but an avowedly Jewish state in which Arabs live as second-class citizens, a country that has committed crimes against its Palestinian neighbors with which the U.S. should be ashamed to be associated.

So, ask the authors, if neither shared strategic interests nor compelling moral imperatives explain U.S. support for Israel, what does? You guessed it: the “Israel Lobby.”


To Walt and Mearsheimer, “the Lobby” is a loose coalition. It doesn’t include all Jewish Americans. It’s not a cabal. In fact, it is really no different, they say, from the farm lobby or the steel lobby -- just a whole lot more effective.

Its most powerful arm is AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (the nation’s second most powerful lobby behind AARP, they suggest), but it also includes Christian evangelicals (such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson), Jewish members of Congress (such as Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut), Christian Zionists in Congress (such as Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican) and media cheerleaders (such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and the entire Wall Street Journal editorial page). It has its own think tanks, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It has operatives like Martin Indyk -- a former AIPAC official, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Together, these groups give money, votes, endorsements and intellectual firepower to favored government officials. And enemies of Israel, beware! “The Lobby” can make or break candidates (as when it forced former Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois out of office in 1984) and policymakers (as when it persuaded President Carter not to appoint George Ball as secretary of State).

“The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress,” Walt and Mearsheimer contend.

Most important these days, the lobby includes the hawkish neoconservative Zionists around President Bush -- Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Elliott Abrams, to name three -- who, the academics say, were the driving force behind the movement to topple Saddam Hussein. For the benefit of Israel.

So what are we to make of all this? Is it anti-Semitism or honesty? Propaganda cloaked in academic respectability -- or a courageous willingness to identify the elephant in the room?

Public reaction has varied. Harvard has reportedly distanced itself from the original report. President Clinton’s special Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross (mentioned in the article as having “close ties” to pro-Israel organizations), said the authors displayed a “woeful lack of knowledge.” The Washington correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called the London Review article “academic garbage.” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) branded the authors “anti-Semites.” The New York Sun compared the piece to the rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Jeffrey Herf, a University of Maryland professor, and Andrei Markovits, a professor at the University of Michigan, noted in a thoughtful response that Bush’s closest war advisors weren’t all Israel-obsessed Jews but also included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. They also took issue with the notion that the close U.S. relationship with Israel has been the “centerpiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy” -- that centerpiece, they maintain, “has been and remains access to oil for the United States and for the global economy.”


Herf and Markovits cautioned that “American Jewish citizens have a right to express their views without being charged with placing the interests of Israel ahead of those of the United States,” and that “turning one’s back on one’s good friends when times are tough has never been, is not now and will never be a realistic, decent or wise foreign policy.”

Support for Walt and Mearsheimer has been somewhat muted, perhaps not surprisingly. In Haaretz, Daniel Levy, a former aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote that although the article was “harsh” and “jarring,” it should nevertheless “serve as a wake-up call, on both sides of the ocean.”

It seems silly to deny that a powerful lobby on behalf of Israel exists. The real question is how pernicious it is. Does it, in fact, persuade us to act counter to our national interest -- or is it a positive thing, as publisher Mortimer Zuckerman suggests?

“The allegations of this disproportionate influence of the Jewish community reminds me of the 92-year-old man sued in a paternity suit,” Zuckerman told the New York Sun. “He said he was so proud, he pleaded guilty.”

My advice is to judge for yourself. The full article is available at