A hot paper muzzles academia

Eve Fairbanks works at the New Republic as a reporter-researcher.

DID YOU THINK there was a controversy in academia over “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the paper by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer contending that a shadowy “Israel Lobby” -- including everyone from the New York Times and Hillary Clinton to Pat Robertson and Paul Wolfowitz -- has seized control of American foreign affairs? I did too, but let me tell you: We were wrong.

When professors Walt and Mearsheimer (of Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively) went public with their paper in the London Review of Books on March 23, it seemed the whole world started screaming. From columnists Richard Cohen and Max Boot to historian Tony Judt and Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, public figures battled in the pages of the major papers. Accusations of anti-Semitism and divided loyalties flew. The magazine I work for published three articles on the paper in a single week.

Of course, if the paper caused such uproar in the public sphere, you’d think academia (and particularly the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where Walt is the academic dean) would be, as the Harvard Crimson put it, the ultimate “field of battle.” And as far as conspiratorial rumors and unexplained reversals go, it has been.


The Kennedy School pulled its name off the article, nervous to be associated with the argument that an expansive lobby is undermining American interests on behalf of the Jewish state. Bob Belfer, the fabulously wealthy (and Jewish) oil baron who endowed Walt’s chair at the Kennedy School, was hopping mad. Angry donors reportedly threatened to retract gifts. Whispers began that faculty relationships were fraying, and gossip circulated that campus forces were plotting to oust Walt from panels and boards. Harvard had to deny that his decision to step down as dean had anything to do with the paper.

But something else happened at Harvard, something strange. Instead of a roiling debate, most professors not only agreed to disagree but agreed to pretend publicly that there was no disagreement at all. At Harvard and other schools, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper proved simply too hot to handle -- and it revealed an academia deeply split yet lamentably afraid to engage itself on one of the hottest political issues of our time. Call it the academic Cold War: distrustful factions rendered timid by the prospect of mutually assured career destruction.

A couple of weeks ago, keeping in mind Henry Kissinger’s famous aphorism that academic quarrels are so vicious because the stakes are so small, I began calling around Harvard, expecting to find a major fight flourishing. Spirited exchanges! A divided faculty! Parties canceled! Walt egged!

Instead, most people I spoke to assured me that, at Harvard, there is no controversy. Most everyone, they said, agreed about the paper. But what they all “agreed” on, hilariously, depended on whom I was talking to.

One anecdote illuminated the puzzle. At a faculty meeting, the paper came up, and the department head remarked that she was sure everyone had the same reaction when they read it -- approval. One professor piped up: “No, this article is rubbish!” The room became very quiet. Finally, someone changed the subject. Through moments like these, a de facto consensus developed not to discuss the paper at all.

Most professors I reached wouldn’t speak on the record about the flap because they didn’t want their feelings to become known on campus. Walt ignored my requests for comment. Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, one of just a few professors who have conspicuously denounced the paper, says that when he was scheduled for a BBC face-off with Mearsheimer, the author mysteriously canceled moments before airtime.


Most fishily, one Kennedy School professor who had previously gone public with his opinions clammed up completely, explaining cryptically to me that even chatting off the record about the paper isn’t “the right thing for me to do at this time.” Another senior Kennedy School professor admitted that he was baffled by the dearth of discussion of the paper. “We debate everything else here,” he said.

The closest we’ve gotten to open academic argument over the paper is an online petition circulated by Juan Cole, a media-hungry professor-blogger at the University of Michigan, condemning the paper’s critics for “McCarthyite race-baiting.” It has garnered nearly 1,000 professors’ signatures.

But even Cole’s petition -- many signers of which haven’t read the paper -- exemplifies how, instead of knocking heads over the paper’s core argument, it’s become acceptable merely to debate drier questions of academic standards. Critics condemn the paper as shoddy scholarship; supporters, such as Cole, insist that the academic world’s primary ethic is the right to say whatever you believe.

But make a list of how professors have come out on this divide and you’ll find it is an awfully neat proxy for deeper ideological divisions. Those who dislike the U.S. relationship with Israel suddenly find themselves champions of free speech; those supportive of Israel are recast as defenders of high standards of scholarship. It’s just that nobody can talk about that schism.

So is this collective campus lip-sealing evidence that Mearsheimer and Walt are right that the Israel Lobby squelches criticism? No, because professors fear taking a stand on either side.

Professors I spoke to offered various reasons they must tiptoe around the paper: That its style was too provocative. That they’re skittish after witnessing Harvard President Larry Summers’ ouster for making fractious comments. That the long-running PC wars have made them tired of controversy. That it’s too “personal.”

Most interestingly, they explained that topics related to the Middle East, though they provoke some of the deepest divisions in opinion between faculty members, are just too strewn with ideological landmines for them because academics are supposed to be above dogma -- an explanation that also sheds light on why most Middle East studies departments languish in mediocrity and lack influential senior faculty.

And most sadly, professors admitted that academia’s notorious office politics -- in uniquely volatile combination with all these other reasons -- interfere with natural reactions to the paper, resulting in a collective response that one described as “nervous laughter.”


“A lot of [my colleagues] were more concerned about the academic politics of it, and where they should come down, in that sense,” another Ivy League professor told me, ruefully.

But isn’t this all a little bit ironic? Mearsheimer and Walt clearly wrote their paper to be provocative. They took pleasure in breaking a taboo -- only to see another one erected around their work. And universities ought to be the centers of debate about ideas, right? “It’s perhaps not a great reflection on academia -- perhaps we should be more out there,” mused Princeton’s Andrew Moravcsik, who calls himself an “idealist” about his profession.


But it seems more likely that academic tempers will continue to boil on the inside, without any release valve.

One observer close to the debate was profusely sorry to request anonymity, explaining that he had opinions concerning the paper but feared professional retaliation no matter what he might say.

“People might debate it if you gave everyone a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said, “and promised that afterward everyone would be friends.”