The Israel Issue

Even after the success of “Freakonomics,” the University of Chicago isn’t exactly a place where most people would expect to find academics writing best-sellers, let alone extremely controversial ones. But as the capacity crowd filling the International House auditorium to hear Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer discuss their book “The Israel Lobby” showed, it happens. Their two-part thesis holds that a loosely organized but extremely effective “Israel lobby” drives American foreign policy in the Middle East with a pro-Israel slant, and that the success of this lobby has been detrimental to both Israel and the United States. Both authors are distinguished political scientists with long ties to the UofC–Walt taught here for a decade before moving to Harvard, and Mearsheimer, who joined the Political Science department in 1982, is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor. Judging by the amount of applause they drew the audience seemed overwhelmingly supportive, and Mearsheimer’s response to the question of why he had turned down an opportunity to debate Alan Dershowitz on the University radio station WHPK–“As a rule of thumb, we don’t debate anybody who called us anti-Semites”–drew a standing ovation. Walt and Mearsheimer’s rejection of the anti-Semitism charge was a continuing issue during their remarks and the question-and-answer session. Both took pains to clarify their definition of the Israel lobby as a wholly legal and perfectly legitimate lobby, comparable to the National Rifle Association or any other Political Action Committee, run by Americans, and funded by American money. Their efforts to clear up their positions were directed at their supporters as well as their critics–one questioner who repeatedly referred to the “Jewish lobby” was repeatedly told by Walt and Mearsheimer that they neither view the Israel lobby as exclusively Jewish nor number all Jews among its supporters. Despite their consistent repudiation of some of the more vehement criticisms of their book, Walt and Mearsheimer’s publicity efforts in the U.S. have been troubled. A talk with the non-partisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs last month was canceled, and interviews with major publications have been scrapped. Discussing the contrast between their reception and the nature of the criticism directed at them from home and abroad, they quipped that it didn’t seem as if many of their domestic critics had read the same book they thought they’d written. But regardless of one’s opinions on the validity of their thesis, they made for impressively lucid speakers. Perhaps more professors here should try their hand at popular writing.