The extended controversy over a paper by two professors, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," is prying the lid off a debate that has been bottled up for decades.
Routinely, the American news media have ignored or pilloried any strong criticism of Washington's massive support for Israel. But the paper and an article based on it by respected academics John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt, academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, first published March 23 in the London Review of Books, are catalysts for some healthy public discussion of key issues.
The first mainstream media reactions to the paper - often with the customary name-calling - were mostly efforts to shut down debate before it could begin. Early venues for vituperative attacks on the paper included the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times ("nutty"), the Boston Herald (headline: "Anti-Semitic Paranoia at Harvard") and The Washington Post (headline: "Yes, It's Anti-Semitic").
But other voices have emerged, on the airwaves and in print, to bypass the facile attacks and address crucial issues. If this keeps up, the uproar over what Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt had to say could invigorate public discourse about Washington's policies toward a country that consistently has received a bigger U.S. aid package for a longer period than any other nation.
In April, syndicated columnist Molly Ivins put her astute finger on a vital point. "In the United States, we do not have full-throated, full-throttle debate about Israel," she wrote. "In Israel, they have it as a matter of course, but the truth is that the accusation of anti-Semitism is far too often raised in this country against anyone who criticizes the government of Israel. ... I don't know that I've ever felt intimidated by the knee-jerk `you're anti-Semitic' charge leveled at anyone who criticizes Israel, but I do know I have certainly heard it often enough to become tired of it. And I wonder if that doesn't produce the same result: giving up on the discussion."
The point rings true, and it's one of the central themes emphasized by Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt.
If the barriers to democratic discourse can be overcome, the paper's authors say, the results could be highly beneficial: "Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided U.S. support and could move the U.S. to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel's long-term interests as well."
Outsized support for Israel has been "the centerpiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy," the professors contend - and the Israel lobby makes that support possible. "Other special-interest groups have managed to skew America's foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest," the paper says. One of the consequences is that "the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians."
In the United States, "the lobby's campaign to quash debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy," Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt assert. They point to grave effects on the body politic: "The inability of Congress to conduct a genuine debate on these important issues paralyzes the entire process of democratic deliberation."
While their paper overstates the extent to which pro-Israel pressures determine U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a very powerful lobby for Israel clearly has enormous leverage in Washington. And the professors make a convincing case that the U.S. government has been much too closely aligned with Israel - to the detriment of human rights, democracy and other principles that are supposed to constitute American values.
The failure to make a distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel routinely stifles public debate. When convenient, pro-Israel groups in the United States will concede that it's possible to oppose Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic. Yet many of Israel's boosters reflexively pull out the heavy artillery of charging anti-Semitism when their position is challenged.
Numerous American Jewish groups dedicated to supporting Israel are eager to equate Israel with Judaism. Sometimes they have the arrogance to depict the country and the religion as inseparable. For example, in April 2000, a full-page United Jewish Appeal ad in The New York Times proclaimed: "The seeds of Jewish life and Jewish communities everywhere begin in Israel."