Anti-Semitism or taboo scholarship?

Is it possible to safely speak out against Israel in the U.S. today?

My guess is “No.” Only it’s not much of a guess.

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, researchers from Harvard and the University of Chicago, in March of this year released a paper entitled “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.” This paper, which is well-researched and properly supported, makes the assertion that, “No other lobby [except the pro-Israel lobby] has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.”

Some of the other main points from the paper:


Israel is the largest recipient of direct foreign aid from Washington and has been since 1973. The current allotment is $3 billion per year (about 1/5th of America’s total foreign aid budget).

Israel is a strategic liability, rather than a strategic asset. The U.S. has a terrorism problem in large part because of its unconditional support of Israel and its policies in the Middle East.

Israel has supplied sensitive U.S. military hardware to China, frequently ignored or reneged on promises made to U.S. officials and carried on a program of spying on the U.S.

Israel is a brutal nation and has been since its inception, historically participating in executions, massacres and rapes, and this history of consistent action undermines any claims it makes to moral superiority.

Far from any American-style appreciation of diversity and religious tolerance, the state of Israel is a Jewish state, and citizenship is based on blood kinship.

The Iraq war was started in part in an effort to make Israel more secure. There is little actual evidence to support the rational of the Iraqi invasion as an “oil war.”


These assertions have caused a storm of controversy and scathing attacks from a number of prominent organizations and critics in the U.S. media and academic space ?” the Anti-Defamation League, Alan Dershowitz (also of Harvard), Eliot Cohen (in the Washington Post) and others. The charges leveled at Mearsheimer and Walt include: “anti-semitism,” “hate speech,” “bigotry,” “wretched scholarship” and “creepy.”

One has to wonder if Mssrs. Walt and Mearsheimer predicted this outraged response and the attendant rosy pictures painted of their character by their critics. If they did, one might question why they went ahead with the publication of their paper anyway, knowing in advance that Harvard might be forced (by public pressure) to strip its seal from their finished paper (which did happen) and that the U.S. media would roundly denounce them as poor scholars grasping at straws to prop up a dastardly modern-day Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Interestingly, the international media and online media have generally accepted the paper positively (see The Independent, The Australian, The Financial Times and even Ha’aretz ?” an Israeli daily) – it is only the U.S. media and certain Israeli commentators who have really lashed out against the scholarship. This phenomenon interestingly supports one of the key assertions made in the paper, which is that the pro-Israel lobby has successfully created among the U.S. populace such a sense of identity with Israel that to attack Israel or Israeli interests in any way is to attack the U.S.

This entire episode vaguely reminds me of an event here at the Vanguard that occurred late last year, when Op-Ed writer Caelan MacTavish penned an opinion column with some highly inflammatory remarks and serious factual errors about Jerusalem. The article provoked outraged response from the Jewish Student Union, the History department and a number of other faculty, students (and non-students) of PSU. The article was pulled and Caelan, unsurprisingly, was fired. I say his dismissal was unsurprising because the article that was published was little more than a rough draft, and terribly lacking in research or thoughtfulness.

What is most interesting to me, however, is that MacTavish could get called an anti-Semite for his staggering work of amateurish ignorance, and Mearsheimer and Walt can get called anti-Semites for their well-researched work of investigative scholarship. I guess it goes to show: you don’t have to be an ignorant bigot to get called an anti-Semite. You also don’t have to be an anti-Semite.

Name-calling restricts the public discourse. It is a sad day if we have reached the point where our media and political commentators, taking a page from our President’s “faith-based” approach to running the country, have rejected a critical look at their own perspectives in favor of glomming on to some politicized party line.

If such practices successfully silence those willing to stand up and say unpopular (or even taboo) things about the state of our nation and its foreign policy, there is not much hope for the average citizen’s efforts to be well informed – and therefore, not much hope for democracy.