Jew-Baiting


Five years ago, before the start of the Iraq War, I wrote an editorial titled “The Jewish War.” If the Iraq War is a disaster, I wrote, mainstream voices will start blaming the Jews.

Far-right pundits like Pat Buchanan had long pointed at Israel and the Jews for America’s problems abroad. But my finely tweaked Jew-dar had picked up signals that far more moderate pundits, like CNBC’s Chris Matthews, were now echoing the Buchanan trope. They pointed out how many of the war’s neoconservative boosters were pro-Israel Jews, and wondered aloud if these people weren’t pushing a reluctant nation toward war to benefit the Zionist enterprise.

“If the war against Iraq goes well, the conspiracy theorists will remain on the fringe,” I wrote. “But should America get sucked into a debilitating conflict, if Israel appears to have gained strategic ground at the expense of large numbers of American lives, the fringe will move onto center stage, and the calls to label Bush’s policy a Jewish war will rouse us, sharply and painfully, from our couches.”

Guess what? It’s time to get off the couch.

“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt came out this week, a mainstream book by mainstream professors that will no doubt climb the mainstream charts.

Its core argument is that the pro-Israel lobby has hijacked American foreign policy. That lobby puts Israel’s interests above America’s own, and has led to any number of foreign policy blunders, and one bona fide disaster: the Iraq War.

Part II of the book — which is a padded-out companion to the sloppily argued academic paper of the same title — is titled, “The Lobby in Action.”

And the crowning chapter of this section — certainly one of the most interest to average Americans who couldn’t find Palestine on a map — is, “Iraq and Dreams of Transforming the Middle East.” This chapter blames the “Israel lobby” and, by extension, the Jews, for the debacle of the Iraq War.

America’s seeming military invulnerability, its desire to strike back at all enemies after Sept. 11, and its deep insecurity that another Sept. 11 was on the horizon all turned policymakers’ heads toward Iraq, Walt and Mearsheimer write.

“But there was another variable in the equation,” they go on, “and the war certainly would not have occurred had it been absent. That element was the Israel lobby … Israeli officials and former Israeli leaders supported these efforts….”

“Pressure from Israel and the lobby was not the only factor behind the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element.”

Told you so.

So far the controversy surrounding this book has focused on its unbalanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It is not an exaggeration to say that in the view of the authors, the whole thing is Israel’s fault, aided and abetted by the American Jewish Israel lobby and their puppets in the Congress and the White House. Five decades of Arab rejectionism and Palestinian terror, Yasser Arafat’s torpedoing of the Oslo accords, a majority American and Israeli Jewish support for land-for-peace deals — none of this matters.)

But the truly insidious and lasting impact of the book is to shift the blame for one of America’s biggest foreign policy disasters onto history’s favorite scapegoat.

The authors take pains — well, four pages — to note that Jews are loyal Americans and that their lobbying is legal, like that of other special interest groups. “The Israel lobby is the antithesis of a cabal or conspiracy; it operates out in the open and proudly advertises its own clout…. What sets it apart, in short, is its extraordinary effectiveness.”

But these pages, which may as well have been titled, “Hey, Some of Our Best Friends Are Jewish,” are contradicted time and again in the authors’ selective re-telling of the events leading up the Iraq War.

A Jew, Douglas Feith, then at the Department of Defense, secretly manipulated intelligence. The Office of Special Plans, headed by neocon Abram Shulsky, forged close ties with Israeli sources to funnel faulty intelligence to government decisionmakers. In other words, all that stuff we said about those America-first, nonconspiratorial Jews? Just kidding: they really are a sneaky bunch.

Government officials, scholars and polemicists from all sides of the political spectrum — from David Gergen to Noam Chomsky — have found the Walt-Mearsheimer charges concerning America’s Middle East policy and the Iraq War naive, wrong-headed and unsupported by the facts.

Perhaps the authors advanced their arguments because they deeply believe the Iraq War was a Jewish war.

Or perhaps they figure the best way to draw attention to America’s policy vis-a- vis Israel is to drag in an issue that average Americans read and care about far more — the war. Or perhaps the whole incendiary mess is just a bit of highly remunerative Jew-baiting — nothing seems to stoke outrage and sell books more than getting the Jews riled up. There were lines around the block when Jimmy Carter came to Los Angeles to sign copies of “Israel: Peace or Apartheid.”

Walt and Mearsheimer will appear at the Hammer Museum in Westwood Sept. 18, and I suppose they’ll move a few books.

My suggestion is that you read the book as scholars will read it decades from now: not for its insights into American foreign policy, but for how respectable scholars can twist facts and spurn logic to lead societies down darkening corridors of hate.

The End of Bush’s ‘Jewish Moment’


Republicans once had high hopes that George W. Bush would draw American Jews away from their historic affinity with Democrats into embracing the conservative party. They believed that Jews would be drawn to Bush’s intense support for the State of Israel. Orthodox Jews, already more conservative than most American Jews, would be attracted by Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Neo-conservative intellectuals, a number of whom are Jewish and strongly pro-Israel, would be integrated into the foreign policy apparatus of the administration. And finally, the war in Iraq would remake the map of the Middle East in a way that would enhance Israel’s security. Taken together, the Bush administration would provide the Republicans with their “Jewish moment.”

The first test of this multifaceted plan was the 2004 presidential election. That seemed to be a bust. Democrat John Kerry won an estimated three-quarters of Jewish voters. But then the Republican plan was never based exclusively on winning Jewish votes. It was as much about splitting the Jewish campaign-funding base, and introducing a germ of doubt into Jewish loyalty to the Democrats, especially where Israel’s security was concerned. It was also about enhancing the gap between Republicans and Democrats in foreign policy leadership. The White House successfully cultivated pro-Israel Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to be their favorite Democrat, while rumors swirled that he would replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.

Many American Jews were uncomfortable with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but, after all, Israel’s leadership spoke publicly in favor of the war, remembering how Saddam Hussein had rained missiles into Israel during the first Gulf War. Jewish voters give credence to the positions of Israeli leadership on security matters, and Israel is perhaps the most pro-American nation on earth. By the same token, intense European opposition to the war counted for less, given Europe’s pro-Arab track record.

While American unilateralism might discomfort progressive Jews, many also have demonstrated a certain willingness to endure the international isolation that comes with America’s support for Israel. And older Jews remember Jewish Cold War intellectuals joining with the Nixon administration when the Democrats seemed weaker on foreign policy in the McGovern era. And it was Nixon who bailed out Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But since Bush’s re-election, these pillars of a paradigm shift have eroded, and now totter on the verge of collapse. The poor progress of the war in Iraq stands at the heart of the matter. The neo-conservatives turned out to be second-rate armchair warriors, working with a less-than-talented administration that shared their fantasies of global domination. Despite his corruption and dishonesty, Nixon was a brilliant strategic thinker on the global scene. He prided himself on a cold-hearted realism that allowed him to abandon his own Cold War ideology, play the People’s Republic of China against the Soviet Union and conclude historic agreements with each of them. Even as his popularity at home evaporated, he still enjoyed great respect in major world capitals. He didn’t like Jews very much (as shown in the famous White House tapes), and offered little rhetoric in support of Israel, but with the Jewish state in mortal peril during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he moved quickly and effectively to mobilize critically needed U.S. aid.

The Bush group of politicians and neo-conservative intellectuals, by contrast, has relied on the fantastical notion that an American invasion of an Arab country would spark a democratic upsurge in the Middle East. New elections would install pro-American and pro-Israeli governments in the region, thereby assuring U.S. hegemony and Israeli security. They pulled out maps of the region and plotted what they proudly referred to as the new American era of ideological and economic dominance. They saw endless possibilities for positive change in the region. One administration insider gloated about Egypt, “We can do better than Mubarak.” It apparently never occurred to them that elections might bring fundamentalist, anti-American and anti-Israel forces to power. For that matter, they seemed utterly surprised by the impact of televised images of tortured and humiliated prisoners.

Wedded to this doctrine, the administration resisted Israeli entreaties to delay Palestinian elections or to insist on preconditions for Hamas involvement, with the result that a democratically elected Hamas government, unwilling to recognize Israel, now stands on Israel’s border.

Instead of a moderate democratic renaissance, the Iraq War threatens to spark a civil war. And the prestige and power of Israel’s major regional foe, Iran, has been enhanced in the bargain. In February, Israeli television broadcast comments by Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, who was overhead suggesting that Israel might have been better off if Saddam were still in power controlling a stable, albeit hostile, Iraq.

The Bush administration and its neo-conservative intellectuals may have inadvertently shifted the cream of foreign policy thinkers back to the Democrats. Bush’s politicians and ideologues have driven out enough foreign policy professionals from the federal government to staff a new administration, from anti-terror specialist Richard Clarke to that famously unmasked CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The controversial port deal with the United Arab Emirates and the revelation that the UAE participates in the Arab boycott of Israel further changes the political dynamic. The ports controversy has for the first time allowed Democrats to move to the more pro-Israel side of the Bush administration. Ironically, then, the transition of the Nixon era may indeed be replayed. But in a twist of history, it may be the Democrats that benefit if they can rediscover their own long-lost tradition of foreign policy leadership.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.