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Torn apart by Walt and Mearsheimer

Jon Chait explains why he started writing about Israel:

Until recently I wrote very rarely about Israel. What changed things for me was the emergence of [Stephen] Walt and [John] Mearsheimer's conspiratorial analysis "The Israel Lobby," which not only inspires a lot of opinions in me, but also strikes me as an important moment in American political discourse. I see the climate of debate on the American left changing in disconcerting ways. There is the creepy division of American Jews into good Jews and bad Jews, and resulting premise that American Jews who don’t take a sufficiently left-wing position on the Middle East should be presumed to be acting out of dual loyalty. There is the casual impugning of hawkish American Jews qua Jews, and the wild assumption that pro-Israel Jews coordinate secretly. This is an assault upon the liberal norms that have prevailed in this country for decades. I find myself shocked to see liberals failing to decry it and sometimes defending it out of what strikes me as ideological tribalism.

On most things, Jon Chait and I have fairly similar beliefs. We both supported the Iraq war out of an optimistic-liberal hawkishness that I think we both now consider to have been misguided, at least in that context. We both supported the health-care reform bill. We both think supply-side economics is a hilarious prank masquerading as a viable theory. But on this, we're almost perfectly opposed.

Like Jon, I used to avoid the topic of Israel. For one thing, I believe it gets entirely too much attention relative to its actual importance in the world. For another, it's simply an unpleasant discussion. For a third, numerous journalists warned me -- because they genuinely believed -- that there were adverse professional consequences to speaking out on the issue.

It was the reaction to Walt and Mearsheimer's book that drew me into the topic. The accusations of anti-semitism or, when the target was Jewish, self-hatred. Jeffrey Goldberg's New Republic cover story that connected the book to Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Patrick Buchanan, Louis Farrakhan and David Duke. The American Jewish Committee's paper (pdf) calling progressive Jewish thought "the new anti-semitism." The implausible rejection of the idea that America's behavior toward Israel might be heavily influenced by groups interested in Israel, just as its behavior toward corn subsidies is heavily influenced by the corn lobby, and that this might have worrying consequences. I found myself shocked to see liberals engaging in all of this out of what struck me as a fearful tribalism.

Not just shocked, but worried. Accusations of anti-semitism are accusations made partially in my name. I'm Jewish, after all, and have the inbox to prove it. (Today's selection: "I know you don't care about our Constitution, like most Jews, you are only in this country because it is the best place to satify [sic] your greed.") Accusations of ethnic hatred are heavy weaponry: Rolling that grenade against critics of the Israeli government's actions might shut down debate, but it's a dangerous strategy, as it cheapens the meaning of the term and tells a lot of people that they are not simply being critical of Israel's actions, but that their beliefs actually set them against Jews. Friends are important, even if you disagree on some things. And that's not how you keep them.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 20, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Israel/Palestine  
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A shorter version of the "Israel Lobby" work by Walt and Meirsheimer appeared in the London Review of Books in 2006.

Posted by: bdballard | May 20, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I had no idea that you initially supported the illegal Iraq invasion. I am glad that you came to your senses, but how could you ignore the mountain of evidence that Saddam had no nukes or the capacity to create them, was not in league with Al Qaeda, and that we had no rights under our constitution or international law to invade another country that had not attacked us?

As for the Israel lobby, it seems patently clear that somebody is influencing the US govt to make a tiny country the 2nd largest recipient of foreign aid, along with loan guarantees and advanced weaponry that its neighbors have no access to.

Posted by: srw3 | May 20, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

I basically agree with you, Ezra. I would, however, add one point about Walt and Mearsheimer's book, though.

What bothered a lot of people (including me) about it was that it was about what you would assuredly agree is a very contentious, controversial subject, and got so much positive attention in high places, despite being apparently so poorly researched. I mean, it was about a political lobby, and the authors apparently didn't interview a single member of Congress? If that's not poor research, what is?

And what of the assertion by the authors, with paltry evidence, that the Iraq war wouldn't have happened had it not been for the pro-Israel lobby? If they'd been arguing about war with Iran, long Israel's prime bete noir, that would have been different. But Iraq? Do you really think Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld wouldn't have started the war in Iraq without AIPAC? (Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, claims that the Israeli government at least was opposed to the Iraq war, favoring more attention against Iran.)

Considering how horribly disastrous the war turned out to be, and how many American and Iraqi lives were lost as a result, blaming the Israel lobby for the war is a highly inflammatory charge; it would have been acceptable had the evidence been considerable, but they had little evidence, if any, at all.

You know how when you're reading a book, and discover a passage that you yourself are very well versed in, and when you realize how ignorantly the authors write about it, you question the credibility of everything else? That happened to me in several places in the book, and was hugely disenchanting.

I think there's a role for good scholarship on the Israel lobby, and how the lobby has harmed the long-term interests of both Israel and the United States in so many ways. But Walt and Mearsheimer's book did much to discredit the cause.

It hasn't helped that Mearsheimer has gone off the deep end about American Jews, dividing them up into what he called "righteous Jews" and "the new Afrikaaners," identifying Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and Naomi Klein as ideal examples of his "righteous Jews" category. (Is there anyone farther to the ultra-ultra-left than these individuals?)

Posted by: matt297 | May 20, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Oh my gosh, you supported the invasion of Iraq by Bush? WTF? holy jumpin jehosaphat!
Didn't you see cars all over the place with bumper stickers saying "Attack Iraq? No!" Well, maybe not, if you were a big city dweller who didn't spend much time on the road. Who knew?

Posted by: rjewett | May 20, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I didn't realize you originally supported the Iraq War (which was a declared war, not an "illegal Iraq invasion"). I was hopefully optimistic about the Iraq war for similar reason, but as time has gone on, I've come to see it as a really bad idea. All that money could have been spent building up our standing army, our conventional weapon stocks, and working an an anti-ballistic missile shield. Or gone to paying down the debt. But any of those things would have probably been better than going to war in Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Plus, even if he had them, Iraq was not likely to seriously go to war with us. Especially if our standing army had kept getting bigger over the decade, instead of blowing endless amounts of cash in Iraq.

"We both think supply-side economics is a hilarious prank masquerading as a viable theory."

You're still young. You'll come around. ;)

"and the wild assumption that pro-Israel Jews coordinate secretly."

What's your take on this? I mean, when I start hearing stuff that basically goes: "the jews control the banks, the jews control Hollywood" I begin to think the people telling me that sort of stuff ought to have a cleaned-and-pressed white sheet and hood ensemble in the closet.

Jewish conspiracy. Real or paranoia? You're diametrically opposed to Chait on that?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 20, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Just more liberal bashing.

The only people I personally know who have engaged in utterances of anti-semitism are right-wingers.

Posted by: Lomillialor | May 20, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Liberals are called anti-Semites when they oppose Israel for the right reasons, while actual anti-Semites get a pass when they support Israel for the wrong reasons. Sad, really.

Posted by: jwellington1 | May 20, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse


that is a very pithy comment.
time and again, "politics makes strange bedfellows."

Posted by: jkaren | May 20, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Chait seems like a reasonable guy, except on two topics: Howard Dean and Israel. On the latter subject, Spencer Ackerman is a case study in what happens when you don't toe the TNR party line.

Chait: "There is the creepy division of American Jews into good Jews and bad Jews, and resulting premise that American Jews who don’t take a sufficiently left-wing position on the Middle East should be presumed to be acting out of dual loyalty." Is this an example of playing the Jew Card?

Posted by: CaptainMcGlew | May 20, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Chait, like seemingly everyone else on the AIPAC side of the Walt-Mearshemier divide, loves to change the subject from "what are the costs of current American policy toward Israel" to "liberal Jews are self-hating and anti-Israel." So we all get bogged down in ad hominem questions of motive and never get to the substance. It's a neat trick.

Posted by: randrewm | May 20, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

which one is the "jew card?" the king of diamonds?

Posted by: bdballard | May 20, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I don't know if I'd say I supported the invasion. What did think was, "Geez, Cheney just went on TV and said that they know for sure that he's got these weapons and that he's months away from a nuke. If what they're saying is right, then we should probably invade. On the other hand, I don't trust these guys as far as I can throw them." So I really didn't know what to think, but not allowing the weapons inspectors to continue looking for the weapons sealed it for me that the Bush Administration just really wanted that war.

Posted by: MosBen | May 20, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Great post. It is a shock to see normally smart nuanced people thrown into such a tizzy by the Israel subject, losing all their critical spirit. I remember in 1973 being stunned by seeing my best friend, a long haired brilliant chemistry student (then an activist in a scientists against military research at Columbia University group) telling me he wanted Israel to roll up Egypt, Syria, Jordan--essentially destroy the Mid East so Israel could be safe. Your blog Ezra was an amazing fountain of searching, honest commentary on W&M when I wrote about the book and its reception in 2006.

Posted by: scottpost1 | May 21, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

From the Chait excerpt: "There is the creepy division of American Jews into good Jews and bad Jews, and resulting premise that American Jews who don’t take a sufficiently left-wing position on the Middle East should be presumed to be acting out of dual loyalty."

I thought it was just the opposite. The "good" Jews were the ones who supported the hard-line Israeli government, and the "bad" Jews were the (generally liberal) ones who questioned or opposed Israeli policy (hence their designation as "self-hating").

Just look at how the term "pro-Israel" is applied--only to those who support the Israeli government's policies. Opposition to those policies doesn't make one "anti-Israel" just as opposition to Bush or Obama didn't make one anti-American. Having an honest and defensible difference of opinion on what's best for Israel's long-term interests shouldn't get bogged down into false attributions of loyalty or disloyalty, but unfortunately it too often does for reasons that remain mysterious.

Posted by: dasimon | May 21, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

It should be noted that we now know, from the statements of those who were in the room at the time, that then Israeli PM Sharon told Bush NOT to invade Iraq as it would aid the Iranians and destabilize the region. Unfortunately, Sharon kept his opposition secret, as did every major American-Jewish organization at the time. Well, next time we know better than to keep our mouths shut.

Posted by: MeMyself1 | May 21, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

An implant from the J Street

Ezra was placed in the Washpost by the Obama administration. He is not a journalist but a party activist or militant. Expect him to defend all Obama's positions on all issues. As a party worker that is his assignment.

He is a J Street wunderboychik who will be always hostile toward Israel and the American Jews.

These Jewish traitors are paid by Soros and Obama to wage war on two fronts: a) Attack Israel and please the Islamic world
b) to undermine Israel's support among the American Jews and undermine the influence of the American Jews in the American politics.

Ezra was born a traitor. Consider his article attacking Senator Lieberman for voting against Obama's Health Disaster Act. Ezra claimed that Lieberman was ready to kill hundreds of thousands of people because of his opposition to Obama.

Ezra is a paid agent; disregard him.

Posted by: m-epstein | May 22, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

"We both think supply-side economics is a hilarious prank masquerading as a viable theory." Taken literally, that means you don't "think" human behavior is affected at all by net, after-tax rewards. I doubt if either of you could even come up with a coherent explanation of what supply-side economics means. For a quick refresher, look at

Posted by: RobinPeter | May 26, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

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