Guilt by association

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

During the Jim Crow era, many American communists fiercely fought racism. This is a fact. It is also a fact that segregationists and others often smeared civil rights activists by calling them communists. This technique is sometimes called guilt by association and sometimes McCarthyism. If you think its dead, you have not been following the controversy over a long essay about the so-called Israel Lobby.

Recently, for instance, The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a respected defense intellectual. Cohen does not much like a paper on the Israel lobby that was written by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. He found it anti-Semitic. I did not.

But I did find Cohens piece to be offensive. It starts by noting that the paper, titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, had been endorsed by David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan. It goes on to quote Duke, who, I am sure, has nodded his head in agreement over the years with an occasional piece of mine, as saying the paper is a modern Declaration of American Independence. If you follow Cohens reasoning, then you would have to conclude that David Duke and the Founding Fathers have something in common. I am not, as they say, willing to go there.

Unfortunately, Cohens piece is not unique. The New York Sun reported on its front page of March 24 an allegation from Alan Dershowitz that some of the quotes from the Israel lobby paper appear on hate sites. Maybe they do, but Mearsheimer and Walt took those quotes (about press coverage of Israel) from a book written by Max Frankel, a former editor of the New York Times. To associate Mearsheimer and Walt with hate groups is rank guilt by association and does not in any way rebut the argument made in their Israel lobby paper.

There is hardly a stronger, more odious, accusation than anti-Semitism. It comes freighted with more than a thousand years of tragic history, culminating in the Holocaust. The mere suggestion of it is enough for any sane person to hold his tongue. Yet this did not stop the respected German newspaper editor, Josef Joffe, from stating in The New Republic that the lobby paper puts The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to shame. He is referring to the most notorious anti-Semitic text of all time. My friend Joffe is in dire need of a cold compress.

My own reading of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper found it unremarkable, a bit sloppy and one-sided (nothing here about the Arab/oil lobby), but nothing that even a casual newspaper reader does not know. Its basic point -- that Israels American supporters have immense influence over U.S. foreign policy -- is inarguable. After all, President Bush has just recently given Israel NATO-like status without so much as a murmur from Congress. I made it clear, Ill make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel, Bush said. This was the second or third time hes made this pledge, crossing a line that previous administrations would not -- in effect, promulgating a treaty seemingly on the spot. No other country gets this sort of treatment.

Israels special place in American foreign policy is deserved, in my view, and not entirely the product of lobbying. Israel has earned it, and isnt there something bracing about a special relationship that is not based on oil or markets or strategic location, but on shared values? (A bit now like Britain.)

But I can understand how foreign policy realists like Mearsheimer and Walt might question its utility and not only think that a bit too much power is located in a specific lobby, but that it is rarely even discussed. This may be wrong, but it is not (necessarily) anti-Semitic. In fact, after reading the Mearsheimer-Walt paper, the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz not only failed to discern anti-Semitism, but commended the paper to its readers. The professors article does not deserve condemnation, Haaretz stated in an editorial.

An abridged version of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper was published by the London Review of Books and is available online at www.lrb.co.uk. Read it and decide for yourself whether it is anti-Semitic. Whatever the case, their argument is hardly rebutted by purple denunciations and smear tactics. Rather than being persuasive, Mearsheimer and Walts more hysterical critics suggest by their extreme reactions that the duo is on to something. These tactics by Israels friends sully Israels good name more than Mearsheimer and Walt ever could.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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