A recent analysis of the pro-Israel lobby in America has generated considerable criticism and debate. In their article, published last month in the London Review of Books, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two highly respected scholars, argued that it is the lobby’s success rather than any special convergence of national interests that explains the extent of American support for Israel. What is striking is less the substance of their argument than the outraged reaction: to all intents and purposes, discussing the US-Israel special relationship still remains taboo in the US media mainstream.

While leading newspapers have remained silent, the response elsewhere has been swift. Some critics have charged errors of fact. Others have condemned the authors for taking lobbyists’ boasts at face value, saying they exaggerate their strength, unity and impact. And as the authors themselves predicted, the incendiary accusation of anti-semitism has been lobbed their way too: the Anti-Defamation League, for example, has denounced what it terms a “classical [sic], conspiratorial anti-semitic analysis”. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the piece itself, it would seem all but impossible to have a sensible public discussion in the US today about the country’s relationship with Israel. The reasons for, and high costs of, this problem warrant further consideration.

If fear of being tarred as an anti-semite – and there is no more toxic charge in American politics – blocks the way, what anti-semitism actually implies in today’s America is increasingly unclear. Over the past century, secularisation, wealth and prestige have bolstered the place of American Jewry in national life. Polls suggest that seriously anti-semitic views are now found only among a small minority of Americans. Yet, fear of anti-semitism has not vanished. Where once it was suspected – and often found – in the workplace and the domestic political arena, it is now expressed in terms of sensitivity towards criticism of the Jewish state. Often ambivalent about the methods of lobby groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), American Jews generally share the committee’s ultimate goal of maintaining a high level of US support for Israel. As Earl Raab, the veteran commentator, has noted, there is a sense that if America abandons Israel, it also may be in some way abandoning American Jewry itself. In the process, the line between anti-semitism and criticism of Israeli policy has become blurred. Defending what Bernard Rosenblatt, the distinguished interwar Zionist, predicted would be “the Little America in the East” is seen by many as synonymous with defending Jews as a whole.

A striking illustration of this occurred in the run-up to the 2004 US presidential elections. At that time Congress passed the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, in spite of strong objections from the State Department. The foreign service did not see why any one form of discrimination should be singled out for official US concern. It was equally troubled by the Act’s language, which asserts that “strong anti-Israel sentiment” or indeed “Muslim opposition to developments in Israel and the occupied territories” should count as evidence of anti-semitic attitudes. At one level, Congress was connecting with a diplomatic strategy of the Sharon government that sought to highlight anti-semitism as a way of deflecting criticism of its policies in the occupied territories. But behind the lobbying lie deeper semantic shifts in mainstream American discourse. To be a Zionist is unproblematic in political terms, but to declare oneself an anti-Zionist is to become vulnerable to the charge of anti-semitism. I have even heard a student impute the same bias to a professor for referring to “Palestine” rather than Israel in a lecture on the eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule: it was as though any reference to Palestine, especially when not accompanied by a reference to Israel, was troubling.

Most sensible people of course recognise that opposition to Israeli policies is quite different from anti-semitism. For those who think they are linked, it has proved hard to fix the precise boundary between the two. The Global Anti-Semitism Act talks about a line separating the latter from “objective criticism” of Israel but does not spell out where this line lies. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, castigated “profoundly anti-Israel views” for being “anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent”. Others refer to “disproportionate” criticism and vilification. But none of these terms are self-evident in their application. Because the costs of stepping over the line are high, the result is that debate is put under surveillance and inhibited. I came to appreciate that this may cause serious damage to life in the classroom and to pedagogy as a whole when I served on a faculty committee looking into such matters last year.

Intellectual discussion has thereby been constrained too. To take an extreme but pertinent example: any comparison of Israel and the Third Reich is generally denounced by the organisations that pronounce on these issues. It is not hard to see why. Offensive to many Jewish survivors of the camps, the comparison with the paradigmatic criminal state of the modern world is often made as a means of ruling out the Israeli state’s right to exist. Nevertheless, German and Jewish nationalists – like many others in the 20th century – sought to nationalise land through a combination of colonial settlement and conquest. It happens that the two shaped many of their colonisation policies in reaction to the very same historical experience – the earlier German anti-Polish land campaigns of the 1890s. They differed substantially in how they saw this precedent, of course, as in their policies and treatment of those already on the land. But precisely because comparisons can bring out these differences, there seems no reason to allow political correctness to trump scholarly enquiry.

Vigilance can be carried too far. Having denounced American academics for supposedly making anti-semitic statements, the Anti-Defamation League last year levelled a similar charge at faculty in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There is something peculiarly Kafkaesque about the idea of an American Jewish watchdog monitoring Israel for anti-semitism, yet once the mechanism and mindset exist, this is where the logic of vigilance leads: anti-semitism may be found anywhere. In fact, the intellectual climate in Israel is tougher-minded than in the US and the authorities at the Hebrew University simply took no notice. But brandishing the big stick of anti-semitism against all and sundry helps no one: it lumps together serious critique with crackpot ravings, does a signal disservice to those who really suffered from it in the past and stifles a badly needed debate within the US. There is no reason why the partnership between the US and Israel should not be susceptible to the same kind of cost-benefit analysis as any other area of policy. After all, no special relationship lasts forever: ask the Brits.

The writer is professor of history at Columbia University and author of Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (Knopf)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article


Comments have not been enabled for this article.