Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Another self-serving falsehood from Stephen Walt

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, co-authors in 2006 of a famous manifesto blaming the "Israel Lobby" for the 2003 Iraq war and various other sins, are now embroiled in a minor scandal because Mearsheimer warmly endorsed a book by a notorious anti-semitic crackpot, Gilad Atzmon. No, Atzmon is not merely a critic of Israel or even just a hysterical anti-Zionist, but a self-declared "proud self-hating Jew" who has been widely recognized, even by committed anti-Zionists and habitual Israel-bashers, as someone who gleefully recycles and updates the most central themes of late 19th-century and 20th-century European anti-semitism. For example, As'ad AbuKhalil at the Angry Arab News Service unhesitatingly identified Atzmon as "one of those classical anti-Semites" who are the kind of "friends we don't need". Other activists in far-left anti-Zionist circles (whom Atzmon refers to as "Judeo-Marxists"), as well as other authors embarrassed to be associated with the publisher of Atzmon's latest book, have said the same. There is really no ambiguity about it.

This incident falls into the category of unbelievable-but-not-totally-surprising. Let's be clear about what this doesn't mean. To my knowledge, no serious critic of Mearsheimer and Walt has suggested that their "Israel Lobby" manifesto was motivated by anti-semitism (even if some critics did think it contained arguments with potentially anti-semitic implications, which is not the same thing) or that either of them is personally an anti-semite. But being involved in highly emotional controversies can sometimes make it difficult for participants to keep their moral and emotional balance, and Mearsheimer seems to have gotten so disoriented that he can't tell the difference between an extremist anti-Zionist and an outright anti-semite. That's worth exploring, but I won't try to do it now.

For the moment, I just want to respond to a statement by Walt occasioned by this latest controversy, though not directly about it.

=> On September 26 Mearsheimer used Walt's Foreign Policy blog as a venue for replying to some (well-deserved) criticisms by Jeffrey Goldberg. Walt introduced Mearsheimer's defense with a few remarks that included the following:
Ever since John Mearsheimer and I began writing about the Israel lobby, some of our critics have leveled various personal charges against us. These attacks rarely addressed the substance of what we wrote -- a tacit concession that both facts and logic were on our side -- but instead accused us of being anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.
There is no delicate way to say this, and it needs to be said: The claim that critics of M&W's "Israel Lobby" manifesto have "rarely addressed the substance" of its arguments is total hogwash. Anyone who feels that this judgment is at all debatable is invited to review the actual record. As it happens, I took the trouble to collect Some Rebuttals to Mearsheimer & Walt's "Israel Lobby" that appeared from 2006 to 2010, so quite a few of these critiques are readily available for inspection. Whether or not one agrees with any or all of them—they come at M&W's position from different intellectual and ideological directions—any honest reader will notice that all the pieces collected there engage seriously with the substance of M&W's arguments.

It seems clear to me that the cumulative result of these and other serious critiques is a thorough demolition of M&W's arguments (not the relatively sensible and plausible arguments that many people would have liked them to make, and which some of M&W's defenders and apologists have tried to pretend they made, but the arguments that M&W actually did make). But whether or not we agree about that doesn't affect the main point here.

If Steven Walt genuinely believes that critics of M&W's "Israel Lobby" manifesto have "rarely" tried to address the substance of its arguments, and have thus tacitly conceded that "both facts and logic" were on their side, then he is a man in deep denial. The alternative interpretation is that this claim is simply a conscious falsehood, intended to discredit and evade substantive critiques rather than honestly engaging them. Or, quite possibly, some blending of those two factors is involved. But it's important to make it clear that claims of this sort, whether advanced by M&W themselves or by their apologists, are pure propaganda. They shouldn't be allowed to go uncorrected.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub