Paper attacking pro-Israel Lobby is full of falsehoods

Last week, just in time for the third anniversary of the Iraq war, a “working paper” attacking the pro-Israel “Lobby” — ominously spelled with a capital “L” — was released on the Internet by two prominent American scholars, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt of the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, respectively. The premise of this “study” is to prove that the pro-Israel “Lobby” was a “critical element” in leading the Bush administration to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

The paper seeks to back up this premise with an argument that paints Israel as a strategic liability for the United States, and that Israel in fact has no special moral claim for U.S. support. This argument is not new. Israel’s detractors have been saying as much for years. What is new, and deeply concerning, is that these once-fringe opinions have found their way into the mainstream.

To their credit, Harvard University and the University of Chicago pointedly distanced themselves from the paper and its authors with an unusually forceful disclaimer that the two universities “do not take positions on the scholarship of individual faculty, and this article should not be interpreted or portrayed as reflecting the official position of either institution.” Harvard even ordered its logo removed from the cover page.

Bias appears to be the motivating factor behind the writing of this paper. Mearsheimer signed a petition promoted by anti-Israel academics just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that warned of Israel’s intent to “ethnically cleanse” Palestinians under the cover of an Iraq war. Israel never intended to, nor did it, expel Palestinians in the wake of the war. This fact didn’t seem to faze Mearsheimer, who defended the petition publicly in the University of Chicago’s student newspaper.

The Mearsheimer/Walt “study” is filled with embarrassing errors, omissions, quotes taken out of context and unsubstantiated assertions. While a comprehensive rebuttal is in order, space here is limited. Yet, one example will give a picture of the paper’s many flaws.

In trying to discredit Israel, the authors unfavorably compare American and Israeli democracies. “The United States,” they write, “is a liberal democracy where people of any race, religion, or ethnicity are supposed to enjoy equal rights. By contrast, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship.”

One need not look any further than Israel’s foundational document, its Declaration of Independence, to see that Israeli citizenship is not based on “blood kinship.” It unequivocally states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

If the authors are referring to Israel’s Law of Return, then this is an indicator of their ignorance. The Law of Return’s only purpose is to ensure that Jews will never again face locked doors in times of peril. It does not preclude non-Jews from Israeli citizenship — as 1 million non-Jewish Israeli citizens demonstrate. Finally, Jewish identity is not based on “blood kinship,” as any convert to Judaism can attest to.

The authors define the “Lobby” as being a “loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The “Lobby’s” core, they write, is comprised of “American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.” Other components of the “Lobby” are “neoconservatives” and “Christian Zionists.”

This, perhaps, is the authors’ biggest mistake. Their narrow definition of the “Lobby” appears to be an attempt to define support for Israel as being solely along a very narrow constituency of Americans, a “special interest.”

Yet U.S. support for Israel is based largely on widespread American public support — cutting across a broad racial, religious and political spectrum — for a democratic friend. In fact, one recent poll shows most Americans have a higher opinion of Israel than all other countries except Canada and England. Americans know a good friend that shares common values and mutual interests.

The most dangerous feature of this whole matter is that despite Harvard’s and the University of Chicago’s repudiation of the paper, and despite the paper’s inaccuracies and distortions, the credibility of the authors may give an undeserved validity to the extremist view that Israel is “our misfortune.” As such, their paper may have influence among some policy makers. And, that would be a dangerous mistake, not only for Israel, but also for the United States.

Yitzhak Santis is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Middle East Project.