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John Harvard's Journal

Israel and Academia

July-August 2006

On March 23, the London Review of Books published a long essay on “The Israel Lobby,” by Harrison distinguished service professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago (a West Point graduate), and Stephen M. Walt, Belfer professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, where his term as academic dean concluded at the end of this school year. The paper explained a policy based on “unwavering support for Israel” that has “inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion” and “jeopardized” United States security. Rather than being based on “shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives,” the authors found, the policy derives “almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.’” That lobby, they wrote, campaigns to “quash debate about Israel” by such means as “organizing blacklists and boycotts—or by suggesting that critics are anti-Semites.” Readers were referred to a longer, footnoted version at http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpaper.nsf/rwp/RWP06-011.

Not to the authors’ surprise, the paper provoked wide responses (initially in the New York Sun and then in foreign-policy centers worldwide)—many of them more focused on the authors’ purported politics, or whether they or their argument were anti-Semitic, than on the substance of their claims. The Kennedy School welcomed scholarly responses, and Frankfurter professor of law Alan M. Dershowitz took the opportunity, publishing a 44-page “Debunking the Newest—and Oldest—Jewish Conspiracy” on April 5 (www.ksg.harvard.edu/research/working_papers/abstract_dersh1.htm). He heatedly characterized the Mearsheimer-Walt work as “little more than a compilation of old, false, and authoritatively discredited charges dressed up in academic garb” and “dependent on biased, extremist and anti-American sources.”

As the debate toned down, its substantive weight increased. Tony Judt of New York University and author of Postwar, an acclaimed history of modern Europe, asked in a New York Times essay how future Americans would view the close alignment of “the imperial might and international reputation of the United States” with “one small, controversial Mediterranean client state” and suggested how other nations viewed matters today. Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor Michael Massing, writing in the New York Review of Books, criticized Mearsheimer and Walt for important flaws in their work and for their paper’s “thin documentation”—and then proceeded, by detailed reporting, to suggest how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and related entities work and what the news coverage of controversy reveals. He concluded that the central Mearsheimer-Walt argument was “entirely correct,” and that its flaws notwithstanding, their essay usefully opened for debate “a subject that has for too long remained taboo.”