The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
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Manipulating the Media

In addition to influencing government policy directly, the Lobby strives to shape public perceptions about Israel and the Middle East. It does not want an open debate on issues involving Israel, because an open debate might cause Americans to question the level of support that they currently provide. Accordingly, pro-Israel organizations work hard to influence the media, think tanks, and academia, because these institutions are critical in shaping popular opinion.

The Lobby’s perspective on Israel is widely reflected in the mainstream media in good part because most American commentators are pro-Israel. The debate among Middle East pundits, journalist Eric Alterman writes, is “dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel.”84 He lists 61 “columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification.” Conversely, Alterman found just five pundits who consistently criticize Israeli behavior or endorse pro-Arab positions. Newspapers occasionally publish guest op-eds challenging Israeli policy, but the balance of opinion clearly favors the other side.

This pro-Israel bias is reflected in the editorials of major newspapers. Robert Bartley, the late editor of the Wall Street Journal, once remarked that, “Shamir, Sharon, Bibi – whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me.”85 Not surprisingly, the Journal, along with other prominent newspapers like The Chicago Sun-Times and The Washington Times regularly run editorials that are strongly pro-Israel. Magazines like Commentary, the New Republic, and the Weekly Standard also zealously defend Israel at every turn.

Editorial bias is also found in papers like the New York Times. The Times occasionally criticizes Israeli policies and sometimes concedes that the Palestinians have legitimate grievances, but it is not even-handed. In his memoirs, for example, former Times executive editor Max Frankel acknowledged the impact his own pro-Israel attitude had on his editorial choices. In his words: “I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert.” He goes on: “Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers recognized, I wrote them from a pro-Israel perspective.”86

The media’s reporting of news events involving Israel is somewhat more even-handed than editorial commentary is, in part because reporters strive to be objective, but also because it is difficult to cover events in the occupied territories without acknowledging Israel’s actual behavior. To discourage unfavorable reporting on Israel, the Lobby organizes letter writing campaigns, demonstrations, and boycotts against news outlets whose content it considers anti-Israel. One CNN executive has said that he sometimes gets 6,000 e-mail messages in a single day complaining that a story is anti-Israel.87 Similarly, the pro-Israel Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organized demonstrations outside National Public Radio stations in 33 cities in May 2003, and it also tried to convince contributors to withhold support from NPR until its Middle East coverage became more sympathetic to Israel.88 Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in contributions as a result of these efforts. Pressure on NPR has also come from Israel’s friends in Congress, who have asked NPR for an internal audit as well as more oversight of its Middle East coverage.

These factors help explain why the American media contains few criticisms of Israeli policy, rarely questions Washington’s relationship with Israel, and only occasionally discusses the Lobby’s profound influence on U.S. policy.

Think Tanks That Think One Way

Pro-Israel forces predominate in U.S. think tanks, which play an important role in shaping public debate as well as actual policy. The Lobby created its own think tank in 1985, when Martin Indyk helped found WINEP.89 Although WINEP plays down its links to Israel and claims instead that it provides a “balanced and realistic” perspective on Middle East issues, this is not the case.90

In fact, WINEP is funded and run by individuals who are deeply committed to advancing Israel’s agenda. The Lobby’s influence in the think tank world extends well beyond WINEP. Over the past 25 years, pro-Israel forces have established a commanding presence at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Security Policy, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). These think tanks are decidedly pro-Israel, and include few, if any, critics of U.S. support for the Jewish state.

A good indicator of the Lobby’s influence in the think tank world is the evolution of the Brookings Institution. For many years, its senior expert on Middle East issues was William B. Quandt, a distinguished academic and former NSC official with a well-deserved reputation for evenhandedness regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, however, Brookings’s work on these issues is conducted through its Saban Center for Middle East Studies, which is financed by Haim Saban, a wealthy Israeli-American businessman and ardent Zionist.91 The director of the Saban Center is the ubiquitous Martin Indyk. Thus, what was once a non-partisan policy institute on Middle East matters is now part of the chorus of largely pro-Israel think tanks.

Policing Academia

The Lobby has had the most difficulty stifling debate about Israel on college campuses, because academic freedom is a core value and because tenured professors are hard to threaten or silence. Even so, there was only mild criticism of Israel in the 1990s, when the Oslo peace process was underway. Criticism rose after that process collapsed and Ariel Sharon came to power in early 2001, and it became especially intense when the IDF re-occupied the West Bank in spring 2002 and employed massive force against the Second Intifada.

The Lobby moved aggressively to “take back the campuses.” New groups sprang up, like the Caravan for Democracy, which brought Israeli speakers to U.S. colleges.92 Established groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Hillel jumped into the fray, and a new group – the Israel on Campus Coalition – was formed to coordinate the many groups that now sought to make Israel’s case on campus. Finally, AIPAC more than tripled its spending for programs to monitor university activities and to train young advocates for Israel, in order to “vastly expand the number of students involved on campus . . . in the national pro-Israel effort.”93

The Lobby also monitors what professors write and teach. In September 2002, for example, Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes, two passionately pro-Israel neoconservatives, established a website (Campus Watch) that posted dossiers on suspect academics and encouraged students to report comments or behavior that might be considered hostile to Israel.94 This transparent attempt to blacklist and intimidate scholars prompted a harsh reaction and Pipes and Kramer later removed the dossiers, but the website still invites students to report alleged anti-Israel behavior at U.S. colleges.

Groups in the Lobby also direct their fire at particular professors and the universities that hire them. Columbia University, which had the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said on its faculty, has been a frequent target of pro-Israel forces. Jonathan Cole, the former Columbia provost, reported that, “One can be sure that any public statement in support of the Palestinian people by the preeminent literary critic Edward Said will elicit hundreds of e-mails, letters, and journalistic accounts that call on us to denounce Said and to either sanction or fire him.”95 When Columbia recruited historian Rashid Khalidi from the University of Chicago, Cole says that “the complaints started flowing in from people who disagreed with the content of his political views.” Princeton faced the same problem a few years later when it considered wooing Khalidi away from Columbia.96

A classic illustration of the effort to police academia occurred in late 2004, when the “David Project” produced a propaganda film alleging that faculty in Columbia University’s Middle East studies program were anti-Semitic and were intimidating Jewish students who defended Israel.97 Columbia was raked over the coals in pro-Israel circles, but a faculty committee assigned to investigate the charges found no evidence of anti-Semitism and the only incident worth noting was the possibility that one professor had “responded heatedly” to a student’s question.98 The committee also discovered that the accused professors had been the target of an overt intimidation campaign.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this campaign to eliminate criticism of Israel from college campuses is the effort by Jewish groups to push Congress to establish mechanisms that monitor what professors say about Israel.99 Schools judged to have an anti-Israel bias would be denied Federal funding. This effort to get the U.S. government to police campuses have not yet succeeded, but the attempt illustrates the importance pro-Israel groups place on controlling debate on these issues.

Finally, a number of Jewish philanthropists have established Israel studies programs (in addition to the roughly 130 Jewish Studies programs that already exist) so as to increase the number of Israel-friendly scholars on campus.100 NYU announced the establishment of the Taub Center for Israel Studies on May 1, 2003, and similar programs have been established at other schools like Berkeley, Brandeis, and Emory. Academic administrators emphasize the pedagogical value of these programs, but the truth is that they are intended in good part to promote Israel’s image on campus. Fred Laffer, the head of the Taub Foundation, makes clear that his foundation funded the NYU center to help counter the “Arabic [sic] point of view” that he thinks is prevalent in NYU’s Middle East programs.101

In sum, the Lobby has gone to considerable lengths to insulate Israel from criticism on college campuses. It has not been as successful in academia as it has been on Capitol Hill, but it has worked hard to stifle criticism of Israel by professors and students and there is much less of it on campuses today.102

The Great Silencer

No discussion of how the Lobby operates would be complete without examining one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-Semitism. Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy – an influence that AIPAC celebrates – stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though the Israeli media themselves refer to America’s “Jewish Lobby.” In effect, the Lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. This tactic is very effective, because anti-Semitism is loathsome and no responsible person wants to be accused of it.

Europeans have been more willing than Americans to criticize Israeli policy in recent years, which some attribute to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. We are “getting to a point,” the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union said in early 2004, “where it is as bad as it was in the 1930s.”103 Measuring anti-Semitism is a complicated matter, but the weight of evidence points in the opposite direction. For example, in the spring of 2004, when accusations of European anti- Semitism filled the air in America, separate surveys of European public opinion conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that it was actually declining.104

Consider France, which pro-Israel forces often portray as the most anti-Semitic state in Europe. A poll of French citizens in 2002 found that: 89 percent could envisage living with a Jew; 97 percent believe making anti-Semitic graffiti is a serious crime; 87 percent think attacks on French synagogues are scandalous; and 85 percent of practicing French Catholics reject the charge that Jews have too much influence in business and finance.105 It is unsurprising that the head of the French Jewish community declared in the summer of 2003 that “France is not more anti-Semitic than America.”106 According to a recent article in Ha’aretz, the French police report that anti-Semitic incidents in France declined by almost 50 per cent in 2005; and this despite the fact that France has the largest Muslim population of any country in Europe.107

Finally, when a French Jew was brutally murdered last month by a Muslim gang, tens of thousands of French demonstrators poured into the streets to condemn anti-Semitism. Moreover, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin both attended the victim’s memorial service in a public show of solidarity with French Jewry.108 It is also worth noting that in 2002 more Jews immigrated to Germany than Israel, making it “the fastest growing Jewish community in the world,” according to an article in the Jewish newspaper Forward.109 If Europe were really heading back to the 1930s, it is hard to imagine that Jews would be moving there in large numbers.

We recognize, however, that Europe is not free of the scourge of anti-Semitism. No one would deny that there are still some virulent autochthonous anti-Semites in Europe (as there are in the United States) but their numbers are small and their extreme views are rejected by the vast majority of Europeans. Nor would one deny that there is anti-Semitism among European Muslims, some of it provoked by Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians and some of it straightforwardly racist.110 This problem is worrisome, but it is hardly out of control. Muslims constitute less than five percent of Europe’s total population, and European governments are working hard to combat the problem. Why? Because most Europeans reject such hateful views.111 In short, when it comes to anti-Semitism, Europe today bears hardly any resemblance to Europe in the 1930s.

This is why pro-Israel forces, when pressed to go beyond assertion, claim that there is a ‘new anti-Semitism’, which they equate with criticism of Israel.112 In other words criticize Israeli policy and you are by definition an anti-Semite. When the synod of the Church of England recently voted to divest from Caterpillar Inc. on the grounds that Caterpillar manufactures the bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes, the Chief Rabbi complained that it would ‘have the most adverse repercussions on … Jewish-Christian relations in Britain’, while Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Reform movement, said: “‘There is a clear problem of anti-Zionist – verging on anti-Semitic – attitudes emerging in the grass roots, and even in the middle ranks of the Church.”113 However, the Church was neither guilty of anti-Zionism nor anti-Semitism; it was merely protesting Israeli policy.114

Critics are also accused of holding Israel to an unfair standard or questioning its right to exist. But these are bogus charges too. Western critics of Israel hardly ever question its right to exist. Instead, they question its behavior towards the Palestinians, which is a legitimate criticism: Israelis question it themselves. Nor is Israel being judged unfairly. Rather, Israeli treatment of the Palestinians elicits criticism because it is contrary to widely-accepted human rights norms and international law, as well as the principle of national self-determination. And it is hardly the only state that has faced sharp criticism on these grounds.

In sum, other ethnic lobbies can only dream of having the political muscle that pro-Israel organizations possess. The question, therefore, is what effect does the Lobby have on U.S. foreign policy?

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