An anti-Semitic smear gets another hearing

Stephen Walt (left), co-author of "The Israel Lobby." Credit: Maarten via Wikimedia Commons.
Stephen Walt (left), co-author of "The Israel Lobby." Credit: Maarten via Wikimedia Commons.

By Jonathan S. Tobin/

Last month, former CIA officer Valerie Plame crossed a line on social media even the mainstream liberal media couldn’t ignore. Plame gained fame due to her unmasking at a time when her husband was a prominent critic of the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq War policy. But her status as a liberal icon took a hit when she retweeted an anti-Semitic polemic that claimed Jews were responsible for pushing the U.S. into wars in the Middle East for Israel’s sake. Plame defended the piece before eventually issuing a weasel-worded apology that further damaged her reputation.

But the interesting aspect of this incident was the way some critics of Israel sought to disassociate their slanders of supporters of the Jewish state from the sort of anti-Semitic invective Plame had promoted. The Washington Post’s Molly Roberts whined that Plame’s open hate discredited an otherwise reasonable argument about Israel and its friends playing the puppet master on unsuspecting Americans.

While almost all of the attention devoted to anti-Semitism in the weeks since the Charlottesville incident has been devoted to hate from neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, Roberts was unhappy that the attention devoted to Plame changed the narrative to one about the “intolerant left” and because it undermined her desire to have a debate about “the outsize role Israel plays in American foreign policy.”

But the problem is that those who single out Israel and its supporters in this fashion inevitably traffic in age-old anti-Semitic themes that cannot be disguised as scholarship or legitimate debate.

What Roberts seems to want is a rehashing of “The Israel Lobby” thesis promoted by authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt a decade ago. They claimed Israel and its supporters, especially the AIPAC lobby, were buying the votes of members of Congress to do Israel’s bidding against the best interests of Americans.

As it happens, Walt resurfaced this week with an article in The Forward in which he claimed “history proved us right” in the authors’ smears of the pro-Israel community. Pointing to the growing anti-Israel sentiment on the left, Walt thinks his stand is somehow vindicated.

But “The Israel Lobby” thesis was based on two big lies.

One was that in Walt and Mearsheimer’s telling, the effort to impose the pro-Israel agenda on the nation was depicted as a conspiracy so vast that it contradicts the authors’ premise that it was a minority manipulating a majority. Since most Americans support Israel and view it as a fellow democracy with common values under attack by forces that opposed those principles, the claim that the Jewish tail was wagging the American dog is absurd.

Second, the nature of Walt and Mearsheimer’s arguments hinged on anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews buying influence or manipulating unsuspecting gentiles. The focus on the “lobby” as the greatest force in U.S. politics was also a distortion that ignored the work other more powerful lobbies. Singling out Israel and its supporters in this manner betrayed an agenda that was built on prejudice, not a defense of American interests.

While Walt continues to deny the anti-Semitic nature of his work, it is telling that in his Forward article he cites, among other things, the rise of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that engages in openly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement, as proof his stand was correct. He and Roberts ignore the reality of the conflict in which a Palestinian political culture rejects peace on any terms, while Israel’s destruction is the only genuine obstacle to its resolution.

The context for this effort is important because while most Jews are still focused on President Donald Trump’s wrongheaded comments about Charlottesville, the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly hostile to Israel. After eight years during which President Barack Obama’s efforts to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government only worsened the conflict with the Palestinians, and his appeasement of Iran drove Sunni Arab states into the arms of the Israelis, talk of a suppressed debate about the Jewish state’s disproportionate influence is ridiculous. But now that we have a president who, despite other obvious faults, isn’t obsessed with the idea of “saving Israel from itself” or in empowering an Iranian regime that is as much of a threat to the U.S. and the Arab states as it is to Israel, as Obama was, it’s unsurprising that some on the left want to revive this dishonest discussion.

In the 10 years since “The Israel Lobby” was first published, a rising tide of anti-Semitism has swept across the globe, fueled in part by smears of Israel and Jews like those Walt helped spread. That is an indictment of his work, not a vindication. Those who want to besmirch Israel’s supporters as undermining U.S. interests without being rightly labeled as anti-Semites are fooling no one.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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