What’s so nefarious about Jews exercising their right to speech?
What’s so nefarious about Jews exercising their right to speech?
By Jeff Robbins
September 7, 2007
A crop of Israel’s critics — most prominently Jimmy Carter and now Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the authors of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” — have managed something of a feat: They express no concerns about the massive pro-Arab effort, funded in significant measure by foreign oil money, taking American Jews to task for participating in the American political process; meanwhile, they inoculate themselves against charges of anti-Jewish bias by pre-emptively predicting that “the Jewish lobby” will accuse them of it.
Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer, in particular, have been heralded by Israel’s critics for their “courage” in attacking American Jews, who have allegedly “strangled” criticism of Israel. Their case seems one part laughable, and one part eyebrow-raising.
An anecdote from my own experience with the anti-Israel lobby may shed some light on the absurdity of the Walt-Mearsheimer offensive. Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a call from a major defense contractor asking for a favor. I was serving as president of the Boston chapter of the World Affairs Council, a national organization that debates foreign policy, and the defense contractor was one of the Council’s principal sponsors.
The Saudi Arabian government was sponsoring a national public relations campaign to cultivate American public opinion, and was sending Saudi emissaries around the country to make the case that Saudi Arabia was a tolerant, moderate nation worthy of American support. Would the Council organize a forum of Boston’s community leaders so that the Saudis could make their case?
While this was patently no more than a Saudi lobbying effort, we organized the forum, and it was well-attended by precisely the slice of Boston’s political and corporate elite that the Saudis and their defense contractor benefactor had hoped for. The Saudis maintained that their Kingdom should be regarded as a promoter of Middle East peace, and that the abundant evidence that Saudi Arabia was in fact promoting a virulent brand of extremist Islam should be discounted.
Saudi Arabia paid for the trip of its emissaries to Boston, for the Washington, D.C.-based public relations and lobbying company which organized the trip, and for the Boston public relations and lobbying company that handled the Boston part of the visit. And it drew upon the resources and relationships of the defense contractor, which sells hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, to support and orchestrate its public relations effort.
The billions in petrodollars Arab states spend in the U.S. for defense, construction, engineering and consulting contracts position them nicely to win friends in high places, and friends are what they have. That is true all over the world, is true in this country, and has been true for quite some time. As U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull noted 60 years ago, “The oil of Saudi Arabia constitutes one of the world’s great prizes.” His successor, Edward Stettinius, opposed the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East, stating “It would seriously prejudice our ability to afford protection to American interests, economic and commercial . . . throughout the area.”
The Saudis and their allies have not been shy about supplementing their considerable leverage in the U.S. by targeting expenditures to affect the debate over Middle East policy by funding think tanks, Middle East studies programs, advocacy groups, community centers and other institutions.
To take one obvious example, just last year Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal donated $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown Universities for programs in Islamic studies. Prince Alwaleed, chairman of a Riyadh-based conglomerate, is the fellow whose $10 million donation to the Twin Towers Fund following the Sept. 11 attacks was rejected by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the Saudi Prince suggested that the U.S. “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinians.”
Georgetown and Harvard had no apparent qualms about accepting Prince Alwaleed’s money. The director of Georgetown’s newly-renamed Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center rejected any suggestion that the Saudi magnate was attempting to use Saudi oil wealth to influence American policy in the Middle East. “There is nothing wrong with [Prince Alwaleed] expressing his opinion on American foreign policy,” he said. “Clearly, it was done in a constructive way.”
In other words, for those who accept the Arab line on the Israel-Arab conflict — namely, that it is the product of Israeli intransigence in some form or another — the increasing proliferation of Middle East-funded enterprises all across the country aimed at advancing the Arab view of the conflict constitute “nothing wrong.” Nor are those hewing to the anti-Israel line troubled by the way in which the massive Islamic bloc of nations, by dint both of their number and their economic leverage over the rest of the world, are able to guarantee an incessantly anti-Israel agenda at the United Nations and other international fora.
Although the aggressive deployment of petrodollars and oil-based influence from foreign sources aimed at advancing a pro-Arab line constitutes “nothing wrong” as far as Israel’s critics are concerned, a new political fashion holds that there is something very wrong indeed about American Jews and other American backers of Israel expressing their support for Israel, and urging their political leaders to join them in that support.
Our major newspapers and networks, with correspondents in Israel able to take advantage of an Israeli political system that is a free-for-all and an astonishingly vibrant and self-critical Israeli press, report daily on every twist and turn of the conflict and are very frequently critical of Israel. As for American campuses, most objective observers would have little difficulty concluding that far from being criticism-free, they are in fact dominated by critics of Israel. Clearly, as strangleholds on criticism go, whatever stranglehold the pro-Israel community has on debate in the U.S. is a very loose one indeed.
If the charge that American Jews are able to stifle criticism of Israel is simply silly, the leveling of the charge that there is something nefarious about Jews urging support for the Jewish state raises questions about whether Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer have descended into a certain ugliness. And the tactic of trying to neutralize those questions by loudly predicting that they will be asked, however clever a tactic it may be, does not neutralize them.
It is apparently the authors’ position that, even in the face of the overwhelming leverage of an Arab world swimming in petrodollars, with a lock on the U.N. and an unlimited ability to pay for pro-Arab public relations, American Jews are obliged to stay silent. In essence, Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer have repackaged the “the-Jews-run-the-country” stuff which has long been the bread and butter of anti-Semites.
Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer deny that they are anti-Semitic, and that is certainly good news. But where they are apparently content with foreign oil money being used to advance a pro-Arab position on the Middle East, but devote themselves to criticizing American Jews for lobbying their public officials in support of the Jewish state, one may legitimately wonder what phrase would apply. Surely, one’s denial that he is anti-Semitic, while welcome, is hardly dispositive; after all, the marked increase in anti-Semitism around the world is well-documented, and yet one rarely hears anyone actually announce that they are anti-Semitic, or that their views are anti-Semitic.
But if anti-Semitism is too harsh a term, and if the word “bigoted” is also taken off the table, perhaps one can be forgiven for concluding that “anti-Jewish bias” fits the bill here. After all, where there is nothing wrong with foreign money from Arab countries advancing a pro-Arab agenda in Messrs. Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s world — but there is something very wrong with American citizens who are Jewish exercising their civic right to speak out on behalf of Israel and taking issue with the pro-Arab agenda — even the most vehement disclaimers of any bias against Jews lack a certain credibility.
The potency of the Middle East-funded anti-Israel lobby around the world and in the U.S. is difficult to ignore. Yet, Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer and others who adhere to an anti-Israel line ignore it. In and of itself, this is not surprising. When at the same time they portray American Jews’ efforts to make the case for Israel as morally suspect, however, they open themselves up to reasonable charges of something far more troublesome than mere hypocrisy, and that is anti-Jewish bias, by whatever name.
Mr. Robbins, a U.S. Delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission during the Clinton administration, is an attorney at Mintz, Levin in Boston and represents David Project in the Islamic Society of Boston lawsuit.