Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 11-12

Israel and Judaism

Indictments, Israel Lobby Critique Place Much-Needed Spotlight on AIPAC

By Allan C. Brownfeld

The role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other components of the pro-Israel lobby in shaping U.S. Middle East policy is being debated as never before, focusing a much-needed spotlight on the often taboo topic.

The two developments which have caused AIPAC to be the object of such unwanted attention are the espionage indictments of two former staff members who allegedly shared classified documents with representatives of the Israeli Embassy, and a paper written by two prominent academics, a Harvard dean and a University of Chicago professor, arguing that pressure from the Israel lobby often causes the U.S. to set aside its own security to pursue the best interests of Israel.

In the espionage case, former AIPAC officials Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman have been charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act by receiving and transmitting national defense information. After admitting to having provided Rosen and Weissman with classified material, former Pentagon analyst Lawrence A. Franklin has been sentenced to l2 years in prison.

Following the indictments, AIPAC began receiving a closer look. Writing in the July 4, 2005 New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg noted that “AIPAC is unique in the top tier of lobbies because its concerns are the economic health and security of a foreign nation, and because its members are drawn almost entirely from a single ethnic group.”

According to Goldberg, “AIPAC’s professional staff—it employs about a hundred people at its headquarters, two blocks from the Capitol—analyzes congressional voting records and shares the results with its members, who can then contribute money to candidates directly or to a network of pro-Israel political action committees. The Center for Responsive Politics, a public policy group, estimates that between 1990 and 2004 these PACs gave candidates and parties more than 20 million dollars.”

Robert Asher, a former AIPAC president, discussed with Goldberg the campaign he led to defeat Rep. Paul Findley (R-IL), a critic of Israeli policy. “There was a real desire to help Findley out of Congress,” explained Asher. “We met at my apartment in Chicago, and I recruited [Democratic lawyer Richard Durbin] to run for Congress. I probed his views and I explained things that I had learned mainly from AIPAC. I wanted to make sure we were supporting someone who was not only against Paul Findley, but also a friend of Israel.”

Asher noted that Durbin “beat Findley with a lot of help from Jews, in-state and out-of-state. Now, how did the Jewish money find him? I traveled around the country talking about how we had the opportunity to defeat someone unfriendly to Israel. And the gates opened.”

AIPAC’s “operations have certainly been hindered by the controversy.”

Another AIPAC leader, Mayer Mitchell, led a similar campaign in 2002 to defeat Earl Hilliard, an Alabama congressman who was critical of Israel. Reported Goldberg: “Mitchell helped direct support to a young Harvard Law School graduate named Artur Davis, who challenged Hilliard in the Democratic primary, and he solicited donations from AIPAC supporters across America. Davis won the primary and the seat.”

In 1992, David Steiner, then AIPAC’s president, was caught on tape boasting that he had “cut a deal” with the administration of George H.W. Bush to provide more aid to Israel (see Dec. 1992/Jan. 1993 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 13). Steiner also said he was “negotiating” with the incoming Clinton administration over the appointment of a pro-Israel secretary of state. “We have a dozen people in his [Clinton’s] “headquarters...and they are all going to get big jobs,” Steiner said. Soon after the tape’s existence was disclosed, Steiner resigned his post.

Regarding the current case of the alleged sharing of classified material with the Israeli Embassy, Goldberg wrote: “AIPAC officials insist that the case has not affected the organization’s effectiveness. But its operations have certainly been hindered by the controversy of the past year, and the FBI sting may force lobbyists of all sorts to be more careful about trying to penetrate the executive branch—and about leaking to reporters. And AIPAC now seems acutely sensitive to the appearance of dual loyalty. The theme of this year’s [2005] AIPAC conference was ”˜Israel is an American Value,’ and, for the first time ”˜Hatikvah,’ the Israeli national anthem was not sung. The only anthem heard was ”˜The Star Spangled Banner.’”

At AIPAC’s 2006 national conference, however, the singing of the Israeli national anthem was resumed.

“The Israel Lobby”

Intensifying the spotlight on AIPAC’s activities has been the paper written by Professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Their article first appeared in the March 23, 2006 issue of the London Review of Books (and was reprinted in this magazine’s May/June “Other Voices” supplement). An unedited version is available at the Kennedy School’s Web site.

The article, entitled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” asserts that Washington’s unwavering support of Israel has jeopardized American security and has been driven by “the unmatched power of the Israel lobby,” which the authors describe as a loose coalition of American Jews and their allies, including neoconservatives and evangelical Christians.

Among other things, the authors argue that the U.S. was singled out by al-Qaeda in large part because of American support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and that a significant motivation for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was to improve Israel’s security.

“No lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially the same,” the authors declare. “The United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around.”

Last fall, appearing on a University of California (Berkeley) television show called “Conversations With History,” Professor Walt spoke of the chilling effect of the Israel lobby. “Right now,” he said, “this has become a subject that you can barely talk about without people immediately trying to silence you, immediately trying to discredit you in various ways, such that no American politician will touch this, which is quite remarkable when you consider how much Americans argue about every other controversial political issue. To me, this is a national security priority for us, and we ought to be having an open debate on it, not one where only one side is being heard from.”

The debate unleashed by Mearsheimer and Walt has been heated. Some critics, while generally sympathetic with the arguments being made, fault the authors’ scholarship and feel they may have overstated their case. Daniel Fleshler, a longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now, said the issue of Jewish influence is “so incendiary and so complicated that I don’t know how anyone can talk about this in the public sphere. I know that’s a problem. But there’s not enough space in any article you write to do this in a way that doesn’t cause more rancor. And so much of this paper was glib and poorly researched.”

Writing in Salon, Michelle Goldberg described the authors as having “blundered forth” into the argument in “clumsy and crude ways,” failing for instance to distinguish between different streams of Jewish opinion. Noam Chomsky wrote that the authors had ignored the structural forces in the American economy pushing for war, what he calls “the tight state-corporate linkage.”

While surely more than the influence of the pro-Israel lobby was involved in the push for war with Iraq, the most disturbing element in the emerging debate is not the critique of Walt and Mearsheimer for attributing perhaps more power and influence to the pro-Israel lobby than it may have, but the use of the traditional charge of “anti-Semitism” in an attempt to silence the very examination of the pro-Israel lobby and its impact on American policy.

Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies titled his op-ed in the April 5, 2006 Washington Post, “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic.” He wrote: “If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information—why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic.”

The Anti-Defamation League called the paper “a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.” Writing in The New Republic, German newspaper editor Josef Joffe declared that the paper “puts ”˜The Protocols of The Elders of Zion’ to shame.”

Criticizing the Anti-Semitism Card

Many Jewish voices, however, have risen in sharp criticism of the tactic of trying to quash all discussion of U.S. Middle East policy and the pro-Israel lobby’s influence by labeling it “anti-Semitic.”

In an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Daniel Levy, a former policy adviser for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, deplored such “bullying tactics” and “the McCarthyite policing of academics” as “deeply un-Jewish. It would in fact serve Israel if the open and critical debate that takes place here were exported over there.”

Writing in the April 19, 2006 New York Times, Professor Tony Judt, director of New York University’s Remarque Institute, declared that, “This somewhat hysterical response is regrettable. In spite of its provocative title, the essay draws on a wide variety of standard sources and is mostly uncontentious. But it makes two distinct and important claims. The first is that uncritical support for Israel across the decades has not served America’s best interests. This is an assertion that can be debated on its merits. The authors’ second claim is more controversial: American foreign policy choices, they write, have for years been distorted by one domestic pressure group, the ”˜Israel lobby.’ Some would prefer, when explaining American actions overseas, to point a finger at the domestic ”˜energy lobby.’ Others might blame the influence of Wilsonian idealism, or imperial practices left over from the Cold War. But that a powerful Israel lobby exists could hardly be denied by anyone who knows how Washington works. Its core is AIPAC, its penumbra a variety of national Jewish organizations.”

Whatever the merits of the arguments set forth by Mearsheimer and Walt, the charges of “anti-Semitism” are, in Judt’s view, deplorable on a number of levels: “The damage that is done by America’s fear of anti-Semitism when discussing Israel is threefold. It is bad for Jews: anti-Semitism is real enough (I know something about it, growing up Jewish in l950s Britain), but for just that reason it should not be confused with political criticisms of Israel or its American supporters. It is bad for Israel: by guaranteeing it unconditional support, Americans encourage Israel to act heedless of consequences...But above all, self-censorship is bad for the U.S. itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation...It will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the U.S. are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state...It bears directly on our international standing and influence; and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We cannot ignore it.”

Wrote columnist Richard Cohen in the April 25 Washington Post: “My own reading of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper found it unremarkable, a bit sloppy and one-sided (nothing here about the Arab oil lobby) but nothing that even a casual newspaper reader does not know. Its basic point—that Israel’s American supporters have immense influence over U.S. foreign policy—is inarguable...Their [Mearsheimer and Walt’s] argument is hardly rebutted by purple denunciations and smear tactics. Rather than being persuasive, Mearsheimer and Walt’s more hysterical critics suggest by their extreme reactions that the duo is on to something. These tactics by Israel’s friends sully Israel’s good name more than Mearsheimer and Walt ever could.”

Israeli journalist Tom Segev described the Mearsheimer-Walt essay as “arrogant” but also acknowledged: “They are right. Had the U.S. saved Israel from itself, life today would be better...the Israel lobby in the U.S. harms Israel’s true interests.” 


Washington Times editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave pointed to the fact that, “Over the years, AIPAC has maneuvered to make Israel the third rail of American foreign policy. The handful of members of Congress who have been critical of Israel over the last 40 years have been publicly chastised with a figurative dunce cap, or, worse, lost their seats to AIPAC-backed opponents.”

Perhaps the most important contribution made by the Mearsheimer-Walt paper—which was rejected by The Atlantic Monthly after it had commissioned it, and could not be placed with any other prominent American publisher—is to open up debate on the subject of U.S. Middle East policy and the role of the pro-Israel lobby. Such a debate will be beneficial to all—including Israel. 


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

Additional information