Freedom of academic debate, political polemic, populist prejudice, outlandish exaggeration and even mildly slanderous innuendo about anything from Britney Spears to the president is axiomatic in the US, is it not? Well, perhaps not altogether.
Reflexes that ordinarily spring automatically to the defence of open debate and free inquiry shut down – at least among much of America’s political elite – once the subject turns to Israel, and above all the pro-Israel lobby’s role in shaping US foreign policy. Even though policy towards the Middle East is arguably the single biggest determinant of America’s reputation in the world, any attempt to rethink this from first principles is politically risky.
Doctrinal orthodoxy was flouted last month in a paper on the Israel lobby by two of America’s leading political scientists, Stephen Walt from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago. They argue powerfully that extraordinarily effective lobbying in Washington has led to a political consensus that American and Israeli interests are inseparable and identical. Only a British publication, the London Review of Books, was prepared to carry their critique. Moral blackmail – the fear that any criticism of Israeli policy and US support for it will lead to charges of anti-Semitism – is a powerful disincentive to publish dissenting views. It is also leading to the silencing of policy debate on American university campuses, partly as the result of targeted campaigns against the dissenters. Judgment of the precise value of the Walt-Mearsheimer paper has been swept aside by a wave of condemnation. Their scholarship has been derided and their motives impugned.
On various counts, this is a shame and a self-inflicted wound no society built on freedom should allow…Bullying Americans into a consensus on Israeli policy is bad for Israel and makes it impossible for America to articulate its own national interest.