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Jeff Jacoby

The big lie about the 'Great Silencer'

WHEN JOHN MEARSHEIMER and Stephen Walt embarked on "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," which argues that a mighty pro-Israel machine controls America's dealings in the Middle East and crushes those who get in its way, they expected to be condemned as anti-Semites.

"The charge of anti-Semitism," the two academics write in their book (as they had in their notorious 2006 essay on the subject), is one of the "most powerful weapons" in the Israel lobby's arsenal. "Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle East policy 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."

This accusation they label the "Great Silencer," one that has proven "a potent way to make sure that criticisms of Israel or the lobby were rarely spoken and were either ignored or disparaged when they were." Accordingly, Mearsheimer and Walt weren't surprised when leading booksellers refused to carry the "The Israel Lobby" and when attendance at their public appearances was suppressed. As they predicted, media outlets either refused to review their book, or published reviews that tarred them as anti-Semites. Such censorship and defamation are the price paid by anyone foolhardy enough to challenge Israel and, to coin a phrase, its amen corner in the United States.

In another universe, that is.

In this one, nothing could be further from the truth.

"The Israel Lobby" is on sale everywhere. It debuted at Number 12 on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and Number 6 in the Los Angeles Times. Far from being stifled or ignored, Mearsheimer and Walt have had invitations aplenty to air their views, in venues as varied as NPR's "Fresh Air" and "On Point," the Los Angeles Times editorial board, and a standing-room-only crowd at Politics & Prose, the noted Washington bookstore.

The media has neither cold-shouldered them nor deployed the "Great Silencer" to defame them. "Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites or racists," David Remnick declared flatly in The New Yorker. "They are serious scholars and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity." Newsday's Scott McLemee opened his review by noting that "The Israel Lobby" has something important in common with Israel itself: "It is necessary to affirm its right to exist." Tim Ruttin, reviewing the book for the L.A. Times, recoiled from its "underlying malice" and pronounced its argument "sinister" - but made no suggestion that the authors are bigots.

This does not mean that no one has read the Mearsheimer/Walt philippic and concluded that it is, in fact, anti-Jewish bigotry dressed up as academic analysis. Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing in Commentary, pronounced the original paper a "meretricious attempt to put a scholarly cap and gown on every hoary calumny ever devised about Jewish influence," and he wasn't the only one to think so. His argument can be debated on its own merits.

For their part, Mearsheimer and Walt declare for the record that they not only harbor no anti-Semitic animus, but are in fact philo-Semites. Does that square with the view, to quote their original treatise, that a largely Jewish "Israel Lobby" has a "stranglehold on Congress" - one powerful enough to "divert US foreign policy" in ways that benefit Israel while harming America, in order to give Israel "a free hand with the Palestinians," while Americans "do most of the fighting, dying . . . rebuilding and paying"? That, too, can be debated on its own merits.

What is not debatable is that Mearsheimer and Walt have not been silenced in any way. Their views have been widely discussed. A leading publisher invited them to extend those views in a book. Their claim that anyone critical of Israel or its supporters is ruthlessly muzzled is simply a lie. From Jimmy Carter to Noam Chomsky, from the media to academia, from the corridors of the UN to the "realists" of the State Department, Israel's detractors are loud and legion.

So why the Big Lie about the "Great Silencer?" Perhaps to disguise the fact that hostility for Israel is simply not a flavor most Americans like. Yes, the Mearsheimer/Walt message can sell books and garner lecture bookings. But in the marketplace of ideas, it is weak and unconvincing. If America's policies are pro-Israel, it is because America's people are pro-Israel - and they are pro-Israel not because of the machinations of a Zionist lobby, but because they see in Israel a liberal democracy and a loyal ally.

Mearsheimer and Walt are more than welcome to peddle their anti-Israel message. But when all is said and done, most Americans just don't buy it.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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