Neo-Con Smerconish on new "Israel Lobby" book & danger of "anti-Semitism" charges

Philadelphia Inquirer, September 9, 2007
Op/Ed column:

'Anti-Semitic' label curbs talk about Israel

By Michael Smerconish

[Michael Smerconish is a Philadelphia-based radio host and regular Op/Ed columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has also filled in for Bill O'Reilly on The Radio Factor and Glenn Beck on his CNN Headline News television program.

[Smerconish is an outspoken critic of "political correctness" in society and in the war on terrorism and has written two books on the subject:
* 2004 - Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11
* 2006 - Muzzled: From T-Ball to Terrorism - True Stories That Should Be Fiction

[In general, his politics are approximately Neo-Conservative. For that reason especially, this column about the book "The Israel Lobby" by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt is surprising and instructive. AND IMPORTANT TO CIRCULATE. -- Editorial comment by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center.]

One year after 9/11, I visited Israel as a guest of the Jerusalem Post. In the midst of the intifadah, the hard-line newspaper arranged for me to broadcast my daily radio show from Jerusalem. At the time, I was also filing one-minute commentaries for KYW-AM (1060). One of them caused some consternation at home. Here is what I said:

"Yesterday, an Israeli guide was anxious to show me the community called Gilo.

" 'Look,' he said, 'at the sandbags that these people have to place in their windows to shield them from sniper fire from a neighboring village called Beit Jala.'

"Sure enough, there were sandbags in windows and bullet holes in walls. Thinking of my kids, I said, 'That's no place to raise a family.'

"Today, I had a different guide with a different perspective. He wanted me to tour an Arab neighborhood in the West Bank.

" 'Look at where Israeli tank fire has destroyed these homes,' he said to me. I looked. The devastation was terrible. 'This is no place to live,' I said to myself.

" 'Where are we?' I asked.

" 'This is the village called Beit Jala,' he told me, 'and the tank fired from over there, in Gilo' - where I had been the day before."

I ended the commentary by saying: "And so it goes."

My intention was only to present a form of geopolitical glass half empty/half full, not to assert any moral equivalency. But that didn't spare me an onslaught of e-mail from Jewish listeners disappointed in what I had said, or what they thought I was implying. Some told me my "comparison" was anti-Semitic, which stunned me, given that my entire trip had a palpable, pro-Israeli tone.

I was reminded of that experience this week while considering the backlash against the release of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. Mearsheimer is a political scientist at the University of Chicago. Walt is a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Their book is an outgrowth of their lengthy online article on the same subject, and of a 40-page essay published last spring in the London Review of Books. Their premise is that the United States has set aside its own security to advance the interests of Israel, owing to the existence of a "lobby," which they define as a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.

Among their observations is that anyone who criticizes Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have a significant influence over U.S. policy stands a good chance of being labeled anti-Semitic.

Labeling has become all too common in today's political debate, overlooking that few of us can neatly be compartmentalized under words such as liberal or conservative. Speak against same-sex marriage? You must be a "homophobe." Oppose affirmative action? That sounds "racist."

Similarly, to question U.S. support for Israel runs the risk of being branded "anti-Semitic." Perhaps it's only a small minority who assign the labels. Still, each debasing generalization stifles conversation about issues of the day. The shame is that some people, who already have a seat at the table, resort to such language as a way to prevent those of different views from even getting to the table at all.

Here's hoping that, six years removed from 9/11, Mearsheimer and Walt can initiate a reasonable conversation about Israel. No subject with implications for U.S. security should be off-limits. Among their words worthy of debate are these: "[S]aying that Israel and the U.S. are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around."

Of course, others conclude that the origins of America's terror problem are much wider in scope than Israel alone; they argue that disdain for America's relationship with Israel long preceded the modern terrorist threat. I say let's air it out.

Mearsheimer and Walt's arguments sound similar to words spoken to me by Michael Scheuer, author of the book Imperial Hubris and a man who spent 22 years with the CIA. From 1996 to 1999, he ran "Alec Station," the Osama bin Laden tracking unit at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. He told me he agreed with Mearsheimer and Walt that the Israeli lobby had "distorted and burdened" U.S. foreign policy.

"The most dangerous aspect of the Israel lobby," Scheuer said, "is that it threatens free speech in America. Very few Americans will exercise their right to free speech if criticizing Israel earns them identification as an anti-Semite."

Which reminds me that after I recently interviewed Scheuer, a blog posting said: "He won't out-and-out claim he hates Jews, but everything he criticizes centers around Israel and the 'dual loyalty' of neo-cons. You would be smart to avoid using this man as a reference. Soon he will reveal himself to be the true anti-Semite he is."

Scheuer argues that he was hired by the CIA not to be guardian of the world, but to be a guardian of the American people, and that our foreign policy should be designed to protect Americans first. This is exactly what Mearsheimer and Walt say we have abdicated.

Hardly an anti-Semitic view, and these well-credentialed academics have gone to great lengths to defuse any accusations of personal animus toward Israel.

"In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers' union, or other ethnic lobbies," they write in the London Review of Books. "There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policy; the Lobby's activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Their words are falling on deaf ears in certain quarters. A number of potential forums for discussion with the authors have turned down or canceled events. According to the New York Times, these include the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Jewish cultural center in Washington, and three organizations in Chicago.

This would seem only to strengthen their argument.

Michael Smerconish's column appears on Thursdays in the Daily News and on Sundays in Currents. Michael can be heard from 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via the Web at


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