Last year it was a widely noticed, controversial book by former President Jimmy Carter. This year it is one by professors from two of America's leading universities. It seems that a trend is afoot that is changing the landscape regarding the way Israel is treated on America's campuses and beyond.
For background it is useful to recall a 2001 study called Ivory Towers on Sand in which Martin Kramer, then at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center, traced the influence on Middle Eastern studies in the US of Edward Said, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Said's seminal book Orientalism was published in 1978. Along with the stocking of Middle East study centers and various departments at universities around the country with faculty hostile to Israel, his impact helped create a situation in which the Palestinian "narrative" held sway on many American campuses and Israel was regarded as a colonial intrusion into the Middle East.
Especially since the year 2000, when Israel began to be subjected to a terror war accompanied by an escalating propaganda campaign, various individuals and groups have reacted to the prevailing state of affairs. Students and others have called attention to the behavior of biased, one-sided professors. With a number of chairs established, with increasing numbers of visiting professors on the scene, and with new courses being developed, voices are now being heard that are more accurate and balanced in their treatment of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and that show an Israel not defined solely by the conflict.
More and more, Israel is being approached as a bona fide member of the world's family of nations meriting serious academic attention. Though Said still has a following and his impact lingers, beside the fact that he himself is now dead, the era that he personified and profoundly influenced is becoming increasingly passé. But now, with a rhetoric often characterized by belligerent shrillness, a troubling alternative approach is coming into the mainstream.
We have gone, it seems, from the age of Edward Said to the age of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, with Jimmy Carter on one side and people like Norman Finkelstein on the other buttressing that trend. Center stage at the moment is the new book by Mearsheimer and Walt - an expansion of their earlier monograph - the bestselling The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. (Interestingly enough, neither Said nor the current writers made a claim to academic expertise in Middle Eastern studies before publishing on the subject.)
At the time that Said was holding sway at Columbia, Rashid Khalidi, who has moved on to that institution to hold the Edward Said Chair, was ensconced at the University of Chicago, and Said's friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was at Northwestern University. With people like them leading the way, the pro-Palestinian cause was spearheaded by suave, articulate campus-based academics whose ideologically driven view of the past and present was offered with the patina of scholarship.
The key works of today, however, are less academic and much more clearly polemical. The hostility these books direct against Israel is blatant. And they are issued by commercial presses with full-blown publicity apparatuses that send the authors not just from campus to campus but from bookstore to bookstore and from media interview to media interview. Nothing is out of reach, it would seem, even a full-page ad in the New York Times.
Rather than coming across to the general public as partisan Palestinian Americans, today's promulgators of the anti-Israel agenda present themselves as authoritative figures whom the typical American can see as "one of us." Still, they are no less partisan than their predecessors.
Indeed, as much as these figures may declare that they affirm Israel's right to exist, in the ways in which they harshly criticize Israel while giving a pass to the Palestinians they undermine Israel's very legitimacy at a time when that legitimacy is increasingly under direct attack from other supporters of the Palestinian cause. And they bring a malignant tactic that was not previously provided such visibility and credibility, a frontal assault on the Jewish community and other supporters of Israel who are lumped together as members of an insidious and all-powerful "Israel lobby."
Shoddy scholarship, misleading claims
Here in Chicago, from whence I write, we have a front seat to this development. With Mearsheimer based on the campus that previously housed Khalidi (Walt is at Harvard,) and with the even more obviously polemical Finkelstein, just now denied tenure at nearby DePaul University for his uncollegial excesses but still championed by other academics locally and nationally, the concepts I am positing are graphically demonstrated.
Like Jimmy Carter and others in this new school (might it be called the anti-Israel-lobby lobby?), Mearsheimer and Walt repeatedly insist that all they want is the right to criticize Israel, a right that, despite their own high profiles coast to coast, they say is denied them and others by an all-controlling Israel lobby. But they go beyond mere criticism by asserting that America's continuing support for Israel is justified neither on strategic nor moral grounds. And for them, the only explanation for that support is the power of the "Israel lobby" that in the eyes of these professors leads America by the nose, away from its own interests.
This is the new wisdom that is being promulgated not only from campus to campus but in public settings as well. Over the long term Mearsheimer and Walt's tome will most likely turn out to be less seminal and impactful in the classroom and research centers than was the work of Said. But it is symptomatic of a point of view which is now getting increasing attention in an America that is overwhelmed by the question of how the country got into Iraq and how it will get out, that is uncertain about what to do about Iran, and that is wondering if, when, and where there will be another terror attack on domestic soil.
The ideas promoted by Mearsheimer and Walt are reflected elsewhere too, as was demonstrated in a recent six-hour, three-part television documentary produced by CNN called "God's Warriors." With the first installment focusing on Jews, Carter and Mearsheimer were themselves turned to as authorities as the program treated what it called "the lobby" in terms very similar to those used by Mearsheimer and Walt.
In looking for consolation, one can note that as this trend grows, a positive approach continues to gain momentum of its own as well, with the practitioners in the field of Israel Studies bringing a more accurate and comprehensive treatment of Israel to many universities. Meanwhile, supporters of Israel, not intimidated by the likes of Jimmy Carter, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt, are challenging their theses, and the American Jewish community remains undeterred in advocating for a strong Israel/America relationship as something good for both countries.
All the same, however, although by now an impressive number of serious reviewers have been exposing the Mearsheimer and Walt book's shoddy scholarship, misleading claims, and tendentious arguments, their approach gains steam. At the moment, their book can be considered as much of a touchstone of the new age as Orientalism was for its.