The Great Debate at Cooper Union Last Night

I got home quite late from the Israel lobby debate and am on deadline for print, so I won’t get around to a full report till later, but thought it best to file a few impressions while the world is still making up its mind…

The debate was diffuse. It had few dramatic moments. There were six debaters with five different points of view, and the three men positing the existence of the lobby had not coordinated their points ahead of time and so were sorting out differences on stage. My friend Scott McConnell of the American Conservative said that he missed the great moment, the climactic clash, then reflected that maybe this is something that documentaries manage to create after the fact.

Yet: No one could leave the hall unconvinced that there is an Israel lobby. The quarrel was over scope and character. If the Israel lobby is the elephant in the room of American politics, here were six blind men each naming a different part of it they had felt in the dark. Well actually, four blind men. The three positing the existence of the lobby were joined by Shlomo Ben-Ami, from the other side, in a spirit of intellectual vigor and openness. All four speakers added to the audience’s understanding. The other 2, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, longtime elephant-fattener-uppers, were determined to show the audience that the elephant was a hamster. They failed.

The debate belonged to Tony Judt. He arrived late to the hall in a turtleneck—everyone else was in ties—and might have been Mariano Rivera, for his confidence and dispatch. He was the most imaginative speaker, and imagination is required when you are describing a King kong sasquatch no one has seen and whose wranglers say doesn’t exist. When Shlomo Ben-Ami and Martin Indyk said that John Mearsheimer was antisemitic for speaking of a collection of Jews who influence policy, Judt demolished them by quoting Arthur Koestler when he became an anticommunist and said that Just because idiots and bigots share some of his views doesn’t discredit the views. The job of the social scientist is to describe the true conditions of society; are these statements accurate or not? That is the only issue. I’m paraphrasing. Judt was way more eloquent.

Judt’s second great moment was when he accused Indyk of being “faux-naive” —a civilized way of saying, You’re lying—when Indyk kept saying that the lobby was one small factor in an American president’s exertions of power. Here again, he used his imagination. Because when you’re talking about something about which there is very little information, and those who know something about it are trying to deny its existence, you need imagination. Anyway, Judt described the real exercise of power. He said that when a small state defied an American president, and the president wanted to do something about it, he had a great number of seen and unseen ways of compelling that state to fall into line, all sorts of bullying and pressure and fury. None of these had been deployed in Israel’s case, and lo and behold the settlements had continued to expand, over four decades… Again I’m paraphrasing. Judt also got the last word of the night when he explained to a hungry audience that knew in its bones it has been deprived, that this discussion was an astoundingly rare one, and mind you it was organized by the London Review of Books. Thus he gave the audience a real sense of how the U.S. discourse/policy works, which is what the evening was after all fumbling towards.

The most resonant moment of the debate was Judt’s, too. He pointed out that when he had endorsed the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, in an article for an unnamed major North American newspaper, he was asked by the editors whether he is Jewish, and told to stick that fact in the article. (Otherwise they couldn’t publish it, was implicit or explicit, I’ll have to check my tape). The newspaper—obviously—was the New York Times, in which Judt’s op-ed taking Walt/Mearsheimer’s side, appeared last April, as I recall, to stunning effect. I say resonant, and damning: Let’s consider the lesson of this story: You can only speak out on this issue if you’re Jewish? Oh my god, how did we get here…

The other three intellectuals’ knowledge was more limited. John Mearsheimer deserves the greatest credit of all for breaking the seal on this discussion. But his actual knowledge of the lobby is drawn from reports of people who have seen Kong in the jungle, and lived to tell. So he read from one account or another of the lobby’s existence, and its function in pushing for the Iraq war. Living in Chicago, he lacks intimate knowledge of its workings. His best moment came when he said that the U.S. ought to put pressure on Israel to come into line on matters that are important to us and if it fails to do so, or chooses a different course, the U.S. and Israel “should go their separate ways.” This was a clean and bracing view of the relations of states. While ideal, in a realistic way, it certainly describes the usual behavior of the U.S. when a small state defies it on a critical question. E.g., the settlements. And the absence of democracy in the West Bank. We could have frozen those settlements with a wave of the hand…

Rashid Khalidi was the emotional life of the debate. He spoke of the lobby in more sweeping terms than Mearsheimer; he conveyed in a way no one else was able the ways in which the pro-Palestinian view is suppressed in the American scene. He got off the best line of the debate. His neighbor Dennis Ross’s mike wasn’t working. Khalidi passed him his own. “This is the first time that a Palestinian has ever enabled the Israeli side to narrate…” he said, in so many words. Laughter. And after that the audience waited on his words.

Enough for now. It was a fabulous night. We all left improved. The London Review of Books had extended the boundaries of knowledge, and freedom.