More on Thursday Night's Israel Lobby Debate in N.Y.

As I went downtown on the subway Thursday I wondered whether I wasn’t going to seem a fool for how excited I’d been in the days leading up to the debate. Then when I got there that selfconsciousness vanished, because the excitement was so palpable. The lines snaked all around Cooper Union. This had to do in part with the security measures to prevent anyone from blowing the place up, but more to do with the stormsurge of interest. All the tickets had been sold, and there were a couple hundred people on a line just to get extra seats. I had bought an extra ticket, and impetuously gave it to a girl on the line.

The hall was subterranean. You went down into one of the great spaces of New York, with arched wings of dressed brownstone going off the columns to the walls, and then the pleasure was the pleasure of intellectual seriousness. Later I learned that the Great Hall was the place where the NAACP and the women’s suffragists’ movement was born. I saw a great number of people I half-know, and it was evident that the ideas that Walt and Mearsheimer put forward are of tremendous interest to many serious people. Lewis Lapham was sitting behind me, Ham Fish was a row away. I saw Adam Shatz of the Nation, Michael Massing of NYRB, Mary Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, and so on. Even my wife had come. It’s hard to get her out.

Today I wonder how much of this debate I will remember years from now, and wonder if it won’t be the moment in which Rashid Khalidi gave Dennis Ross his microphone because Ross’s had failed, and then Ross said a little too smoothly he always tried to empower Palestinians, and Khalidi said, with a kind of ingenuousness, “I would give you the shirt off my back, but it’s too small.” LRB had, smartly, interspersed the two sides at the two tables; despite all the fighting, there was a feeling of community, sustained when Shlomo Ben-Ami stayed after the debate with his three “adversaries” to answer the unending questions from the hardcore.

The first half hour was spent attacking the scholarship of the LRB paper, then the next hour and a half was spent arguing about the dimensions of the lobby.

The waterboarding administered to Mearsheimer over “shoddy scholarship” seemed to me further proof of the existence of the “lobby.” The shortcomings in Mearsheimer and Walt’s paper are that they drew broad conclusions on the basis of scarce press reports about this or that scarcely-seen event, and so there was an element of supposition about their conclusions. But since when is reliance on published reports rather than on “original” research and interviews a disqualifier for publication? With some passion, and the feeling of being marginalized, Shlomo Ben-Ami attacked Mearsheimer for leaving Israel out of the paper as a living entity. He’s right. But 1, the paper’s not about Israel. And 2, more to the point, why does this work have to attain such a high bar, in terms of breadth—the quality Ben-Ami saw as lacking—in order to broach the issue? I guess the paper had to be perfect to be published. And that’s the problem. Nothing is perfect, so nothing can be published. When in reality, democratic debates are filled with speculation and interpretation. In a word, intellectual freedom. The discourse has none of that here.

Two friends of mine faulted Mearsheimer for reading from testimonies about the lobby rather than offering a synthesis. Having seen him a few times, I thought he was back on his heels, yet it is understandable to me. He was under attack from the first second, in Yankee Stadium no less, in the first open debate of his ideas. He was without his co-author, Steve Walt (who had important family obligations in Boston), and Walt, of Harvard, knows the court of the east coast in ways that Mearsheimer, who is more of a tough outsider, does not. The most vicious charges were leveled at Mearsheimer–you are alleging a “cabal,” Martin Indyk kept saying–and yet the author wasn’t given any more time than anyone else in which to respond.

After the debate a friend of mine confronted Indyk in the hallway outside. “I was leaving and couldn’t resist giving him a piece of my mind,” my friend reports. “I’ve never laid eyes on the guy before, except on television occasionally. I told him that his vicious and snide remarks had backfired with the audience and that if he had treated his adversaries with respect, he would have fared better. He looked rather taken aback and vanished into an elevator.”

Let’s dwell on the “cabal” charge. Indyk was saying that Mearsheimer was guilty of anti-Semitic stereotype. Tony Judt blasted Indyk when he said that social scientists are called upon to observe reality, not decide whether what they’re observing fills some bigot’s ideas or not. Both Khalidi and Judt would say that the paper did not go far enough. Again I’ll refer to Judt’s bold statement about the NYT Op-Ed page requiring him to state he was Jewish when he wrote in support of Walt and Mearsheimer last April. This is tragic. If you think that only 1.3 percent of Americans are allowed to speak out on this issue—the lobby, whatever it is—we’re in bad shape. I know: the Holocaust; if non-Jews express themselves, the next thing you know the Jews will be kicked out of Century and Cosmos Club and the U.S. Senate and there will be camps. Our discourse is being held hostage by these old ways of thinking.

Khalidi made a similar contribution, saying how rare it was for Palestinian voices to be included in public debate. And if Walt had been there, I imagine this confessional spirit might have freed him to tell of the special pressures that have come to bear on him at Harvard, the financial blackmails to the institution that have arisen from his speaking his mind (I mentioned these threats in the Nation last spring), and the ways in which his own burgeoning career, at 51, has been potentially punctured by his stance.

We’re not talking about a cabal. We’re talking about a thousand acts of devotion by American Jews who care about Israel and have most of them not been there. This simply cannot be divorced from an understanding of the culture of power, and the role of Jews in the establishment. Ross and Indyk were two of several Jews on the Clinton team negotiating at Camp David. (According to Clayton Swisher’s book, The Truth About Camp David, there was only one Arab-American in the big team.) This morning on Meet the Press, the two Ohio Senate contenders, Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown, argued all about terrorism, and the word Israel came up once, as a source of grievance, but there was no mention of the Occupied Territories, let alone the denial of democracy to over 1 million Palestinians there. As for my commenters who talk about the clash of civilizations, I agree with you, Islam needs to break on through to modernity; but if you think we can ignore these questions, you’re nuts. And as Meet the Press demonstrates, our leadership cannot discuss them openly. American presidents have been against the settlements but done nothing really to stop them. And Congress is bought and paid for by AIPAC, a point that even Indyk and Ross seemed to concede, even as they claimed that an American President could act with complete freedom.

I repeat a metaphor from my last blog. It’s the elephant in the room, and here are 6 blind men coming out of the room, and telling you what they know about it….

That would be my takeaway from the debate: Our journalism is broken. There are 100 books about Iraq out now, from people who have been there. There is not 1 book out about the Israel lobby. Walt and Mearsheimer essentially performed a journalistic function, and did what journalists would call a clip job—assembling previously-published reports before making large conclusions. A basic function of democratic society is completely kaput here. I did a front page magazine story for the NYT on the gun lobby. Never has there been one on the Israel lobby. There aren’t TV documentaries on it; 60 Minutes and Ted Koppel are not trying to pin down Abe Foxman about his mission or Malcolm Hoenlein about whether he called Clinton during Camp David, let alone going near AIPAC. Our society’s lens is simply not turned on these institutions in anything like the way it ought to be.