Walt and Mearsheimer Rebut (and Humble) Their Critics

I’ve just gotten a copy of a 79-page paper called “Setting the Record Straight: A Response to Critics of ‘The Israel Lobby‘” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. The scholars began circulating the rebuttal privately in December but have not published it on-line, I gather, because they are working on a book about the lobby and are trying to keep some of their powder dry till publication. Nonetheless, the paper is getting around. I find it exciting, and will be referring to it in days to come.

On first reading, my chief response is (surprise) positive: the paper humanizes Walt and Mearsheimer, the voice is warmer and more intimate than their stunning original of last March. You have the feeling here of two minds struggling through a difficult subject. For instance, the authors say that it was former Harvard Dean Walt’s decision—not Harvard’s—to remove the Harvard logo from the on-line Kennedy School version of the original after newspapers began referring to the paper as “the Harvard study,” but that given the great symbolism attached to this gesture, it was a mistake, and illustrates the saying, no good deed goes unpunished.

The sense of intellectual engagement here is thrilling. The tone is, Here is what our critics have said, here’s our response. W&M itemize a wide range of critical arguments, and detail them, including the Forward’s assertion, “In Dark Times, Blame the Jews.” And while they don’t give an inch, really, the respectful debate they are pursuing ennobles them and honors the contributions of Benny Morris and even Alan Dershowitz—far more than Dershowitz, who slimed these guys, deserves. For instance, there is a shocking quote in here from Dershowitz on MS/NBC, saying that W&M “copied” their words from neo-Nazi websites. Thus vilified, some people would threaten to sue. These scholars take the argument on calmly. God bless America.

Something else that humanizes the document is the section at the end titled, “Our Mistakes.” O.K., a number of these are penny-ante, still the tone is humbling. “…there are places where our choice of words could have been clearer or more nuanced… although we went to some lengths to demonstrate that we harbor no animus towards Israel or its more ardent defenders in America, it is possible that some of our discussion did not make this point as forcefully as would have liked. First and foremost, we regret having capitalized the word ‘Lobby’ in our original article…” Etc.

The paper concludes with a moving statement about the controversy. The ferocity of the attacks “offers additional evidence of he lobby’s efforts to create a climate that discourages questioning of its actions, Israeli policies, or the U.S.-Israeli relationship. This situation is not healthy for American democracy.” Hear, hear.

But now the anger over their publication seems to be dissipating, and what they had hoped for is coming to pass: a discussion of the ideas on their merits. Myself, the March day that a friend first emailed me W&M’s paper and I read it through at my desk with my eyelids glued open was a great day. I had long felt constrained by the lobby, it had limited my work and freedom. W&M had a liberating effect.