The Wrath of the Dersh

Some time back I was interviewing a prominent academic who was disturbed by American policy in the Middle East but said he didn’t want to stick his head up too high on the question. “Who wants to have Dershowitz coming after him?”

Good point. Dershowitz is brilliant and aggressive and intimidating. In their paper on the Israel lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt correctly identify The Dersh as an important part of the lobby. Because when anyone challenges the morality of our one-sided policy in the I/P world (Israel Palestine), Dersh is sure to land with both broad feet, hard and fast.

He’s done so again, in responding, on the Kennedy School website, to the Walt-Mearsheimer paper. His attack is emotional and forceful, accusing the authors of distortion and anti-semitism. And it’s wrong. He argues in essence, this paper is a neo-Nazi tract that twists evidence out of hatred for Jews and therefore must not be taken seriously. (In fact, as I’ve said before, Walt-Mearsheimer is a considered, provocative and heretical analysis that must be taken seriously…)

But let’s consider one of Dersh’s key points: Osama bin Laden couldn’t care less about the Palestinians.

Prior to September 11, Israel was barely on bin Laden’s radar.

Here he echoes a central claim of the Israel lobby, that the 9/11 attacks were about Saudi Arabia, Arab male social frustration, Arab dictatorship, Arab lack of opportunity– anything but American policy in I/P. And to some degree, the lobby is right. The hijackers apparently had a wide range of motivations, which historians will be parsing for a long time to come–about as long as they’re trying to figure out why the U.S. invaded Iraq!

The lie the lobby and The Dersh spread is that the unbalanced American policy in I/P had nothing to do with the attacks. When Osama bin Laden and his associates clearly were angry about the Palestinians. Here is Max Rodenbeck, in a thorough piece called “Their Master’s Voice,” about bin Ladenism in the New York Review of Books. (

… the notion of payback for injustices suffered by the Palestinians is perhaps the most powerfully recurrent in bin Laden’s speeches. It has become fashionable to assert that al-Qaeda’s attachment to the Palestinian cause is relatively recent, and has been cynical and deliberately manipulative. That is simply not true. As long ago as 1984, witnesses report bin Laden shunning American goods to protest American support of Israel.

Speaking just before the 2004 presidential elections, bin Laden himself voiced amazement that Americans, deceived, he supposed, by their government, had yet to understand that he had struck America because “things just went too far with the American-Israeli alliance’s oppression and atrocities against our people.” As he goes on to relate in some detail:

The events that made a direct impression on me were during and after 1982, when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon…. I still remember those distressing scenes: blood, torn limbs, women and children massacred…. The whole world heard and saw what happened, but did nothing. In those critical moments, many ideas raged inside me, ideas difficult to describe, but they unleashed a powerful urge to reject injustice and a strong determination to punish the aggressors.

Yes bin Laden is evil. No, we don’t let a madman dictate our policies. But the point is, when people ask, Why do they hate us? the answer must include the understanding, We’ve sided almost absolutely with an occupying power in a very morally ambiguous situation, Israel-Palestine.

And that’s the strongest evidence of the Israel lobby’s power. You cannot make this simple statement in the mainstream. Most significantly, the 9/11 Commission report on the attacks included not one word about Israel as a motivator for the hijackers. That is a true national disgrace: The official response to the most important event of our time, drafted by politicians, and it cannot honestly address a principal sore point in the Clash of Civilizations. Because the commission is afraid to raise questions about the evenhandedness of our policy and the Israel lobby. Afraid to bring down the Wrath of the Dersh. It’s time to free ourselves of this bugaboo.

The Wrath of the Dersh