Last year, I agreed to speak to a Jewish youth group
about my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, and our opposition to Israel's
occupation. My talk was to follow one from a member of the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself "America's pro-Israel
A week before, a shaken program leader said the AIPAC
staffer had threatened to get the entire youth program's funding canceled if I
was allowed in the door. The threat worked, and, in disgust, they canceled the
Pundits will surely argue for years about professors
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's explosive new book, The Israel Lobby, which blames poor U.S. policy in the
Middle East on a loose network of individuals and pro-Israel advocacy groups.
But the book, and the response to it, opens up
another controversy: the stifling of debate about unconditional U.S. support
for Israeli policies.
Why is Israel's increasingly brutal 40-year
occupation of Palestinian land regularly debated in the mainstream media
abroad, including in Israel, but not here? And why is there an almost total
lack of discussion among presidential candidates about the dollars that
subsidize this occupation and the American diplomatic support that makes it
In a society built on the free exchange of ideas, as
Walt and Mearsheimer point out, one answer can be found by looking at the many
self-appointed gatekeepers, such as Abraham Foxman and the Anti-Defamation
League, or Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who use their Jewish identity
as both a shield and cudgel. They work diligently to silence those who question
ill-conceived policies of the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Non-Jewish critics, even former President Carter, are
denounced as anti-Semites. Special ire is reserved for Jewish dissenters, who
are branded as "self-hating" or "marginal," while Muslim
and Arab-Americans are easily smeared and even criminalized with charges of
Stunned by the stifling of dissent, we decided to
start a Web site, MuzzleWatch, to
track the incidents. Just as we launched, Stanford Middle East Studies
Professor Joel Beinin was disinvited from a speaking engagement at a high
school with just 24 hours' notice.
After an unprecedented campaign of outside
interference waged by Dershowitz, Professor Norman Finkelstein was refused
tenure by DePaul University because of his criticism of U.S.-Israeli policy.
Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj
is fighting a political campaign to deny her tenure at Barnard.
Even Walt and Mearsheimer, who are getting plenty of
exposure, couldn't have asked for better proof of their point that the lobby
works to stifle dissent when an embarrassed head of the Chicago Council on
Global Affairs told them that their scheduled speech was canceled. (They did
speak before the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth on Sept. 17.) This
was apparently because Foxman was not available that day to "balance"
(They had initially been booked by themselves. The
talk was not rescheduled.)
Many groups that started with the important work of
fighting real anti-Semitism now rely on anti-Semitism to insist that to show
one's love of Jews, one must offer uncritical support to Israel. They are
especially displeased by Jews who believe that enabling Israeli violations of
Palestinian human rights is not good for anyone.
Unless this atmosphere of intimidation is confronted,
Americans will continue to lack access to information and perspectives
necessary to formulate effective Middle East policies, virtually ensuring that
Israel and the United States will be at war for many years to come.
'The Israel Lobby': A podcast of Walt and
Mearsheimer's presentation is available at podcast.dfwworld.org/2007_09-17_The_Israel_Lobby.MP3
This article originally appeared in the Fort Worth
is communications director for the Oakland-based Jewish
Voice for Peace.