[Mearsheimer and Walt] share with Jimmy Carter that ability to call forth a rather unfortunate habit among sections of America’s liberal punditocracy, in which sharp and fundamental criticisms of Israel must be discredited and squashed, even at the cost of the cool reason for which the pundits in question are usually known. To put it unkindly, when Israel is under the spotlight, many liberal commentators feel compelled to embarrass themselves in its defense.
I noticed this phenomenon last year when Jimmy Carter made the entirely valid comparison between Israel’s West Bank regime and the apartheid system that prevailed in South Africa until 1994. That prompted Michael Kinsley — a well-known and generally smart liberal pundit — to denounce Carter’s comparison in an op-ed that only served to show how little he knew about either the Middle East or apartheid South Africa. Clearly, though, the idea that Israel was committing crimes equivalent to apartheid clearly made Kinsley so uncomfortable that he felt compelled to blurt out something — anything, really, to negate Carter, and make the discomfort he caused go away. (I critiqued his lame response to Carter in an earlier post.)
This phenomenon is reflective of a trend that has been confirmed to me anecdotally dozens of times, both in the U.S. and at home in South Africa, where some Jewish liberals of faultlessly progressive politics on every other issue turn into raving tribal belligerents of the Ariel Sharon hue when the conversation turns to Israel.
Karon takes on David Remnick's confounding snipery in last week's New Yorker:
In response to Mearsheimer and Walt, New Yorker editor Remnick offers a fresh specimen of the denial pathology.
What is most strking about his piece, however, is that it is more of a kvetch, designed to discredit M&W in the eyes of New Yorker readers, than a serious engagement with their argument.
While denying that M&W are anti-Semites, Remnick nonetheless questions the bona fides of their intervention. His message to his readers is, don’t worry about what these guys are saying, they’re just grinding an axe. Wink. “Taming the influence of lobbies, if that is what Mearsheimer and Walt desire, is a matter of reforming the lobbying and campaign-finance laws,” but he suggests that, intead, the authors are a product of a polarized political moment, reducing all ills to a single cause — the Israel lobby. But Remnick hasn’t honestly engaged with their arguments aside from clucking over the settlements: Does Remnick agree, for example, that the U.S. should leave Israel no choice but to withdraw its West Bank settlements, by threatening to cut off the spigot if it doesn’t stop and reverse its colonization of the West Bank? Should the U.S. not use its considerable power over Israel to march it back to its 1967 borders? That, really, is what’s at issue here.
But he’s substantially correct in challenging the M&W idea that the lobby is singularly responsible for policing America’s public discourse on Israel. After all, nobody asked Remnick to write these pieces. Nor did anyone tell Kinsley to try and shoot down Jimmy Carter’s apartheid argument. Just as important as challenging the Israel lobby is drawing attention to the deep-rooted tropes of knee-jerk defensiveness in sections of the liberal-Jewish intelligentsia that allows them to avert their eyes and cling to fantasy when Israel is an agent of oppression.
Indeed. Just as the U.S.-Israel special relationship is an anomaly in terms of Mearsheimer and Walt's realist model, so, I think, reflexive support for Israel is an anomaly in the worldview of many otherwise liberal pundits. Even recognizing that opinions and degrees of support vary among this group, I don't think there's any question that the general and continuing failure of the liberal punditocracy to deal honestly with the consequences of the U.S.'s unquestioning support for the Israeli occupation is a critical component of the lobby's efforts to keep that support coming.
UPDATE: In regard to the broader mainstream media's role in maintaining a state of denial about the Israeli occupation, last Tuesday the Washington Post ran an editorial offering Israel's detainee policy as a model for how the U.S. could "fight terrorism without sacrificing due process." I'm at a loss to really convey the Alice in Wonderland quality of the Post's description of the various rights and privileges enjoyed by Palestinian detainees, which is utterly at odds with the vast majority of reportage on the subject. The "due process" afforded Palestinians, who are rounded up on the flimsiest charges and whose detention can be renewed indefinitely, is so superficial as to be meaningless. There are literally thousands of Palestinian men who spent the better part of their young adulthoods in Israeli detention, essentially for the crime of being a Palestinian nationalist. Do you think this has made them less radical, or more radical? (Unfortunately, I think Israel's detainee policy already does serve as a model for the U.S.) But hey, it's in the Washington Post, so it must be true.
Ironically, or maybe just sadly, on the same day, the Post published this story, entitled "Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach." Heh.