The Spectator

The Israel Lobby and the Second Holocaust Debate

An emblematic error in a controversial book.

Forgive me if I forgo the argument over whether The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the controversial new polemic from John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, should be called anti-Semitic.

Set aside David Duke’s enthusiastic endorsement of their thesis as vindication for his ravings. Set aside the fact that the book, in its account of the insidious influence of supporters of Israel, calls to mind the fantastical, string-pulling Jewish conspiracy for world domination one finds in that century-old fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And set aside Eliot A. Cohen’s powerfully argued case for the use of the word anti-Semitic with regard to Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument. (The piece, a Washington Post op-ed published in 2006, was titled, unequivocally, “Yes, It Is Anti-Semitic.”)

As the editor of an anthology of essays on the subject ( Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism), I’ve devoted considerable thought to this issue, and in this case I believe the debate about the use of the word anti-Semitism has become a distraction, a red herring. One that devolves into semantics rather than substance. And so, in this instance, I’m anti-semantic.

To me, the real problem is not whether The Israel Lobby pleases this Grand Kleagle or that, or the one-sidedness of its depiction of Israel and its supporters, so much as the profound failure of the moral imagination that the book reflects. A failure to connect with the historical experience of Jews that motivates their support of Israel. A failure to empathize with the real danger the 6 million Jews of Israel face: the threat of a second Holocaust.

It is in this light that I’d like to take up what I regard as an emblematic error in the book that involves its allusion to me and my views on the second Holocaust question, an error that I believe is a window into that failure of the moral imagination.

In fairness, I should say that when I called the error to the attention of the publishers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and editors of the book, they brought it to the attention of the authors, who responded by examining the evidence, swiftly acknowledging my “legitimate concerns,” and agreeing to correct the error in all future printings of the book.

While it doesn’t undo the damage of their initial inattentiveness, preserved in the first printing, and it doesn’t obviate the many disagreements I still have with the authors, I must say that correcting the error does reflect an ethos of responsibility in scholars and publishers that is all too rare, I’ve found.

Before getting deeper into my personal perspective on the controversy, let me summarize, for those unfamiliar with it, the thrust of The Israel Lobby.

Mearsheimer and Walt, professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, first laid out their thesis in a 2006 essay in the London Review of Books: They accused the “Israel lobby” of having a “stranglehold” on the U.S. Congress, much to the detriment of our foreign policy.

In their just-published book, as Ira Stoll points out in the New York Sun, Mearsheimer and Walt have dropped the word stranglehold. (One wonders why. Is it because they felt it was inaccurate or because it suggested, too obviously, a sinister Protocols of Zion-like mentality?)

But if they’ve dropped the vampiric word, they haven’t dropped the vampiric implication. The new book suggests that the lobby for the Jewish state—unlike the lobby for, say, ethanol—is not just another successful interest group but somehow illegitimate because of its success, and that its influence on American policy has become so powerful and malign that no one dares challenge it (except, well, them, and a good number of Jews).

Despite their many caveats, one comes away from the book feeling that the authors—who subscribe to the “realist” school of foreign policy, which subordinates moral questions in international affairs to considerations of power—believe that the world rightfully dislikes the Israeli regime. They describe Israel as brutally oppressive (unlike, say, our heavily subsidized Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and argue that Israel’s justified unpopularity makes our support of it—our support of the closest thing to a liberal democracy in the Middle East—a liability our strategic interests can no longer afford.

Why would Americans be so foolish as to act against their own interests? In Mearsheimer and Walt’s account, it is the ruthless power of the American Israel lobby—spearheaded by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee—that has clouded our eyes, shut down debate, and caused us to align ourselves with this unpopular nation.

Eliot A. Cohen characterized the double standard of the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis in this fashion:

“The authors dismiss or ignore past Arab threats to exterminate Israel, as well as the sewer of anti-Semitic literature that pollutes public discourse in the Arab world today. The most recent calls by Iran’s fanatical—and nuclear weapons-hungry—president for Israel to be “wiped off the map” they brush aside as insignificant. There is nothing here about the millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has poured into lobbying and academic institutions. … West Bank settlements get attention; terrorist butchery of civilians on buses or in shopping malls does not. To dispute their view of Israel is not to differ about policy but to act as a foreign agent.”

However true this summary may be, I would rather focus on what I’ve called the book’s failure of the moral imagination, one that can be seen encapsulated in that emblematic factual error.

The error occurs on Page 192, a page in which I am counterposed against Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, with the help of a misleadingly truncated—now corrected—quote from something I’d written back in 2002 on the possibility of a “second Holocaust” occurring in the state of Israel.

It was back then that I came upon a line from Philip Roth’s 1993 novel Operation Shylock. I had been writing about the world’s indifference to suicide bomb butchery in Israel and its complacence about the more dangerous long-range threat of “a nuclear weapon detonated in Tel Aviv,” either delivered by missile or smuggled in by terrorists.

It was something not inconceivable then, and far easier to imagine now. In addition to Ahmadinejad and his threats to wipe Israel off the map (which many have interpreted as genocidal, not merely metaphorical, as the naïve prefer to believe), consider this June 27, 2007, comment by a prominent editor of a London Arab newspaper: “If the Iranian missiles strike Israel—by Allah, I will go to Trafalgar Square and dance with delight.”

Second Holocaust. It’s a phrase uttered in Roth’s novel by a Rothian doppelgänger who calls himself “the Diasporist” because he believes the true locus of Jewish culture and identity is in exile, and who believes a “second Holocaust” is the likely end result of the ingathering of Jews in Israel, a concentration that makes a second Holocaust all too easy to accomplish.

And so, back in 2002 when I wrote about the grim realities in the Holy Land, I raised the possibility that if things continued on the deadly path they were on, Jews in Israel faced a real threat: “a second Holocaust.”

The use of this phrase caused an uproar in some circles, with Leon Wieseltier among those who sneered at it, at me, and at other Jews for being too worked up about it all. After all, he argued, in an essay titled “Hitler Is Dead” (subscription required), there was no threat to us, to Jews in America. Indeed Wieseltier giddily crowed that American Jews “are the luckiest Jews who ever lived.”

It is a curiously narrow definition of luck that focuses solely on our own present moment of American well-being (a sense I’m unable to share, perhaps because I’m unable to escape the memory of Hitler’s Holocaust or the impending perils of Jews in Israel). Leon’s doing fine, feeling good and lucky—don’t spoil his mood.

And besides, went Wieseltier’s Pollyanna screed, the Jews of Israel had nothing to worry about because they had a “spectacular [nuclear] deterrent,” sufficient to keep the neighbors from getting any ideas. Alas, this grandiloquent boast ignored the way deterrence had radically departed from the bipolar Cold War model. An example being the prominent Iranian mullah who, back in 2001, spoke blithely of what he said was Iran’s willingness to sustain a nuclear exchange with Israel. While Iran might lose millions, he reasoned, the Jews of Israel would be utterly wiped out and there would be a billion-plus Muslims left alive. When people seek martyrdom the threat of death is not a deterrent.

In The Israel Lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt hold Wieseltier up as their kind of Jew: “A deeply committed defender of Israel,” but well-behaved, non-“inflammatory.” They contrast Wieseltier with those they regard as too outspoken, badly behaved Jews such as myself who overstate the danger they perceive and whom they portrayed—by means of a disingenuous use of my quote—as apocalyptically irrational.

(Despite Mearsheimer and Walt’s original misrepresentation of my words, it would make me far more upset if I had earned their approval the way Wieseltier has. I should point out that, to his credit, Wieseltier has written critically about Mearsheimer and Walt, and so it’s hard to imagine his being pleased with the gold star they pin on his attack on his fellow Jews.)

By now, I am not the only one who has written about the potential for a second Holocaust. It has gone from a marginalized to a virtually mainstream concern among those in touch with the grim reality of the situation. The Israeli historian Benny Morris, lauded elsewhere by Mearsheimer and Walt for his anti-Zionist historical revisionism, recently published an essay in the Jerusalem Post titled “The Second Holocaust Will Be Different.” (“Different” in that it will take six seconds or six minutes for a bomb or bombs detonated in Tel Aviv to kill millions of Jews, while it took Hitler six years to kill that many.)

Even realists have to acknowledge that a second Holocaust has grown nearer rather than further since I wrote about it in 2002, especially with the dual ascension of Ahmadinejad and Hamas, whose charter explicitly calls for the murder of Jews, not merely the destruction of the Jewish state.

Still, the Wieseltier sneer at American Jews resonated with some at the time, and my use of the phrase second Holocaust stirred outrage among others. It was almost as if by attempting to forbid the use of the phrase one could somehow wish away the thing itself. In contrast to Holocaust denial—it’s so awful it can’t have happened—this was second Holocaust denial—it’s too awful; therefore it never will happen again.

There was no doubt, however, in my essay on the possibility of a second Holocaust, that I was writing about a second Holocaust in the state of Israel. But in the initial edition of The Israel Lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt distort my quote, truncating it and using a misleading context to make it seem as though I believe there is about to be a second Holocaust in America!

They use this gross misrepresentation to make a case that the insidious Israel lobby has whipped up an irrational climate of fear—for themselves—on the part of American Jews. They quote several American Jews talking about a rise in anti-Semitism here in America and then quote me saying, “There is likely to be a second Holocaust.” Period. End quote.

In context it is inescapable: They make it seem that I believe there is going to be a Holocaust in America. Jews are going to be fed into the ovens of Cincinnati at any moment!

Please. It’s offensive to impute this view to me and a complete misrepresentation of what I wrote.

Even though they will be correcting it in future printings, most readers will see only the first edition, featuring this utterly distorted version of my work. I don’t believe it, nothing close to it, and I didn’t write it. And their misleading quotation makes me look fearful, overemotional, and irrational. Jewish stereotypes, anyone?

In my original essay, I didn’t imply a second Holocaust was going to happen the day after tomorrow, but that ignoring the warning signs, ignoring the precedent set by the way the world ignored the warning signs of Hitler’s Holocaust (when not actively facilitating it) made it more likely to happen in the future.

Having set up a straw man, Mearsheimer and Walt proceed to use Lucky Leon to beat it to death by seizing on his claim that my (distorted) comment was an instance—or cause—of “ethnic panic” among Jews. (I found the use of ethnic condescending in its implicit contrast of allegedly unsophisticated Jews by contrast with elite Washington cosmopolitans.)

And—here’s the crux—it does not seem to occur to Mearsheimer and Walt that American Jews might be fearful not for themselves, but for their imperiled brethren in Israel. It apparently requires too much of a leap for them to make that connection. And that is what the moral imagination is about: the ability to make connections to the souls of other people, to imagine what it might be like for a people who had lost 6 million to be faced with daily threats to their existence—the threat of a second Holocaust—in the place where they sought refuge. Otherwise, without a moral imagination, one construes the Israel lobby as merely about power and self-aggrandizement.

It seems to me there are many Jews and Israelis who have the moral imagination to be distressed by the plight of the Palestinians. However, Mearsheimer and Walt neglect the fact that Israeli Jews and American supporters of Israel might be motivated by historical memory. By the way the world stood by and allowed the slaughter of 6 million Jews by Hitler. And by the way the current climate of demonizing Israel, and delegitimizing it by means of a double standard, sets the stage for the world to stand by once again, with a “well they sort of deserved it” shrug, when a second Holocaust looms.

The inability to understand this, what’s been called the “existential threat” Israelis face, makes it seem as if Jews—as the stereotype has it—take malicious delight in imposing onerous restrictions on Palestinians. Restrictions designed to protect themselves against those who shelter and abet the murderers of women and children in marketplaces. This is the double standard at work: Jews are somehow more wicked in their desire—and the means they chose—to survive when it forces them to make unwelcome choices.

It would seem to me that those who are untroubled by the prospect of a second Holocaust, to the point of ridiculing concern about it and demonizing the actions taken to prevent it (and this includes quite a few Jews), are engaging in a morally defective form of denial. To view the words of the Israel lobby as a more pernicious force in the world than the deeds of the exterminationists who target Israel is, I was going to say, beyond belief. But alas, it’s not, because it’s happened before.

As Omer Bartov, the widely respected historian, wrote in the New Republic (yes, the New Republic) in 2004, speaking of contemporary Jew-haters such as those who wrote the exterminationist language in the Hamas charter: “These are people who mean what they say.” And “there are precedents for this.”

Precedents: The world’s willingness to permit one Holocaust gives cause for concern that it will stand by, if not enable, another.

On the cover of the New Republic—almost as if deliberately counterposing it to Wieseltier’s “Hitler Is Dead” piece—the magazine billed Bartov’s article: “Hitler is dead, Hitlerism lives on.”

Exactly my point in my “second Holocaust” piece. It demonstrates how unbalanced things have become that one has to make an argument in favor of opposing Hitlerism, its goals and potential consequences (i.e., a second Holocaust). That one has to make the point that opposing Hitlerism is not the parochial concern of Jews alone or their allegedly insidious lobby, that opposing Hitlerism may even be more important, in fact, than opposing the Israel lobby, and should be the concern of all moral human beings. Just as preventing Darfur from becoming another Rwanda should be. What’s at stake is not just a failure of the moral imagination but of historical memory.

But I have a recommendation for Mearsheimer and Walt—and Wieseltier—indeed for all those who would like another view of the issues they raise: I’d recommend they read carefully Harvard professor Ruth Wisse’s recently published Jews and Power, which demonstrates the kind of insights that a brilliant, historically conscious scholar can bring to this question. Wisse’s book doesn’t treat the idea of Jews having power as something necessarily threatening. She suggests that Jews with power are nothing to panic about and can offer something unique and beneficial to both Jews and the world.