Which is why when Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard's John F.,While the United States has laws protecting our freedom of speech, people do not always feel that they can speak freely. Indeed, when the subject of Israel comes up, there is a noticeable lack of critical dialogue.
Which is why when Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer published a piece this spring that was critical of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the paper caused quite a stir as it sizzled through academia.
Walt recently spoke at Emerson's annual Honors Lecture to discuss this piece, titled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," which was originally published in The London Review of Books this spring. The paper argues that a loose coalition of pro-Israel organizations have a disproportionate amount of influence on U.S. foreign policy to the detriment of American and Israeli interests.
But Walt's lecture was more than just a discussion of international politics; it was also about the importance of open dialogue, something that is all too often lacking in discussions about American policy as it relates to Israel. Potential critics of Israel's policies feel pressured to restrain themselves.
"I believe that a junior faculty member (i.e., someone without tenure) would be very reluctant to speak out on this subject" said Walt in an e-mail to The Beacon. "I've spoken with a number of younger scholars in the field of Middle East studies, and all of them said they had consciously avoided discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict so long as they did not have tenure."
One reason for this is that even the measured, fair-minded critics of Israeli policy are met with vicious attacks.
"When you write about this subject and you're critical of Israeli policy or critical of the US-Israel relationship, you are invariably going to be called an anti-Semite," Mearsheimer told The Nation after the release of the paper.
And sure enough, as the paper made its way through the academic establishment, vicious attacks came en masse, as the authors predicted.
Within weeks, Alan Dershowitz drafted a 44-page response to the paper, comparing the paper's contents to the opinions of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. "In essence, the working paper is little more than a compilation of old, false, and authoritatively discredited charges dressed up in academic garb," Deshowitz said. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D- NY) said the authors were "entitled to their stupidity" and called the authors "anti-Semites."
The working paper, like all academic efforts, is subject to scrutiny. But these vicious ad hominem attacks only served to underscore one of the main points of the article.
"The nasty campaign waged against John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt has itself provided an excellent example of the bullying tactics used by the lobby and its supporters," said Michael Massing, contributing editor of The Columbia Journalism Review.
Walt told the audience at the Bill Bordy Theater that he was disappointed by the "predictable" attacks. "It's done to intimidate people . a form of silencing," he said.
Walt and Mearsheimer are not critiquing the Israel Lobby from the left, or from the right, but rather as foreign policy "realists." They are not radicals or activists, but prominent scholars. They both support Israel's right to exist and her right to defend herself. And their points ought to penetrate mainstream debate.
Daniel Levy, former advisor to to the Israeli prime minister's office under Ehud Barak, said of the paper: "Their case is a potent one: that identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained via the impact of the Lobby in Washington."
It is to the credit of the Emerson College honors program, as well as Walt and Mearsheimer, for helping to facilitate this debate. And there are signs that some of these issues are finally getting attention. Walt and Mearsheimer are now working on a book about the Israel Lobby set to come out in 2007. The New York Times recently ran a two-part series on the state of the U.S./Israeli relationship and published another article reporting that Israeli documents indicate that "39 percent of the land held by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians."
The topic is indeed a complicated and sensitive one. This was on display at the lecture during a question-and-answer session, when a student said the paper "read like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an assertion Walt rightfully called "absurd."
But if any meaningful progress is to be made in the search for peace in the Middle East, it will require an open discussion about these issues-and it must include critical dialogue.