When things go bad, blame the Jews. This is the chorus with many verses, sung often throughout history. The latest verse, reverberating now through the media and the faculty lounges, was written by two professors who have discovered that Israel, which shares certain enemies with the United States, cultivates friendships in America.
The professors, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard, have stirred accusations of anti-Semitism (as well as stirring up certifiable anti-Semites) with an essay in the London Review of Books called "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." Angry exchanges that had been limited to the radical fringe on campuses and in radical mosques moved front and center. The professors, with respected scholarly credentials, accuse a shadowy Jewish lobby of manipulating U.S. policy in the Middle East to favor Israel even as it runs against the moral and strategic interests of the United States.
They concede that "the Lobby's activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the 'Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.'" They describe something more like Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bubbarosity in the White House. The Jewish conspiracy, as the professors see it, is connected by spectacularly unlikely links: the editorial pages of the Washington Times and The New York Times, the New Republic and the Weekly Standard; think tanks as different as the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute; members of both the Clinton and Bush administrations; and Democrats and Republicans left and right in Congress.
How could anyone get a word in edgewise when a lobby like this holds its noisy plotting sessions? "If this lobby is so powerful," asks Dennis Ross, onetime U.S. negotiator in the Middle East, "how come every major Arab arms sale that they opposed they lost on?"
The history of blaming the Jews is a long one. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, anti-Semitism emerged to stay over the next 16 centuries. When an earthquake followed by a hurricane struck Rome in 1021, Jews were blamed. Several were tortured, confessed and burned. When cholera, the Black Death, decimated Europe in the 14th century, Jews, who of course died along with Christians, were blamed for spreading the plague.
"The experience of the Jews during the plague was a precursor of the modern scapegoat role and the secular 'Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,'" write Paul Grosser and Edwin Halperin in "Anti-Semitism: The Causes and Effects of a Prejudice."
Jews caught a break for a few years after the Holocaust, when international sympathy embraced them and the United Nations voted them a homeland in Israel. American Jews eagerly supported the new state, but not just the Jews. Harry Truman, a church-going Baptist, responded to popular American public opinion and recognized the new state of Israel within minutes of its official founding. Israel, socialist but a democracy in a part of the world where democratic values were unknown, was widely perceived as an important ally of the United States during the Cold War. For a while, even the Muslims were mellow. But the Islamic world soon grew hostile.
Now that the war in Iraq is not going well, and terrorism formerly aimed only at Israel has spread across Europe and into North America, the scapegoat is called out of retirement, fluffed up and fashioned in terms of contemporary politics. But earlier slurs echo across the landscape. Henry Ford blamed Jewish financiers for starting World War I to profit from dealing with both sides. Charles Lindbergh described the Jews as "war agitators" before World War II. Franklin Roosevelt's enemies called the New Deal the "Jew Deal."
The essay that set off the latest contretemps over "the Jewish lobby" was published in London, where it received a more receptive audience than here. Anti-Semitism has always enjoyed a certain intellectual currency in the ruling class. There were nudges, smiles and knowing winks early in the Iraq war when the French ambassador amused a fashionable dinner party with his fecal adjective to describe Israel as "that . . . little country." Americans, particularly the church-going middle class, generally appreciate their shared common values with the Israelis.
Debate, robust debate, over foreign policy is not only fair, but necessary. Criticizing Israeli policy, as many Jews do, is legitimate, just as criticizing U.S. policy is legitimate. But the professors, who cite criticism of their work as proof of the existence of "the Jewish lobby," should have known that it would encourage the recycling of old canards and invite authentic anti-Semites out of the shadows.