Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Emblematic Error of Mearsheimer and Walt - A Failure of Moral Imagination

In following the progression of interest and enthusiasm for Mearsheimer & Walt's book "The Israeli lobby" I once noted that M&W are assaulting Israel on two fronts: One, that there is no pragmatic interest for US to support it; two, that there is no moral basis for supporting Israel. That is, even if there were some benefit to the US in supporting Israel, it is undone by the absence of moral justification. They are actually covering all the bases in presenting their case for cutting Israel loose.

I find their second argument much more egregious and dangerous than the first. Because in order to make a moral case, they resort to selectivity, lacunae and distortions in presenting Israel's conflict vis a vis the Arabs.

Anthony Julius, in his review of the book, observed:

"[I]t is written about Jews, but with a cold-heartedness that cannot altogether be attributed to scholarly objectivity. Jewish pain, Jewish suffering, does not resonate with Mearsheimer and Walt. And in the book’s preface, the authors describe their experiences in writing the paper that preceded the book in language that comes too close to the antisemitic trope of Jewish power over the media."

For M&W , Israel is an obstacle for American easy schmoozing with the ayatollahs and the oiled Arab countries. Therefore, it is better for America if Israel did not exist. However, since they cannot claim that calculated interest trumps humanitarianism, they then go on to cut the humanitarian solicitude that one people owes another under threat of annihilation. They tell the people of conscience: Your solicitude is unwarranted for this is a bad, evil, wicked country. No tears or compunction should be extended to them.

If you read history, you will find that any great genocide, massacre or atrocity was preceded by a period of intense persuasion of this kind. It is meant to harden people's hearts from considering the terrible consequences of their own indifference or complicity, to neutralize the voice of man-to-man compassion.

Ron Rosenbaum, in Slate, here, seems to agree with my own thoughts about the book, which is reassuring, to say the least, for reasons he specifies all too pragmatically in his article. He also takes Anthony Julius's core critique and fleshes it out:

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.


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.


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