By The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine CJPIP
When the Chicago Council on Global Affairs cancelled a scheduled talk by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the topic of their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the Council was accused of capitulating to pressure from The Israel Lobby itself. The Council’s President Marshall Bouton denied that the action was due to external pressure, or even that a cancellation had, in fact, happened. Bouton says a Council event with Mearsheimer and Walt will occur at a date in the future, but that the authors will be joined in a panel format by other speakers with contrasting views.
The Chicago Council on Global Relations is not the first institution to experience the force of controversy generated by criticism of Israeli policy and the U.S. government’s long-standing support of it. Nor is the Council alone in trying to calculate how to maneuver around the heated controversy that these topics generate.
Less than two months after the cancellation of Mearsheimer and Walt’s talk at the Chicago Council, administrators at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, cancelled a scheduled talk by the Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The cancellation came, university administrators explained, because some past statements by Tutu about Israeli policy were “hurtful to some members of the Jewish community.” Julie Swiler, an employee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, was consulted by university administrators, along with a few rabbis teaching within St. Thomas’ Center for Jewish-Christian Learning. Swiler explained, “I think there’s a consensus in the Jewish community that [Tutu’s] words were offensive.”(1)
Swiler was referring to remarks allegedly made by Tutu comparing Israel to Hitler. In the weeks after the University of St. Thomas cancelled Tutu’s appearance, it came to light that those comments attributed to Tutu were a fabrication. In paraphrasing remarks by Tutu in Boston conference, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, distorted Tutu’s remarks in a ZOA press release.(2) The distorted version worked its way into the media and, in the words of the Jewish Daily Forward, “over time it acquired the status of a factual account.”(3)
Like many of the most visible organizations that claim to represent American Jewish interests and to speak for American Jews, the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas is, among other things, a pro-Israel advocacy organization. Its “Stand Up For Israel” project exists for the purpose of “advocating for peace and security for Israel through education, information and community action.”(4) Jewish community organizations like the JCRC, along with numerous conservative and Christian Zionist organizations, form what Mearsheimer and Walt call The Israel Lobby. According to Mearsheimer and Walt, as well as the many sources they cite in their research, The Lobby acts as an intimidating and coercive force pursuing a mission to suppress criticism of Israeli policy.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s study of The Israel Lobby has been met with both cheers and sharp criticism. Even many critics of the book’s methodology praise the authors for having broached an important, underexamined topic. In a largely critical review, Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
“One must also commend the two authors for their decision to focus on an important topic that has not received the attention it merits. The politics of U.S. policy in the Middle East is a subject that is not well understood. Pro-Israel organizations, political action committees (PACs), and individuals do play significant roles in the U.S. political process, and they do influence politicians and journalists. Given the importance of the Middle East in U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, these actors and their influence should be explored. Even if The Israel Lobby is in the end not as helpful as they hope, Mearsheimer and Walt have admirably and courageously helped to start a much-needed conversation on a controversial and combustible topic. There should be no taboos among students of U.S. foreign policy—no questions that should not be asked, no issues that should be considered too hot to handle, no relationships or alliances, however deep or enduring, that should not be regularly and searchingly reviewed.”(5)
Naturally, the taboos that constrain discussion of U.S. foreign policy affect non-governmental organizations as well. Most organizations—whether in the media, education, business, or nonprofit sectors—are risk averse, seeking to avoid controversy and internal dissension. The consequences of negative publicity can be disastrous for organizations reliant on subscriptions, advertising revenues, financial contributions, and sales. While some censorship is, indeed, externally imposed, proactive self-censorship also occurs to avoid the controversy that embroils individuals and organizations airing views critical of Israeli policy.
In the two episodes mentioned here, in which forums featuring speakers known to be critical of Israeli policy were cancelled, the host institutions deny unwelcome intrusion or pressure by outsiders. Certainly there are many reasons for institutions to deny intimidation even when it exists. Institutions vulnerable to external pressure would not wish to risk further retribution by naming its source. Institutions promoting themselves as bastions of academic freedom and open public discourse would be loath to admit that they capitulated to outside pressure from special interest groups.
The stated rationale for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ cancellation of the Mearsheimer and Walt talk changed dramatically in the weeks thereafter. An early rationale, reported by Mearsheimer himself, was provided during a phone call from Council President Bouton to Mearsheimer, reported in the New York Times. Walt and Mearsheimer related the contents of that conversation in a four-page letter to the board of the Council: “On July 24, Council President Marshall Bouton phoned one of us (Mearsheimer) and informed him that he was canceling the event,” and that his decision “was based on the need ‘to protect the institution.’ He said that he had a serious ‘political problem,’ because there were individuals who would be angry if he gave us a venue to speak, and that this would have serious negative consequences for the council.”(6)
In more recent statements about the cancellation, however, Bouton doesn’t attribute the Council’s action to a desire to avoid angering individuals hostile to Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis or to possibly negative consequences for the Council in allowing them to be heard. “The Council had an obligation,” Bouton wrote in response to inquiries about the cancellation, “to deepen the discussion rather than simply to add to the heated atmosphere that was developing around the book’s release.” The panel format used by the council for controversial topics, Bouton says, allows the Council to “contribute to the public debate in a more inclusive fashion that brings context and contending viewpoints together in the same event.” Members are attracted to the Council, Bouton continues, because “we present the important issues in a way that is designed to inform thoughtful discussion, not simply to provoke.(7) [emphasis added]
A letter-writing campaign protesting the University of St. Thomas’ cancellation of Desmond Tutu’s appearance was initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace’s Muzzlewatch Project and generated 2,700 letters in a matter of days. [The JVP campaign is widely seen as instrumental in prompting the university’s president, Father Dennis Dease, to reverse the decision later and reinvite Archbishop Tutu.] JVP created Muzzlewatch (www.muzzlewatch.org) in January, 2007, because incidents such as the cancellations at the Chicago Council and the University of St. Thomas are not isolated events, but part of a much larger trend of censorship and self-censorship. Muzzlewatch tracks efforts to stifle open debate about US-Israeli foreign policy. Groups like JVP work to counteract the perception that high-profile Israel-advocacy groups represent all American Jews and to illuminate the dangers of this broad pattern in which people critical of Israeli human rights violations are attacked and silenced.
Is there a problem with the University of St. Thomas’ president trying to avoid hurting the Jewish community? Is Council president Bouton in error when he seeks to not provoke? Jewish Voice for Peace co-directors Plitnick and Surasky see hazard in the institutional self-censorship that follows from these apparently good intentions: “Dease seems to have been motivated by a genuine desire to avoid hurting Minnesota’s Jewish community. However, he ended up…making a wrong and unethical decision…”(8)
When organizations are motivated by a determination to avoid controversy and negative publicity, they are easy targets for pro-Israel advocacy organizations and individuals who work tirelessly to generate controversy and negative publicity. Well-intentioned persons wary of being accused of being hurtful, provocative, or anti-Semitic are easily manipulated and exploited by pro-Israel advocacy organizations and individuals that are expert at whipping up orchestrated expressions of hurt—at being provoked—often baselessly. When institutions use the response from pro-Israel advocacy organizations as a gauge of the controversial nature of information, they leave it to those organizations to determine what is controversial, provocative, and hurtful.
What do we, as a society, lose by allowing, year after year, the stifling of open, critical discussion of Israeli policy and U.S. support for it?
Some observers see tremendous risk for Jews. The Jewish Daily Forward warns of “the shrinking credibility and good name of American Jewish public advocacy.” Of “the supposedly bullying power of the Jewish lobby,” The Forward further warns, “we are following an old model of Jewish advocacy in a world where the rules have changed. We give free rein to our most alarmist instincts—defend Israel unquestioningly, accept on faith any accusation of antisemitism, believe the worst of everyone—and in so doing we permit the most extreme and cynical elements in our community to set our agenda.”(9)
Plitnick and Surasky see Dease’s misguided, although well-intentioned, cancellation of Tutu as “hurting Jews everywhere,” but also “harming hopes for a more-enlightened American attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”(10)
American organizations that are accused of anti-Israel bias are often forced to direct vast amounts of time and energy to public relations damage-control in response to orchestrated smear campaigns initiated by those seeking to suppress open discussion of U.S. and Israeli policy. The local hysteria generated by many of Israel’s American advocates is deafening and preoccupying. Meanwhile, the distant sounds of despair and rage from Palestinians—impoverished, isolated, brutalized, and facing relentless dispossession by Israeli occupation—are, by contrast, barely audible.
A recently-published study of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers by a psychologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem recounts numerous incidents of unprovoked violence and sadism toward Palestinians in the occupied territories, as reported by the soldiers who perpetrated them.(11) While the report is “provoking bitter controversy and has awakened urgent questions” in Israel, the report has gotten no attention in the U.S. The Palestinian experience exists apart from Israel’s and the world’s willingness to see and hear it. As Israel’s primary diplomatic and financial backer, the U.S., by its historic unwillingness to reckon and openly discuss the Palestinian experience of the Israeli occupation, creates grave consequences, not only for Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians, but for the world.
Juan Cole, the University of Michigan history professor who authors the Informed Comment blog, warns of these consequences. Referring to the IDF study, he writes, “The U.S. political elite and media that conceals the brutality of the Israeli occupation for sectional political gains are accomplices to this sadism, and their silence endangers the security of the United States. When we cannot understand why Arab audiences, who are perfectly aware of what the Israeli army has been doing to Palestinians for decades, are outraged, it leads us into policy mistakes in dealing with the Middle East.”(12)
University administrators, media professionals, religious leaders, public servants, and others who avoid the hot-button issue of Israel/Palestine for fear of hurting, provoking, or stirring up controversy should remember that the road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions. By suppressing free and open public discussion of an issue of major concern, we maintain a dangerous status quo in Israel/Palestine for which, as Americans, we are largely responsible. For how long will we prolong suffering and postpone peace?
-The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine (cjpip.org), based in Oak Park, Illinois, was founded in 2002 to develop and support activities that further the cause of peace and justice in Palestine and Israel. Steering Committee: Roxane Assaf, Jennifer Bing Canar, Dean Blobaum, Gerri Brauneis, Michael Levin, Rebekah Levin, Mark Pickus, Martha Reese, Janet Settle, Caren Levy Van Slyke
(1) Matt Snyders, “Put off by his controversial words on Israel, the University of St. Thomas snubs a Nobel Laureate: Banning Desmond Tutu,” Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, October 3, 2007. http://articles.citypages.com/2007-10-03/news/banning-desmond-tutu/
(3) “The Tutu Heave-Ho,” editorial, Jewish Daily Forward, October 10, 2007. www.forward.com/articles/11777/
(4) Website of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. www.minndakjcrc.org/
(5) Walter Russell Mead, “Jerusalem Syndrome,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007. www.foreignaffairs.org/20071101fareviewessay86611/walter-russell-mead/jerusalem-syndrome.html/
(6) Patricia Cohen, “Backlash Over Book on Policy for Israel,” New York Times. August 16, 2007 www.nytimes.com/2007/08/16/books/16book.html/
(7) Letter from Marshall Bouton, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, to the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, September 11, 2007.
(8) Mitchell Plitnick and Cecilie Surasky, “A disservice to Jews, with best intentions,” StarTribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota), October 10, 2007. www.startribune.com/562/story/1474498.html/
(9) “The Tutu Heave-Ho”
(10) Plitnick and Surasky
(11) Conal Urquhart, “Israel shaken by troops’ tales of brutality against Palestinians,” The Observer (UK), October 21, 2007. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2195924,00.html/
(12) Juan Cole, “The Sadism of the Israeli Occupation,” Informed Comment, October 21, 2007. www.juancole.com/2007/10/sadism-of-israeli-occupation.html