War of Words Over Paper on Israel

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March 27

When “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” first appeared on the Web site of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government this month, the paper’s title page featured the globe and Harvard seal that make up the Kennedy School’s logo, and that routinely appear on papers posted there. If you download the paper now, however, you won’t find the logo on the PDF. The Kennedy school – with the authors’ permission – took the logo off, a sign of just how sensitive this paper has become.

Critics – led at Harvard by Alan Dershowitz and elsewhere by The New York Sun – are lobbing criticism after criticism at the paper, saying that it is bigoted, ignorant, stereotypical, uses material out of context, and borrows from hate-oriented Web sites. Defenders of the article, meanwhile, say that it is bringing attention to an important issue and that the reaction to the article demonstrates one of its key themes, which questions the logic of close ties between the United States and Israel and argues that a powerful pro-Israel lobby make its difficult to deviate from its views.

The article itself is certainly getting unusual attention for a scholarly work. (If you want to judge for yourself, but don’t have time for the full version, which is 82 pages counting footnotes, the authors have also published a shorter version in The London Review of Books.)

The authors of the controversial article are both well respected political scientists: Stephen M. Walt, who is academic dean and also holds an endowed chair in international relations at the Kennedy School, and John J. Mearsheimer, who holds a chair at the University of Chicago. Their article argues that the United States has hurt its own security by being too close to Israel, that Israel is not deserving of such support, and that pro-Israel lobbyists silence anyone who would question Israeli interests. The article uses “the Lobby” as a phrase to cover the activities of a number of groups that work to build support for Israel.

While not a major focus of the article, the piece touches on the state of campus debate about Israel and the Middle East. The article says that pro-Israel groups have increased their activities on campuses, and it specifically criticizes the David Project, which led criticism of Middle Eastern studies professors at Columbia University. Generally, the article says that while “the Lobby has gone to considerable lengths to insulate Israel from criticism on college campuses,” it has failed to do so because “academic freedom is a core value and because tenured professors are hard to threaten or silence.”

Since the article was published, it has been the subject of repeated articles and editorials in The New York Sun, a relatively small daily, but one with influence in neoconservative and media circles. Among the more embarrassing pieces there was one with the headline “David Duke Claims to Be Vindicated by a Harvard Dean,” which quoted the white supremacist as a fan of the new study, of which he said: “It is quite satisfying to see a body in the premier American university essentially come out and validate every major point I have been making.”

Joining the criticism on Friday was the Anti-Defamation League, which published an analysis of the article that called it an “amateurish and biased critique of Israel, American Jews and American policy.”

At Cambridge, meanwhile, Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard law, has been leading the charge. In an interview, Dershowitz said that the article took quotes out of context, was factually inaccurate in parts, and came down to “the conspiratorial argument that the Jews have too much power and control.”

Dershowitz said that the article was “bigoted” for implying that Jews are monolithic in support of all of Israel’s policies and of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. In fact, Dershowitz said, while he is a strong supporter of Israel, he has numerous disagreements with Israel’s policies and opposed the war in Iraq. Asked for examples of facts that are wrong or lack context, Dershowitz cited the article’s reference to the “blood kinship” of Jews as the basis for citizenship in Israel. Dershowitz noted that Israel has Arab citizens who are Christian and Muslim. Further, he said that Israel has a much larger percentage of non-Jews as citizens than the United States has of non-Christians or that most countries have of minority religions.

Many donors to Harvard are furious about the article, Dershowitz said, and with good reason. “People are outraged and embarrassed by this trash,” he said.

Criticism has been multiplying online – some of it quite detailed in going through statements in the article and raising questions about its fairness.

As all of this has been going on, the scholars who wrote the piece have been largely quiet – giving a few early interviews in which they defended their work, but declining to get into a point-by-point discussion and also criticizing their critics for implying that their piece is anti-Semitic. (Most of the critics do stay a bit away from that explicit charge, and while “bigoted” is used frequently, “anti-Semitic” is generally not, at least by the professors discussing the article.)

Mearsheimer did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article.

In a phone interview, Walt said that the authors stood behind their work and looked forward to scholarly discussion of it, but he also declined to respond to specific criticisms being raised.

He said he wasn’t surprised by the strong reaction the article is receiving. “Anybody who writes on a controversial topic is bound to face criticism and may also face personal attacks of various kinds,” he said. “Our purposes in writing the piece was to open up a broader discussion of American policy in the Middle East. We hope people will read what we wrote and engage in a serious discussion of the arguments.”

Variations of that response have further angered some of the authors’ critics.

“So let me get this straight: the authors have written and published a paper because they want to provoke an open debate – and then decide not to respond to any of the critiques made of the paper,” wrote Daniel W. Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

While the paper was written by professors at two universities – Chicago and Harvard – the full article was published on a Harvard Web site and many of the critical articles about it that appeared early on called the work a “Harvard paper” or “Harvard study” or some variation, so much of the criticism has been directed toward Cambridge, not Hyde Park.

The Kennedy School issued a statement indicating that the institution “stands firmly behind the academic freedom of its faculty, including Professor Stephen Walt.”

The statement noted that papers published on the school’s Web site always include a disclaimer reflecting Harvard’s policy of not interfering with or dictating professors’ views. The routine statement says: “The views expressed in the KSG Faculty Working Paper Series are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the John F. Kennedy School of Government or Harvard University.”

The Kennedy School said that – with Walt’s approval – the school’s logo had been removed from the paper “in an effort to minimize the confusion” created by press accounts about the paper being a Harvard study. Also citing “apparent confusion in the media” about the paper, the authors added “clarifying language” to the cover page of the study. The clarification said that the authors were “solely responsible” for the views expressed and that the article should not be taken to reflect the views of either Harvard or Chicago.

Roger W. Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said on Friday that in the previous 24 hours he had received e-mail or calls from a dozen people, around the world, concerned about the way the article’s authors were being treated, and that the AAUP was monitoring the situation.

Bowen said that the irony over the furor is that the argument in the paper is “not particularly new.” The reaction is largely because of the association of the argument with Harvard, he said.

Harvard’s policy of having professors indicate that their papers reflect their views, and not those of the institution, is not only appropriate, but helps academic freedom, Bowen said. “No institution can take responsibility for what one of its faculty members writes. If they were to take responsibility that also implies that they have the right to make changes,” he said.

What is of concern in this case, he said, is if Harvard is going beyond its normal policies to disassociate itself from these arguments more than it would from any argument put forward by a faculty member. At this time, he said, he doesn’t feel he has enough information to know if that’s the case.

Some critics of Walt have noted that because he holds an administrative position at the Kennedy School, he is more closely associated with the institution than other faculty members would be. Bowen said that was true, but had no relevance on his academic freedom. “You don’t give up your scholarly credentials” when you take on an administrative role, Bowen said.

The AAUP recently found itself spending a lot of time on Middle Eastern politics – when it planned, postponed, and eventually abandoned a planned conference on academic boycotts. The conference imploded amid reports that the association had accidentally sent anti-Semitic materials from Holocaust deniers to conference participants. But the invitation-only conference was already being criticized for a guest list that many said gave too many slots to professors who want to endorse boycotts of Israeli universities. Critics of the conference say that it fell apart because it was poorly organized with an unbalanced attendee list, but supporters of the conference say that the association was punished for opening the meeting to critics of Israel.

“I think there is something called the Israel lobby,” Bowen said. “I don’t think anyone doubts that, and I think Walt and Mearsheimer – just like any other scholar – have every reason in the world to comment, and academic freedom guidelines protect their right to do research in this area in the same way scholars who disagree have every right in the world to take them to task and to do critical research on their study.”

While academics comment on a range of controversial issues all the time, Bowen said that dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issues posed particular difficulties. Bowen said that one of his “real shocks” at the AAUP was when “a very close friend and colleague” who is Jewish, a “strong civil libertarian,” and has “wonderful values on academic freedom” approached him about trying to urge Duke University to block a group there from organizing a national conference for student supporters of the Palestinian cause. “On that issue, there are blinders,” Bowen said.

“Any time you deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even indirectly, you need to be prepared,” he said.

Scott Jaschik

War of Words Over Paper on Israel

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