Friday, March 21, 2008

UM 'Israel Lobby' event draws hundreds

By Will Youmans - The Arab American News
Friday, 03.21.2008

ANN ARBOR — Two years ago, two prominent American scholars broke the silence on a taboo often referred to as the "third-rail of politics," the disproportionate power of the Israel lobby. A fairly obscure intellectual journal, "The London Review of Books," published their essay, "The Israel Lobby."

In it, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt of Harvard, claimed that American policy in the Middle East is not guided by national interests. Instead "U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the "Israel Lobby.'"

This article sparked a thunderous debate, bringing about backlash from pro-Israel scholars, activists and politicians. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League criticized the essay and its authors, claiming it resembled the "Jewish conspiracy" tales peddled by anti-Jewish racists.

Despite the anger directed towards these leading scholars of politics, hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the article and a longer version from a Harvard website. The authors released a book in which they refined their arguments and bolstered them with research. It became a New York Times bestseller.

It is no surprise then that four hundred and fifty people crammed into an auditorium at the University of Michigan on Friday, March 14, 2008 to hear them present their case.

The event was arranged by the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a student group at the university founded in 2001.

Campus officials were concerned the event would invite hostility from Israel's supporters on campus. The student newspaper reported that Sue Eklund, the outgoing associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, wanted to create a "notion of campus climate" by welcoming controversial speakers.

The event went smoothly, however. Pro-Israeli activists passed out literature before the event and were not disruptive.

Professor Ron Stockton, who teaches political science at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, introduced the professors by explaining the impact of their writings and suggesting that communication technologies enhance the flow of such ideas. He said such advances can transform societies, citing the rise of Barack Obama as an example.

Professor Walt opened with a detailed and thorough argument proving the lobby, a "loose network" exists. He clarified that such a lobby is "as American as apple pie." However, he said he was concerned because of its disproportionate weight in foreign policymaking. Professor Meirsheimer centered on the more difficult part of their work, that the lobby's policy positions and influence are bad for the United States and Israel.

Not everyone was pleased with everything they said. Sairah Husain, a junior at the university, said "although I disagreed with their support for the existence of the state of Israel, to even say what they did was big." Many questioned them on this point during the question and answer session.

They cited centuries of Jewish suffering as one reason Israel has a right to exist.

However, Mearsheimer and Walt argued that Jimmy Carter was correct. In the absence of a viable two-state solution, the situation there will resemble apartheid.

After the event, I asked Professor Mearsheimer what is the difference between that point and now. He said when the demographic balance swings in the Palestinians' favor, their largely rightsless existence will mirror apartheid. This, he pointed out earlier, is an analysis shared by Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.

The professors wrote about this topic in the hope of opening up the debate on America's relationship with Israel. They felt this discussion was muffled by those who are quick to silent critics and unwilling to engage in open debate. At the University of Michigan last Friday, they found a large group of people more than happy to listen and consider their views.

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