One of the hottest intellectual dustups of the moment is a war of words between Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, and Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of the same magazine who writes a popular blog for the Atlantic. In a densely argued essay, Wieseltier finds much that is repellant in Sullivan’s writing about Israel, from a one-sidedness in his moral calculations that demonize Israel, to a habit of “condescension” toward the Jews that borders on bigotry. (In his lengthy reply, Sullivan denies he is anti-Semitic; longtime friends concur, although many suggest his views on Israel are often misinformed, willfully or not.)
Central to Wieseltier’s argument, and to the responses of the many, many writers who have chimed in, is his contention that Sullivan exaggerates the influence of the pro-Israel lobby and goes so far as to suggest that “Jews control Washington.”
It’s impossible in this space to capture the nuances of the back and forth (Google “Sullivan Wieseltier” if you want to dig deeper), but it is worth noting how it has sparked an honest and open discussion about “Jewish power” in Washington. The intellectually honest acknowledge that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is hugely influential, and that it uses legal and democratic means to sway lawmakers. Where Wieseltier and many of his defenders, including us, sniff bigotry is at the point where Israel’s critics, like the odious Walt and Mearsheimer, contend “The Lobby” has unique or singular powers of persuasion. Wieseltier calls out Sullivan for writing the following: “I’m sick of having a great power like the US being dictated to in the conduct of its own foreign policy by an ally that provides almost no real benefit to the US.”
It’s legitimate to debate the benefits of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But slurs like “dictated to” all but accuse Israel’s supporters of holding some diabolical and undemocratic power over Congress and policy makers. So do discussions of the pro-Israel lobby’s “unique” or “exceptional” influence that do not acknowledge the activities or influence of the Cuba lobby, the oil lobby, the gun lobby…. The list goes on.
American-Jewish organizations are potent political forces because of their supporters’ commitment to voting, politics, fund-raising, and public service. They use the tools of democracy to promote policies they believe to be in America’s, and Israel’s, best interests. That’s citizenship, not a conspiracy. If you want to argue Israel on its merits, fine. Just stop reminding us how “exceptional” its supporters are.