Voice

On Goldberg and Douthat

Over at the Atlantic Web site, Ross Douthat and Jeffrey Goldberg have been giving each other high-fives after an apparent competition to distort what I write. Responding to such criticisms is normally a mug's game, but a few comments seem appropriate at this juncture.

To be frank, it's hard for me to take Goldberg seriously when he writes on Middle East issues. After all, he wrote a 12,000 word review of our book on the Israel lobby that managed to misrepresent its arguments on virtually every page. To take but one example, my coauthor and I wrote that the various groups and individuals that make up the Israel lobby are "engaged in good old-fashioned interest group politics, which is as American as apple pie," and we repeatedly stressed that "lobbying on Israel's behalf is wholly legitimate." What did Goldberg say in his review? After linking us to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Osama bin Laden, he told his readers that our book was "the most sustained attack...against the political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin." Huh? And then he denounced us as anti-Semites at a public gathering in New York City.

Yet a year or so later, Goldberg himself wrote an op-ed for The New York Times complaining about the pernicious influence of assorted right-wing American Jews, and claiming their political activities were bad for Israel. (Of course, he denied that those activities might also be bad for the United States too, which is odd given his assumption that the interests of the two states are so closely aligned.)

Now Goldberg refers to me as someone who thinks "the Jews start all wars." Does he have any evidence to support this very serious accusation? Of course not. He's just using the same tired smear tactics that Israel's defenders commonly rely on when they can’t refute what someone actually wrote.

If anyone's curious, here's my off-the-top of my head coding of Arab-Israeli wars since 1948:

1948: Palestinian Arabs attack nascent Jewish state; several Arab states     eventually join in. Zionists/Israelis win, and approximately 700,000     Palestinians are expelled or flee from the new Jewish state.

1956: Israel, France, and Great Britain attack Egypt. U.S. pressure eventually forces all three to withdraw from the territories they captured in the war.

1967: Israel launches surprise attack on Egypt and then Syria. Jordan foolishly enters the war and loses the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

1969: Egypt launches the "War of Attrition" against Israeli forces along the Suez Canal Zone. Fighting ends via ceasefire agreement in June 1970.

1973: Egypt and Syria launch surprise attack against Israeli forces on the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula and are eventually repulsed by the IDF.

1982: Israel invades Lebanon and IDF occupies southern portion until 2000.

2006: Hezbollah captures/kills IDF soldiers in cross-border raid, Israel escalates to open warfare against Hezbollah and broader Lebanese society.

So I don't think "the Jews start all wars" and I never did. Maybe Goldberg thinks I "blame the Jews" for the Iraq war. If so, he’s wrong. We did write that the influence of the neoconservatives was one of the main causes of the war, a point that the neocons used to brag about and one that many other writers have made. That claim is simply not very controversial at this point: it was the neocons who dreamed up the idea and pushed it when nobody else was, so it's hard to imagine our doing it absent their influence. We also showed that once Bush was moving towards war, many of the key organizations and individuals in the Israel lobby backed the idea and helped sell it to the American people. But we also made it clear that not all the neocons are Jewish, that they "did not cause the war by themselves," that 9/11 was a critical precipitating event, and that the final decision was made by Bush and Cheney. Most importantly, we pointed out that American Jews were significantly less supportive of the invasion of Iraq than the American population as a whole, and we emphasized that "it would be a cardinal error attribute the war in Iraq to 'Jewish influence' or to 'blame the Jews' for the war."

I've given up expecting Goldberg to get much right on these issues, but it would be nice if he'd stop accusing people he disagrees with of saying things they never said or believing things they never thought.

As for Douthat, he chides Daniel Larison of The American Conservative for saying something mildly favorable about our book, and suggests that one can judge its worth by the "universally negative" reviews it received in the United States. Like Goldberg, he hints that the book is anti-Semitic, though he's a bit more subtle about it.

Douthat is correct that the mainstream reviews of the book were mostly negative, which is hardly surprising if one looks at who was chosen (or agreed) to review it. Given the hot water that Zbigniew Brzezinski got into when he said a few nice things about our original article, one can understand why people who liked the book might have been reluctant to say so in print.

In fact, the pattern of reviews does allow for an admittedly crude test of one of our arguments. We showed that people who criticize Israeli policy or the influence of the Israel lobby are virtually certain to face a firestorm of criticism and personal attacks in the United States. This is partly because such tactics are part of the standard MO for some key actors in the lobby, but also because mainstream media in the United States have tended to be protective of Israel in the past (this may be changing somewhat now). If we are right, one would expect mainstream reviews of our book in the United States to be negative, but reviews elsewhere should be more favorable. And that proved to be the case. For example, eight of the nine major reviews in the United Kingdom were positive and we received numerous favorable reviews elsewhere in Europe. Some might respond by saying that this pattern of evidence is just a sign of lingering European anti-Semitism, but then how does one explain the four positive reviews (one of them positively glowing) that we received in Israel itself, including a lengthy, thoughtful, and generally favorable review in Ha'aretz?

In any case, judging any book -- let alone a controversial one -- simply by ticking off reviews seems like an imperfect way to judge its merits. When I assign books to my students, I really do expect them to read them, and not just go out and crib from somebody's review. So here's a suggestion for those of you who are interested in this issue. Read whatever reviews you want. Heck, go ahead and read Goldberg's own screed. Then get yourself a copy of the actual book, read it, and make up your own mind. Some of you will agree with it; others undoubtedly won't. But if you detect a disconnect between what the reviewers told you about the book's contents and what you read with your own eyes, ask yourself why this is so.