The Taboo That Won't Shut Up

Stephen Walt's desperate effort to portray himself as a brave truth-teller battling the cabal of Americans who happen to like Israel continues apace. (I have promised myself never to mention Walt, or his more academically-accomplished though equally-grubby partner, John Mearsheimer, without quoting Walt's Foreign Policy colleague David Rothkopf on their detestable careers: "They may not be anti-Semites themselves but they made a cynical decision to cash in on anti-Semitism by offering to dress up old hatreds in the dowdy Brooks Brothers suits of the Kennedy School and the University of Chicago."
After the President's very good speech in Cairo (in which he expressed disagreement with Israel's current course vis-a-vis settlements) Walt informed us that the subject of even-handedness in Middle East policy-making "had become something of a taboo issue, especially for anyone seeking a prominent career in American politics or in the U.S. foreign policy establishment." This is part of their campaign: To argue implicitly that the Jews will strike down anyone who dares question America's support for Israel. This argument also helped sell their pernicious book (published by one of the most esteemed houses in America), an irony they refuse to acknowledge.  In any case, it struck me that the "taboo" of which they speak is actually no taboo at all, in the following two senses: People talk about the power of so-called Israel Lobby all the time; and they are generally not punished for speaking up (Charles Freeman was not marginalized, by the way, for speaking against the "Israel Lobby," but for his obsessional loathing of the very idea of Israel, and of course for his shilling for Saudi Arabia, and for his deep sympathy for China's Communist rulers.).

In any case, if it is indeed a taboo to talk about the power of the so-called Israel lobby, it is a taboo that won't shut up. Here's some evidence:

Roger Cohen, NYT, March 16, 2009: "Another distinctive characteristic of Iran is the presence of the largest Jewish community in the Muslim Middle East in the country of the most vitriolic anti-Israel tirades. My evocation of this 25,000-strong community, in the taboo-ridden world of American Middle East debate, has prompted fury, nowhere more so than here in Los Angeles, where many of Iran's Jewish exiles live."

Charles Freeman, CNN, March 15, 2009:  "The objective of their campaign against me was to reinforce that hammerlock, to enforce the taboo against any critical discussion of Israeli policies and what they might mean for Israel's future or the future of the United States as affected by Israel's future; to ensure that this group -- which is a very well-organized group, as can be readily discerned from their messages crowing about how they organized this campaign -- to reinforce their veto power over appointments to the government; to ensure that analysis was not value- free, but pro-Israel in orientation and, to some extent, anti-Arab; and finally, to ensure that the policy process remains supportive of whatever it is that whoever is in power in Israel demands."

Scott Williamson, Indianapolis Star, March 13, 2009: Freeman's appointment in the face of such heated criticism would have been a blow to the taboo that forbids our public officials from disagreeing with Israeli policies. Instead, the successful character assassination campaign waged against him will serve as a reminder that there is still a price to be paid for criticizing Israel's actions.

Editorial, The Daily Star (Beirut), March 12, 2009: One of the biggest challenges that President Barack Obama will face in office will be to confront a problem that directly impacts US national security, but that is so taboo that few people in Washington are willing to talk about it openly. That problem is America's blind support of Israeli terrorism.

Glenn Greenwald, Salon, March 10, 2009: In the U.S., you can advocate torture, illegal spying, and completely optional though murderous wars and be appointed to the highest positions. But you can't, apparently, criticize Israeli actions too much or question whether America's blind support for Israel should be re-examined.

Christopher Ketcham, AlterNet, March 10, 2008: "Breaking the Taboo on Israel's Spying Efforts on the United States"

Paul J. Bailes,, March 8, 2009: About the worst thing one can do in America or Europe is to criticize Israel. "Freedom" even in academia doesn't allow critical comments about Israel or Zionism. Those who risk it can lose their jobs and be labelled anti-Semitic bigots. ... The gravest injustice allows Zionists to silence honest critics for violating the Zionist taboo.

Bernd Debusmann, Reuters, March 5, 2009: While remarks critical of Israel are common coin among human rights groups and independent scholars, they are virtually taboo in official Washington, whose elected leaders - or those running for office - tend to stress unflagging support for the Jewish state.

Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star, January 18, 2009: Obama...  won't succeed unless he is prepared to depart from the unspoken but most obvious premise of Israeli/American policy, which is, sadly, now also Canadian policy: placing a different value on Israeli lives and Palestinian lives - the first matter, the second do not.

Megan McArdle, TheAtlantic, January 13, 2009: It will not do my career much good to say it, but here goes. America has an influential Israel lobby in large part because of ethnic affinity.

Philip Weiss,, January 2, 2009: "CNN Reporter Breaks Taboo in Sharp Criticism of Israel"

Jane Hamsher, Firedoglake, December 29, 2008: For years, the subject of Israel has been the biggest third rail subject we have to deal with. Any time we wanted to mention Israel in a post we had to alert the mods to strap on their hazmat suits, because the comments section would invariably turn into a shitstorm. Any criticism of Israel was greeted with catcalls of anti-semitism, which would inevitably draw out the anti-semites. The next thing you know, the mods are tearing their hair out and Bill O'Reilly is calling you a Nazi.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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