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.

Roger Cohen, NYT, December 11, 2008: The second is that dialogue will be very tough. Iran's focus on Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons may cause discomfort in Washington, where the subject tends to be taboo, but it's impossible to understand the psychology of the Iranians without taking the Israeli bomb into account.

Don Rose, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 24, 2008: "Let's put the best construction on it," Rose says of Obama's shift to a more pro-Israel stance. "What he does is that he goes and listens to all sides and sometimes people take more away from those meetings than might actually have been said by him.

"But let's face it; Israel is the third rail of American politics [a reference to the high-voltage third rail in American subways]. It was necessary for his political survival that he moved to a position that was more 70 per cent Israel, 30 per cent Palestinian."

Remi Kenazi, Cross-Cultural Understanding, May 21, 2008: "When Free Speech Doesn't Come Free: US Taboo on Criticizing Israel"

Sabbah, Daily Kos, April 16, 2007: "Portrait of a Great Taboo: The Power of the Israel Lobby in the United States."

George Bisharat, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2, 2007: Americans owe a debt to former President Jimmy Carter for speaking long hidden but vital truths. His book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid breaks the taboo barring criticism in the United States of Israel's discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. Our government's tacit acceptance of Israel's unfair policies causes global hostility against us.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Letter to American People, November 29, 2006: What has blind support for the Zionists by the US administration brought for the American people? It is regrettable that for the US administration, the interests of these occupiers supersedes the interests of the American people and of the other nations of the world.

Jonathan Tasini, Huffington Post, July 26, 2006: I've touched the "third rail" of politics in New York: the Israel-Palestine conflict, the dreadful occupation and the never-ending violence that is spinning out of control, in large part because the United States--and politicians like Hillary Clinton--continue to blindly pursue a one-sided policy in the Palestinian-Israel conflict, a policy that is causing more death and sorrow for civilians on all sides of the conflict.

Deborah Howell, Washington Post, July 23, 2006: Reporting on Israel is the third rail of American journalism.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, Washington Times, April 28, 2006: Over the years, AIPAC has maneuvered to make Israel the third rail of American foreign policy. The handful of members of Congress who have been critical of Israel over the last 40 years have been publicly chastised with a figurative dunce cap, or, worse, lost their seats to AIPAC-backed opponents. Israel is an integral part of America's body politic.

Robert Fisk, Counterpunch, April 27, 2006:
"Anyone who criticises Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle East policy," [Walt and Mearsheimer] have written, "...stands a good chance of being labelled an anti-Semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims that there is an Israeli lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism ... Anti-Semitism is something no-one wants to be accused of." This is strong stuff in a country where - to quote the late Edward Said - the "last taboo" (now that anyone can talk about blacks, gays and lesbians) is any serious discussion of America's relationship with Israel.

Tony Judt, NYT, April 19, 2006: The [Walt-Mearsheimer] essay and the issues it raises for American foreign policy have been prominently dissected and discussed overseas. In America, however, it's been another story: virtual silence in the mainstream media. Why? There are several plausible explanations. One is that a relatively obscure academic paper is of little concern to general-interest readers. Another is that claims about disproportionate Jewish public influence are hardly original -- and debate over them inevitably attracts interest from the political extremes. And then there is the view that Washington is anyway awash in "lobbies" of this sort, pressuring policymakers and distorting their choices... Each of these considerations might reasonably account for the mainstream press's initial indifference to the Mearsheimer-Walt essay. But they don't convincingly explain the continued silence even after the article aroused stormy debate in the academy, within the Jewish community, among the opinion magazines and Web sites, and in the rest of the world. I think there is another element in play: fear. Fear of being thought to legitimize talk of a "Jewish conspiracy"; fear of being thought anti-Israel; and thus, in the end, fear of licensing the expression of anti-Semitism.

Juan Cole, Salon, April 18, 2006: [T]his taboo has had enormous consequences, which are themselves off limits for discussion. Because America's blank-check support for Israel arouses enormous Arab and Muslim rage, Israel is a strategic liability, not an asset.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, "The Israel Lobby," March 23, 2006
:  [T]he Lobby's campaign to quash debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy. Silencing sceptics by organising blacklists and boycotts - or by suggesting that critics are anti-semites - violates the principle of open debate on which democracy depends.

Said Amir Arjomand, Social Science Research Council, SUNY, Stony Brook, 2001: Level-headed thinking about the US-Israeli connection is much more difficult as it does run counter to a long-standing taboo against criticizing the Israeli government, and all the more so because the taboo is understandably reinforced in adversity. Mentioning Israel is pointing a finger to an ally the way the terrorists would have wanted, and we would be cowards to let them have that satisfaction as well as the horrendous destruction of American lives and property.