Friday, January 08, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #2: Stephen Walt's Smears

It's time for another "Jewish fact check," although my choice of targets, Steve Walt's blog post yesterday at Foreign Policy, is probably too easy because there's just so much wrong with it.

My former colleague at JTA, Ron Kampeas, has already done a masterful job explaining why Walt's argument doesn't make much sense, and is, as he put it, "simultaneously meaningless and contradictory." So I'll just break down how a few of the inaccuracies, distortions and false insinuations Walt throws out in service of that argument.

First of all, Walt states that the workshop he's talking about, teaching Jewish community members how to advocate on the issue of Iran, is sponsored by The Israel Project. It's true that The Israel Project is a sponsor of this Jan. 17 event, but in fact, they're just one of close to two dozen sponsors -- and not even the chief organizer of the event. That would be the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

I suppose I could give Walt a little bit of a break on getting this wrong, since the email he received (which I received also) has a big Israel Project banner across it with a link to the group's Web site, obviously leading one initially to believe this was an Israel Project-led event. Except at the bottom of the e-mail there's a prominent link to the JCRC's Web site where it says more information can be found. And clicking that link clarly brings one to the JCRC Web site, which denotes that the program is the "JCRC's community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program" and lists the co-sponsors at the bottom of the page:

Anti-Defamation League DC Chapter, American Jewish Committee, Baltimore Zionist District, Birthright Israel NEXT DC, DC Council BBYO, DC JCC, Hadassah Greater Washington Area Chapter, JCCGW, JCRC of Greater Washington, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish National Fund, National Jewish Democratic Council, Orthodox Union, Republican Jewish Coalition, StandWithUs, The Embassy of Israel, The Israel Project, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and The Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy

So how does Walt get this wrong? Is he just lazy and didn't click on the link? That seems the most likely explanation, although I can't imagine how one could write a blog post slamming an event and not even do the minimal amount of research -- such as clicking on a link -- before writing. After all, Walt fancies himself an "expert" on the "Israel lobby." He wrote a whole book about it with his buddy John Mearsheimer. You'd think such a an expert on the Jewish community would know the difference between a local JCRC and The Israel Project, wouldn't you?

There's also the possibility that Walt used The Israel Project because he wants to tar this event as supported only by certain individual organizations in the Jewish community and suggest that many other Jews don't back a strong stance against the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons. But in fact, the JCRC is an organization which represents the public policy views of more than 200 D.C.-area Jewish organizations. Combine that with the federation, groups representing Democrats and Republicans and a bunch of other well-known organizations and it's clear the "Stop Iran" movement is pretty broad-based in the Jewish community. (That doesn't mean there aren't Jews around the country who oppose sanctions on Iran, just that they're well outnumbered among Jews active in the Jewish communal world.)

But what really bothered me about Walt's piece was this paragraph:

But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn't it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?

I once wrote that listening to Walt and Mearsheimer talk about the "Israel Lobby" reminded me of the classic Seinfeld episode where everyone thinks Jerry and George are gay, and they keep having to tell everyone, "We're not gay, not that there's anything wrong with that." Actually, that wasn't really right--in fact, it would be as if Jerry and George had added after "not that there's anything wrong with that" something like "but, just to be clear, we think being gay is really bad and that gays are destroying the country."

Walt says there's nothing wrong with the meeting he's writing about,and then makes ridiculous insinuations about how sinister and improper everything scheduled to happen at the meeting is.

Take his comment that it's somehow "over the line" to have an Israeli diplomat give the plenary address "to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?"

What Walt is saying here is what's "over the line." He's apparently arguing that when he and Mearsheimer advocate in their book that the United States should have a less close relationship with Israel and that the U.S. should use its leverage to force an Israeli-Palestinian settlement -- a perfectly legitimate position -- that he's advocating in the best interests of the United States. But when other Americans advocate that it's in the best interests of the United States that Iran not have nuclear weapons, that's advocating not for the best interests of the United States but only on behalf of a foreign country? (Walt apparently forgot about all those Arab countries that are scared to death about Iran getting nukes, just to begin...)

Even more ridiculous is Walt's bizarre conspiracy-minded musings about the participation of unnamed "congressional legislative assistants" in the Jan. 17 conference -- he states that they are "supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one."

This is baffling -- he's accusing congressional aides of engaging in .... politics! Imagine that! Having the staff of members of Congress speak to a group which supports their position on the Iran issue is no different than what happens every day in Washington -- members of Congress speaking to groups which agree with them on a particular issue and encouraging them to speak out and work to make their positions the position of the government. (Considering Walt has a Ph.D in political science and teaches at the Kennedy School of Government, it's pretty odd he doesn't know this.)

Let's take J Street, a group Walt likes -- although they don't like him much. They had a conference in October which culminated in the group lobbying on Capitol Hill. And guess what? They had five members of Congress speak at a conference plenary session, telling them how much they appreciated their efforts and telling them how important their work was. Wow, pretty controversial.

Oh, and then there was that rally for universal health care I went to last summer. You're not going to believe this, Professor Walt, but actual "public servants," otherwise known as staffers at the White House, were there and spoke to the crowd. They told them how important their help was to get health reform passed. "Over the line"? Um, no, just how things work in Washington.

So what's the difference between this and congressional staffers speaking to like-minded Americans about how best they can influence the debate on Iran? Pretty much nothing. I thought members of Congress were supposed to try to do all they can to convince their colleagues to vote their way. One of those things is educating voters on how best to get their message across to their own congresspeople. I thought this was how politics works. Why does Steven Walt only think it is nefarious when American Jews do it?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Eric, for a wonderful response to Steven Walt.

1/8/10, 9:12 PM  
Anonymous Merry said...

Very informative and well written, Eric. After reading this, I decided to sign up for the JCRC Advocacy Training Event. ;-)

1/13/10, 7:56 PM  
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