Stephen M. Walt: Belated Thoughts on Peter Beinart

Roundup: Media's Take

[Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.]

I was overseas when Peter Beinart’s article on"The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" appeared on the website of the New York Review of Books and started an immediate hullabaloo. I read it quickly online but had little time to reflect on it or to post a reaction. My copy of the NYRB was waiting when I got home, however, and I’ve now had time to digest Beinart’s article and some of the reactions to it. What follows is a belated response, in the form of a few comments and two questions.

Overall, I thought it was an important contribution to a long-overdue debate. He doesn’t say much that is new, of course, but he says it well. Moreover, Beinart is a well-connected individual with demonstrable pro-Israel credentials, which makes it harder for critics to accuse him of being a self-hating Jew or having some deep-seated animus toward Israel.

I also thought his essay reaffirmed several of the points that John Mearsheimer and I made in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Though he does not say so explicitly, Beinart clearly recognizes that what he calls the"American Jewish Establishment" has a significant influence on U.S. Middle East policy and especially on our “special relationship” with Israel. After all, if the attitudes and activities of that"Establishment" were of little consequence, there would be no reason for Beinart to write the article in the first place. He clearly hopes that his article will convince its leaders to abandon their role as unthinking cheerleaders for Israel and adopt a more critical stance. He believes that this is the best way to save Israel from itself.

Beinart also recognizes that some of this"Establishment’s" influence derives from its efforts to shape public commentary about Israel. In his words,"groups like AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.""Scold" is far too weak a word for the baseless and sometimes vicious attacks that some groups and individuals dish out against those with whom they disagree. Still, his basic point is on the money.

Finally, his overall prescription dovetails with some of our own recommendations, and especially the idea that the key organizations in the lobby need to rethink the positions that they have held for many years. The issue, as we made clear in our book, was not the existence of a powerful"pro-Israel" community in the United States. Rather, it was the specific policies that the most powerful of these groups were defending and/or promoting, policies that we believed were harmful to the United States and Israel alike....

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