Virtual Talmud

I never would have thought that two American professors from prestigious American universities would have much in common with Osama bin Laden.

But then I noticed that in the most recent tape attributed to him, Bin Laden identified those in the West seeking to halt the genocide in Darfur as “Zionist-crusaders,” just on the heels of the article by University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Stephen Walt, arguing that the United States Middle Eastern policy has been manipulated by the Israel lobby.

In other words, Bin Laden and the professors are all saying that Jews are pulling the strings of world leaders and if not for the Jews we wouldn’t be in this mess. (You can fill in the blank for which mess you mean at the moment, whether Palestinian’s self-destructive intransigence, Iraqi insurgency, Islamist terrorism, etc.). All three conjure up the same specter of “Jewish conspiracy” that rests at the heart of history’s most rabid expressions of anti-Semitism.

According to a compelling report by Alan Dershowitz, Mearsheimer and Walt’s paper is filled with inaccuracies and half-truths that do not support their conclusions. The most important discrepancy is that America, in fact, always makes its own decisions about what is in America’s best interest. When American interests coincide with Israeli interests, we act in concert, but when American interests do not coincide with Israeli interests, America does what it feels it needs to even over Israel’s strident objections (Jonathan Pollard and AWACs are just two examples).

But there is an even bigger issue here. The focus on Israel/Zionists/Jews turns the world away from the real questions, much as such anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism has throughout history. There are a lot of real questions lurking out there:

  • What is the nature of America’s continued support for Saudi Arabia, which continues to finance Muslim extremism?
  • What is the influence of the oil lobby over our incursion into Iraq, which gained control of oil fields but left hospitals, electric and water plants, and museums undefended and then un-repaired (allowing the insurgency to thrive), and our continued failure to make serious advances in oil conservation?
  • Why is so little said about the fact that Muslims are slaughtering other Muslims in Dafur or that radical Muslims are expressing their xenophobia in violence against others?

Muslim extremist rage is not going to go away if Israel ceases to exist (God forbid). Muslim extremism will simply turn to the next victim. I’d recommend Mearsheimer and Walt reread the words of Protestant minister Martin Niemoller, reflecting on his experiences in Nazi Germany: “They came for the Communists, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Communist; They came for the Socialists, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Socialist; They came for the labor leaders, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a labor leader; They came for the Jews, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Jew; Then they came for me – And there was no one left to object.”

Every group has its extremists. Jews do too. Jewish extremism remains a minority within the Jewish community, largely because of our commitment to questioning and debate, as well as our concern for the rights and well being of the stranger (themes reiterated last week at the Passover Seder).

Honest, accurate, and fair debate is always healthy. Such vibrant and vigorous debate takes place within Israel, within the American Jewish community, within the American press and public, and between Israel and its American allies. Such debate does not take place in most of the Muslim world. I wonder why that, and its impact on American policy, isn’t the subject of a Kennedy School research paper.

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