Up until 2006 John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, was a scholarly exponent of the realist school, which holds that foreign policy is driven by interests and not by domestic politics.
That year, however, Mearsheimer, with coauthor and fellow realist Stephen Walt of Harvard, published—both on the website of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and in the London Review of Books—a paper called “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” It argued that America’s Middle East policy was totally in thrall to “the Israel Lobby,” which was responsible for getting America bogged down in Iraq and making it a target of Islamic terrorists.
Suddenly the two professors, who until then had worked within the academic world, found themselves the focus of a much wider polemical ruckus. Their paper drew praise from some—including, to put it mildly, a problematic figure like white-supremacist David Duke, who called it “a modern American Declaration of Independence.” And it drew bitter criticism from others.
Cohen noted that, whereas Walt and Mearsheimer claimed that “Osama bin Laden’s grievance with the United States begins with Israel,” actually the terror leader’s 1998 fatwa declaring war against America began by condemning its supposed sins in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
And if the war in Iraq “stemmed from The Lobby’s conception of Israel’s interest” as Walt and Mearsheimer charged, it was odd that “the war attracted the support of anti-Israel intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and mainstream publications such as The Economist.” (It was also revealed a year later that in 2003, then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had actually advised President George W. Bush against invading Iraq.)
“Inept, even kooky academic work,” wrote Cohen, “but is it anti-Semitic?” In reply to his own question, he wrote:
If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments…why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic.
Undoubtedly taking note of the fireworks, Farrar, Straus & Giroux gave the two profs an advance of over $700,000 for a book based on their controversial paper. The book was published in 2007 and made it to the New York Times bestseller list.