Are you lobbying me, punk? Are you?


I’ve heard David Harris speak. I’ve read John Mearsheimer’s prose.

"Running and hiding" might describe my earnest longings during my weaker moments deep into either experience, but I never imagined it was a feature of their vocabularies.

Yet here are the American Jewish Committee’s executive director and the University of Chicago scholar/"Israel Lobby" critic going at each other like bespectacled battlers on World Wrestling Entertainment.

David "the Yekke from Tribeca" Harris on March 13:

John Mearsheimer likes to say the “Israel Lobby” stifles political debate. That’s absurd — but it’s true that he was happy to run away from one.

"Mad Jack" Mearsheimer this weekend:

I am sure that if David Harris thought that he could dominate me and Steve (Walt) in a real debate, we would have had one. But he knows better and thus he is running scared, as he should be.

In fact, the rhetoric on both sides is as grounded in reality as, well, televised wrestling.

It started during the controversy over Chas Freeman’s abortive appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Harris and Mearsheimer were speaking separately on the same Philadelphia-area radio talk show; the host wanted to bring them together, and Mearsheimer declined; hence the March 13 AJC press release.

In fact, Mearsheimer, writing to Philip Weiss, had a plausible argument and a good excuse for backing out of what was, after all, a last-minute debate. He didn’t think he could do it justice in the five minutes the host was allotting, which makes sense; and when the host made another on-air plea, Mearsheimer demurred because he was on parenting duty (been there, makes perfect sense). He said he was eager for a debate:

I am sure we would have no problem filling the auditorium and I would bet that C-Span would cover it in a second.  In sum, I am not running away from a debate with David Harris. I welcome the idea.

Subsequently, both sides launched off-the-record negotiations toward just such a longer debate.

Four months later, here’s how Mearsheimer sums it up, in a more recent post on Weiss’ site (which Weiss cross-posted at Talking Points Memo, as above):

After some discussion, we agreed to have a one-on-one debate involving me and David Harris and to do it on radio, but with both of us in the same studio in New York City. We had little difficulty reaching that arrangement, and were set to work out the details when Ben Cohen (an AJC spokesman) informed me in our last conversation that there had been a change in the situation and that David Harris would be spending most of his time out of the country during the remaining six months of this year. As a result, he would not be able to debate me after all. Ben Cohen said we might be able to revisit the issue at the start of next year, but I do not believe that this will happen. In short, there is not going to be a debate between me and David Harris.

And then he goes into full WWE mode, concluding with the "running scared" comment, above.

David Harris is a genuinely busy man; the American Jewish Committee is the largest and probably the most active of the Jewish civil rights groups. I don’t know the nature of Harris’ specific overseas mission — it will be formally announced within a few weeks, I’ve learned. But it is not out of the question that a more urgent matter might press the professional leader of a group that informally calls itself "the State Department of the Jewish people" to delay discussion of a topic that ain’t exactly about to drop off the radar.

"One would hope there would be an appreciation of scheduling difficulties," Ken Bandler, the AJC’s spokesman, told me. "The issues we would discuss with Professor Mearsheimer are not going away. Whether now or in a few months, there will be plenty to talk about."

In other words, game still on. If anyone seems anxious to shut it down, it is Mearsheimer, who uses unwarranted absolutes: "There is not going to be a debate."

Harris loses points for starting this silliness, but Mearsheimer is guiltier by far of trying to game it, and not just because of this weird attempt to shut off further debate about the debate; how he frames it is also telling. Here he is, from the March note he filed with Weiss:

Let’s have a public debate in New York City featuring John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt on one side and David Harris and another heavyweight from the lobby on the other side — maybe Abe Foxman. Our only condition is that we will not debate individuals who have called us anti-Semites, for instance Alan Dershowitz.

The topic would be: "Is the Israel Lobby Good for America and Israel?"

* Why does Mearsheimer get to determine who takes up the other podium? What does "heavyweight" mean? "The Israel Lobby" is a bad book, and not only for its skewed perspectives of the conflict, as described by Harris, Foxman and others; it is poor scholarship, relying entirely on second-hand and selectively quoted sources. The best argument against the book is that its targets do not have the influence Walt and Mearsheimer ascribe to them; this argument will not get a hearing when all four debaters have a vested interest in maintaining the fiction of overweening Jewish organizational influence.

Not only that, but the ADL and AJC were arguably among the most outspoken Jewish organizational cheerleaders for the Iraq War. The grandest calumny in "The Israel Lobby" is that the "lobby" was the principal engine driving the war. Foxman and Harris are in a position to persuasively argue that this is a nonsense — that, whatever their own pronouncements, the responsibility for the war, for better or worse, belongs wholly to the Bush administration — but their participation in a debate would pereptuate the book’s sin of willfully ignoring what was vocal pro-Israel opposition to the war.

* Why not debate those who have accused the professors of anti-Semitism? Why shut out that argument? What does that do for academic scruitiny? Why designate a new "third rail" in trying to deactivate an old one?

Incidentally, I don’t believe the professors are anti-Semites — but then I don’t think anyone of significance has made that accusation. An "anti-Semite" is someone who is committed to hating Jews, full time. A far broader swathe of the public is likely, at times, to dip into stereotyping when they deal with issues of Jewish interest. This is true of treatment of any group: Are the stereotypes of African Americans and women that persist in our culture the work of full-time racists and sexists? No. And there’s nothing wrong with reminding the well-intentioned of the biases that lurk deep in their cultural wellsprings.

* Mearsheimer’s topic is loaded; it requires accepting his imagined broad and monolithic "lobby" that embraces Doug Feith and David Saperstein, that simultaneously supports and opposes settlement, that lobbies for and against engagement with Iran; it puts the other side immediately on the defensive: "In fact, we do not exist."

You know who wouldn’t have that baggage? A reporter who covers this beat, that’s who.

So here’s my challenge: I may not be a "heavyweight," but I can wipe the floor with these bums. Alone! In fact, I’ve already done so.

So what about it, huh? Kampeas the Kosher Krusher vs. "Mad Jack" Mearsheimer and Steve "The Aggrieved" Walt.

It’s on, baby.

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