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Charles Freeman and the 'Israel Lobby'

Charles Freeman and the 'Israel Lobby'

By Cathy Young - March 18, 2009

Last week's dispute over the failed appointment of career diplomat Charles (Chas) Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council briefly brought into the spotlight the understandably contentious topic of the "Israel lobby." After Freeman came under fire from some commentators for his views on the Mideast conflict and other issues, his defenders - from Harvard international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt, co-author of the 2007 best-seller, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, to blogger Andrew Sullivan, the repentant Iraq war supporter turned scourge of the "neocons" - argued that he was being targeted and smeared for having the temerity to question some of Israel's actions. When Freeman withdrew his nomination, he repeated that charge in an angry letter.

Foes of "The Lobby" contend that it limits public debate in the U.S. through intimidation and protects its power by hurling the "anti-Semitism" label at its own - and Israel's -- critics. To them, the Chas Freeman fiasco proves this beyond a doubt. But the incident may raise other uncomfortable questions about anti-Semitism, intimidation, and the "Israel lobby" controversy.

To start with: there was much more at stake in the objections to Freeman's nomination than his views on Israel, most notably his coziness with the ruling dictatorship in China. Among other things, it was revealed that Freeman had opined that the main mistake of the Chinese government in the Tiananmen Square crackdown - which culminated in the slaughter of hundreds of peaceful protesters - was not to take swifter and more resolute action to clear the demonstrators from the square. He has also justified China's violent repression of pro-independence activism in Tibet. Some of the most strenuous opposition to Freeman's appointment to the NIC came from Chinese dissidents, Human Rights Watch, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was concerned over the nominee's cavalier attitude toward human rights in China.

In one of the first anti-Freeman broadsides, in The Washington Post on February 28, New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait wrote that Freeman was an extreme adherent of "realist" foreign policy thinking - the school that believes moral issues, including human rights, should be virtually irrelevant to American policy. Chait did mention Freeman's views on Israel - but only as one example of excessive "realism," which disregards America's kinship with Israel as a (flawed) democracy and focuses only on the claim that alliance with Israel does not serve our self-interest.

Freeman's anti-"Lobby" supporters say that the other criticisms don't matter: the alleged lynch mob - Chait, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, The Washington Times' Eli Lake, The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb - was obviously after Freeman because of his refusal to toe the pro-Israel party line. In their view, Freeman's questionable comments about China or Saudi Arabia were just a red herring: after all, the journalists who publicized these statements are strongly pro-Israel.

First of all, even if the people who drew attention to Freeman's human rights problems had a hidden agenda, that does not make these problems any less real. (Claims that his statements were "taken out of context" do not hold up.)

In fact, it is some of Freeman's defenders for whom his attitudes toward Israel seem to be paramount. Thus, Sullivan writes that he finds some of Freeman's "realist" defense of repressive regimes to be "a little too brutal." Yet he is willing to overlook that because "someone whose views push the envelope against recent US policy in the Middle East is an important asset for the United States right now."

That brings us to a second point: Freeman's supposedly valuable views are not simply critical of specific Israeli policies but point strongly to a more fundamental and one-sided animus toward Israel. In one much-publicized essay, he lamented Israel's failure to "achieve concord and reconciliation with anyone in its region, still less to gain their admiration or affection." Leaving aside the fact that Israel did achieve peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, how many countries in the region were prepared to grant "admiration or affection" to the Jewish state under any circumstances? In the same passage, Freeman laments Israel's deviations from "the humane ideals of its founders and the high ethical standards of the religion that most of its inhabitants profess." But what about the ethical and political standards of Israel's neighbors whose affection it has failed to gain?

Crusaders against "the Israel lobby" often complain that any criticism of Israeli actions is conflated with being anti-Israel. But in fact, they are the ones who consistently blur those lines. To claim that criticism of particular Israeli policies (for instance, on the issue of settlements) is regarded as forbidden in American political discourse is absurd. What is generally beyond the pale is broad anti-Israel animus. And to take issue with the government of Israel, but not with the governments of China and Saudi Arabia, on humane and ethical grounds is certainly suggestive of such animus - whatever its motives may be.

Anti-Semitism is an extremely serious charge. Certainly, many - probably most - critics of "The Lobby" are not bigots but people sincerely concerned with what they regard as a dangerous imbalance in U.S. policy. And yet their charges may, in effect, become a form of intimidation toward Jewish Americans who express their views on any foreign policy issue that has some bearing on Israel. Yes, Americans should be able to question Israel's policies without being accused of anti-Jewish prejudice. And Jews should be able to question an anti-Israel public figure without being accused of serving a nefarious lobby.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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