Anti-Zionist Conspiracy Theories Seek the Mainstream

Before Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer lent their academic credentials to a widely discredited 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, alleging an “Israel Lobby” that controls American foreign policy to the detriment of the U.S., conspiracy theories of this sort dwelt mostly within the fringe domain of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and their ilk. 

These type of conspiracy theories evoked the notorious 1903 fraud, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, purporting to document a nefarious Jewish plot for global domination, manipulating economies, and fomenting war. Despite its exposure as an anti-Semitic fabrication some 20 years later, the Protocol’s bogus charges continued to serve as a staple of anti-Semitic, Nazi and ZOG (“Zionist Occupied Government”) propaganda, inciting hatred, pogroms and  massacres against Jews. Hitler referred to the Protocols in his early speeches and in his autobiography, Mein Kampf. It became an integral part of his anti-Jewish ideology and Nazi propaganda.   Protocols is also embraced by Holocaust deniers,  by Hamas, and is a bestseller among enemies of Israel.

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, professors of international affairs at Harvard University and University of Chicago respectively, attempted to bring new acceptance to ‘Zionist-Control-of-Government’ charges by presenting them as a scholarly study far removed from the anti-Semitic claims of the Protocols. Positioning themselves as righteous truth-tellers, Walt and Mearsheimer hastened to assure readers that the Israel lobby is “certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that ‘controls’ U.S. foreign policy” but rather “a powerful interest group, made up of both Jews and gentiles, whose acknowledged purpose is to press Israel’s case within the United States.”

Undermining this disclaimer, however, was the authors’ disturbingly vague definition of the so-called “Israel lobby” as “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations” with “unmatched” power and “the ability to manipulate the American political system” against the interests and well-being of U.S. citizens. Beyond evoking the old claims of disproportionate and undue Jewish influence, the book’s supporting “evidence” was widely dismissed by academicians, reviewers and politicians across the spectrum, who exposed its shoddy scholarship, use of falsified quotations, distortion of facts, and untrue conclusions

Critics saw through Walt and Mearsheimer’s disclaimer, viewing their book as a successor to classic ZOG smears. Jeff Robbins, a former U.S. delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, questioned the motives behind the authors’ inconsistent outrage over lobby groups, concluding that “they [Walt and Mearsheimer] open themselves up to reasonable charges of something far more troublesome than mere hypocrisy, and that is anti-Jewish bias, by whatever name.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz criticized the book for its dishonest claims, similarly noting that “defaming the Jews by disputing their rightful place among the peoples of the world has been a long-running, well-documented, and disgraceful series of episodes across history.”

And the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson summed it up as follows:

“Walt and Mearsheimer are careful to say they are not anti-Semitic or conspiracy-minded. But their main inference — that Israel, the Israel lobby and Jewish neoconservatives called the shots for Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld — is not only rubbish, it is dangerous rubbish. As “mainstream” scholars, Walt and Mearsheimer cannot avoid the historical pedigree of this kind of charge. Every generation has seen accusations that Jews have dual loyalties, promote war and secretly control political structures. These academics may not follow their claims all the way to anti-Semitism. But this is the way it begins. This is the way it always begins.”

Anti-Zionist conspiracy theory literature is now once again in the news. A two-decade-old film and book by a husband-wife journalist team, Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, portrays the Jewish state as all-powerful and unscrupulous, entangled in global conspiracies, wars and influence-peddling.

The Cockburns’ one-hour film, “Israel: The Covert Connection” was aired on PBS’ Frontline in 1989, followed by the book,  Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship, which was published in 1991. But Leslie Cockburn’s anti-Israel charges and views are receiving new scrutiny and news coverage  because she is currently running as a candidate for Congress in the 5th District of Virginia.

Like Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby, the Cockburns’ book was condemned for its aura of classic anti-Zionist conspiracy theories, devoid of journalistic and scholarly merits.

Unlike The Israel Lobby, where the U.S. is portrayed as the hapless victim of a manipulative Israel lobby, the Cockburns suggest an immoral collusion between the two, with accusations aimed at the U.S., as well as at Israel.

Angelo Codevilla, Boston University Professor Emeritus of International Relations, called the book “no less than a history of the world since 1948, with the United States of America cast as the chief evildoer, and Israel as the evil genie.” In his 1991 review of the book for Commentary, Professor Codevilla, then at the Hoover Institution, presented his interpretation of the Cockburns’ depiction of Israel and its Jewish supporters:

“Israel’s leaders, unprincipled, cynical addicts to military force and dirty tricks, manipulate America through American Jews…These Jews have so corrupted America’s politics with their money that U.S. Presidents, too, have been led to betray our national interests by joining in massive cover-ups of Israeli misdeeds, including the illegal transfer of U.S. military technology.”

The U.S. isn’t the only country affected by Israel, according to the Cockburns: Israel’s tentacles reach far across the globe, training drug lords in the Medellin drug cartel, contributing to South African apartheid, guilty of complicity in the killings of Guatemalans, and more. Codevilla pointed to how the Cockburns had “fabricat[ed] quotations, twist[ed] logic, and imput[ed] guilt for nonexistent enormities” in the service of painting Israel as an “evil” entity, involved in nearly all of the world’s conflicts since its establishment.

A New York Times review by University of Iowa history professor David Schoenbaum noted that

“the book, supposedly a history of the secret ties between Israel and the United States, is largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake. Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace. The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”

The historian pointed out how feeble was the book’s substance, “with its selective documentation and unattributed interviews” as well as its pervasive “heavy irony, undifferentiated indignation and historical tendentiousness.”

Political scientist Edward Luttwak of The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., also discredited the book, pointing to its “amazingly long list of crude factual errors,” as well as “the authors’ tendency to construe all manner of military episodes in a sinister light.”

He noted that despite the book’s “academic pretensions,” it “offers nothing new” on the supposed U.S.-Israel covert relationship and is instead “padded out with irrelevant tales of Israeli deeds and misdeeds drawn from all periods and all climes.” For example, the reviewer dismissed as a childish “invention” the Cockburns’ defamatory and absurd claim that Israel had “seeded” the Golan Heights with “nuclear land mines.” He explained why the charge is nonsensical, commenting that “it is the first anti-Israeli accusation known to me that has been ignored by PLO propagandists, because it does not meet even that organization’s feeble standards of credibility.”

None of the authors of the above-mentioned anti-Israel tracts have disavowed their unsubstantiated slurs. Instead, when challenged, they pretend that theirs is simply truthful exposure of Israeli misdeeds. They attempt to silence their critics by casting them as part of the powerful lobby that brooks no legitimate criticism of Israel.

In the case of candidate Leslie Cockburn, she takes refuge in the fact that J-Street has endorsed her candidacy for Congress, using J-Street as a shield to defend against charges of anti-Zionism,  anti-Israel or anti-Jewish activism. But while J-Street calls itself “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” it promotes positions and endorses candidates that undermine Israeli legitimacy and threaten its security.  For example, J-Street’s endorsees voted against emergency funding for Israel’s defensive Iron Dome missile system and  signed a letter to the State Department urging it to investigate and possibly end military assistance to Israel. 

The hallmark of anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists is to peddle sensationalist slurs about manipulation of governments and power-brokers by Israel and/or her Jewish supporters without providing clear and substantive evidence or documentation. Their work is dangerous as it is embraced by racists and neo-Nazis, inspiring further animosity, malice and hostility against Jews.