The Fraudulent Scholarship of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar & Straus, Sept. 2007), by professors Stephen Walt of Harvard University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, charges that the “Israel lobby” has distorted the foreign policy of the United States in favor of Israel to the point of serious damage to U.S. interests, including allegedly making the country a target of Al Qaeda and other terrorists.

While such charges are not new – Pat Buchanan, Paul Findley, Edward Tivnan, David Duke and others have at various times said more or less the same thing – the difference here is the scholarly prestige of the authors. That Walt and Mearsheimer hold named chairs at two of the leading universities in the world lends great weight to their provocative thesis, with predictable results: a veritable flood of attention and a book on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is an extended elaboration of a “working paper” (click on pdf to download the paper) with the same title the authors published on the website of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2006. In their paper the authors summarize their case as follows (they make essentially the same argument on pages 7 and 8 of the book):

The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.

This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries is based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives. As we show below, however, neither of those explanations can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel.

Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the “Israel Lobby.” Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.

Perhaps anticipating that these claims might be controversial, the authors attempt to reassure any who might doubt them:

Some readers will find this analysis disturbing, but the facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars.

Contrary to Walt and Mearsheimer, however, the “facts” they recount are in many cases not facts at all, and therefore are – and ought to be – in serious dispute. A critical example of this are the numerous quotations Walt and Mearsheimer attribute to Israeli leaders to make the argument that there is no moral case for a close relationship with Israel. In other words, that Israel is bad.

Every one of these quotations is false or falsified, violating the basic requirement in scholarly writing that quotations be scrupulously accurate, presented in full context, and if at all possible taken from primary sources. Merely having a footnoted citation for some alleged quotation is not enough, especially in a controversial field where polemical writers may well be distorting the historical record for their own partisan purposes. Indeed, relying on such partisan sources for a fact or quotation is worse than giving no attribution at all, since the footnote that buttresses a false claim is itself a further deception.

While one of the falsified quotations attributed to David Ben Gurion in the paper is partially corrected in the book, the authors also added to the book new falsified quotations attributed to Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan and others. Compounding matters is that Professors Walt and Mearsheimer and their publisher were warned about the faulty quotations in the original paper. All in all, this is therefore a grave violation of scholarly norms for which Walt and Mearsheimer should be held to account.

The falsified quotations

As part of their effort to undermine Israel’s moral standing as an ally of the United States, Walt and Mearsheimer cite its allegedly oppressive and ruthless treatment of Arabs, and offer up as proof seemingly damaging statements by Israeli leaders. Thus they claim that the following statement by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, proved that Israel never really accepted partition of the Palestine Mandate into separate Jewish and Arab states, and was always intent on expelling and dispossessing the Palestinians:

After the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine. (paper; book, p 93)

Did Ben-Gurion actually say this? Not quite. The above quote is supposedly from a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive, the pre-state representative body of the Jews in the Palestine Mandate, and here’s what Ben-Gurion actually said according to the meeting protocol:

Mr. Ben-Gurion: The starting point for a solution of the question of the Arabs in the Jewish State is, in his view, the need to prepare the ground for an Arab-Jewish agreement; he supports [the establishment of] the Jewish State [on a small part of Palestine], not because he is satisfied with part of the country, but on the basis of the assumption that after we constitute a large force following the establishment of the state – we will cancel the partition [of the country between Jews and Arabs] and we will expand throughout the Land of Israel.

Mr. Shapira [a JAE member]: By force as well?

Mr. Ben-Gurion: [No]. Through mutual understanding and Jewish-Arab agreement. So long as we are weak and few the Arabs have neither the need nor the interest to conclude an alliance with us… And since the state is only a stage in the realization of Zionism and it must prepare the ground for our expansion throughout the whole country through Jewish-Arab agreement – we are obliged to run the state in such a way that will win us the friendship of the Arabs both within and outside the stat e. (from Efraim Karsh, “Falsifying the Record: Benny Morris, David Ben-Gurion and the ’Transfer’ Idea,” Israel Affairs, V4, No. 2, Winter 1997, p52-53)

In other words, Ben-Gurion was stating exactly the opposite of what Walt and Mearsheimer would have their readers believe.

In the paper and the book, the authors also “quoted” Ben-Gurion as apparently supporting “brutal” measures to expel Palestinians:

…the Zionists had to expel large numbers of Arabs from the territory that would eventually become Israel. There was simply no other way to accomplish their objective. Ben-Gurion saw the problem clearly, writing in 1941 that “it is impossible to imagine general evacuation [of the Arab population] without compulsion, and brutal compulsion.” (book p 95)

But in the paper the authors’ own citation actually undermines their claim. They cite two books for this quote, Expulsion of the Palestinians, by Nur Masalha, and Righteous Victims, by Benny Morris. Now either they never really checked the latter, or they were trying to fool their readers, for this is how Morris actually recounts the quote:

“Complete transfer without compulsion – and ruthless compulsion, at that – is hardly imaginable.” Some – Circassians, Druze, Bedouin, Shi’ites, tenant farmers, and landless laborers – could be persuaded to leave. But “the majority of the Arabs could hardly be expected to leave voluntarily within the short period of time which can materially affect our problem.” He concluded that the Jews should not “discourage other people, British or American, who favour transfer from advocating this course, but we should in no way make it part of our programme.” (Righteous Victims, p 169)

In other words, if you take seriously the authors’ own citation, it disproves their allegation. (It should also be noted that, just like Mearsheimer and Walt, Masalha somehow manages to omit that inconvenient part of Ben-Gurion’s statement in which the Israeli leader argues against adopting any policy of transfer.)

How the authors try in the book to rectify this critical error is revealing. A few lines after the cited paragraph they include the rest of the quotation as recounted by Morris, drop any reference to the obviously unreliable Masalha (note 70 on page 385), and assert with no evidence whatsoever that Ben-Gurion really supported expulsion of the Palestinians but was careful not to say so. In academic circles this is known as proof by “hand waving” – that is, no proof at all.

The Israelis as “brutal” theme appears again, as Walt and Mearsheimer inform readers that Israelis advocated and employed:

brutal methods to remove huge numbers of Palestinians from the land that would soon be the new Jewish state. Consider what Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary on January 1, 1948, at a time when he was involved in a series of important meetings with other Zionist leaders about how to deal with the Palestinians in their midst: “There is a need now for strong and brutal reaction. We need to be accurate about timing, place and those we hit. If we accuse a family – we need to harm them without mercy, women and children included. Otherwise, this is not an effective reaction … There is no need to distinguish between guilty and not guilty.” (book, p. 99; emphasis added)

Now, for this quote Walt and Mearsheimer cite one of their favorite authors, the Israeli “new historian” Ilan Pappe, and his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. And indeed Pappe’s book contains this passage, said to be from Ben-Gurion’s diary (though Walt and Mearsheimer omit a few words). But Pappe says that this was Ben-Gurion recounting not his own words but those of (Yigal) Allon, a pre-state Jewish military leader and later a prominent Israeli politician. For some reason Walt and Mearsheimer leave this out, leading readers to assume the author of these words was Ben-Gurion himself.

But there are far larger problems here. First, it seems clear even from the passage cited by Walt and Mearsheimer that what was being discussed was not a plan to “remove huge numbers of Palestinians,” but a proposed “reaction” to Arab attacks, which would target a family if they were involved in those attacks (“if we accuse a family”). Clearly a program involving mass expulsions would not refer to reactions or accusations against specific people.

Second, Pappe omits a key sentence which completely changes the character of the passage. Here is the actual full translation from the primary source, Ben-Gurion’s diary:

There is no question whether a reaction is necessary or not. The only question is when and where. Blowing up a house is not enough, especially if it’s not the right one. There is a need for a brutal and firm response. We need precision in time, place and casualties. If we definitely know the (culpable) family – hit without mercy, including the women and children of this family who might be there. Otherwise the reaction will not be effective. In the actual place of action, there is no need to distinguish between guilty and innocent. Where there was no attack (ie. the family is innocent), we must not touch. (emphasis added; David Ben-Gurion, Independence War Diary, V1, p 97-98; in Hebrew)

Pappe deceptively omits this sentence, which gives a hint of his own credibility. With it restored the nature of the discussion is clear – retaliation against those who have attacked Israelis. If it is known that the attacker lives in a certain house, attack that house even if there are also innocents inside. But if all inside the house are innocents, then it is forbidden to attack. Admittedly tough sentiments, though in the context of a tough and bloody war in which Israel lost fully one percent of its population.

Third, Pappe is also wrong about whose words were being recounted. While he claimed it was Allon, Ben-Gurion makes clear in the diary that he was recounting the words of one of his advisers on Arab affairs, Gad Machnes. Pappe is evidently no more fastidious with quotes and documents that Walt and Mearsheimer.

But there’s even more to be said on this. After all, Ben-Gurion was recounting in his diary, in telegraphic form, discussions from an extended meeting on critically important subjects. An obvious question for the scholar studying this period would be: Was there a written record of the meeting itself, and if so, what did it say?

Indeed there was a written record of the meeting and it further undermines the Walt/Mearsheimer position. For here is how that protocol records Machnes’ words:

I think that today there is no question whether or not to respond. But for the response to be effective, it must come in the right time and the right place and take the form of a s trong punishment. Blowing up a house is not enough. Blowing up a house of innocent people is certainly not enough! The response must be strong and harsh because it must create the [right] impression, must punish [the perpetrators of violence] and must serve as a warning. If our responses are not impressive—they will create the opposite impression. These matters necessitate the utmost precision—in terms of time, place, and whom and what to hit … If we operate against, say, a specific family in a known place, a known village [i.e., identified perpetrators of violence], then there should be no mercy! But only a direct blow and no touching of innocent people! We have already reached a position that necessitates a strong response. Today one should not even avoid hitting women and children. For otherwise, the response cannot be effective. (from Efraim Karsh, “Benny Morris and the Reign of Error,” Middle East Quarterly, March 1999; available at (emphasis added)

Obviously, this passage only further undermines the claims of Walt and Mearsheimer that participants at the meeting discussed “brutal methods to remove huge numbers of Palestinians.” Nothing could be further from the truth – neither the diary they claimed to be quoting, nor the actual protocol, says anything of the sort.

Besides the false quotes portraying Israeli leaders as brutal ethnic cleansers, Walt and Mearsheimer also dredge up other supposed quotes (page 89) to argue that Israeli leaders are racists. Thus they charge that former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin called the Palestinians “beasts walking on two legs” and former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan termed them “drugged roaches in a bottle.”

Did Begin say that Palestinians are beasts? The answer is absolutely not. In a June 8, 1982 statement to the Israeli parliament, Begin did use the term “two-footed animals,” but he was referring not to Palestinians but to terrorists who would murder Israeli schoolchildren. Begin’s statement is available online; here is the relevant passage:

The children of Israel will happily go to school and joyfully return home, just like the children in Washington, in Moscow, and in Peking, in Paris and in Rome, in Oslo, in Stockholm and in Copenhagen. The fate of… Jewish children has been different from all the children of the world throughout the generations. No more. We will defend our children. If the hand of any two-footed animal is raised against them, that hand will be cut off, and our children will grow up in joy in the homes of their parents.

Obviously there is nothing racist in the least in Begin’s statement, and once again the genuine quote actually undermines the point Walt and Mearsheimer were deceptively trying to make. And what about the Eitan quote? Did he really refer to the Palestinians as roaches? Once again, not quite. For this claim Walt and Mearsheimer cite a New York Times article from 1983, but the relevant passage says something very different:

[Eitan reportedly told] Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that for every incident of stone-throwing by Arab youths, 10 settlements should be built. “When we have settled the land,” he was quoted as saying, “all the Arabs will be able to do about it is scurry around like drugged roaches in a bottle.” (New York Times, April 14, 1983, p A3)

Now Eitan was never known for his diplomacy, but the expression he used clearly meant that the Palestinians would have no effective response to the policy he proposed. That is no more calling the Palestinians roaches than, for example, it would be calling Walt and Mearsheimer fish to say that deconstructing the claims of Walt and Mearsheimer is like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Thus, for example, it is not hard to deconstruct Walt and Mearsheimer’s use of an alleged statement by the former Israeli Foreign Minister and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Predictably, they simply accept as true Arab claims that Israel destroyed 531 Palestinian villages, and try to enlist Dayan in support of the charge:

Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan captures the catastrophe that the Jews inflicted on the Palestinians to create the state of Israel: “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because geography books no longer exist, not only the books do not exist, the Arab villages are not there either … There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.” (book, p 96)

Did Dayan really say this? Again, not quite, since the key sentence that reverses the meaning of the quotation is omitted, both by Walt and Mearsheimer, and by their very partisan source for this quote, Walid Khalidi.

The passage is from an address Dayan gave to Technion students on March 19, 1969 (the Technion is more or less Israel’s MIT). A transcript of the speech appeared in Ha’aretz on April 4, 1969. In answer to a student’s question suggesting that Israel deport to Jordan Palestinian attackers from the West Bank, Dayan answers that he is vehemently opposed to this idea, insisting that Arabs have roots in the land just like Jews, and that the two peoples must learn to live together. He goes on to say:

We came to a region of land that was inhabited by Arabs, and we set up a Jewish state. In a considerable number of places, we purchased the land from Arabs and set up Jewish villages where there had once been Arab villages. You don’t even know the names [of the previous Arab villages] and I don’t blame you, because those geography books aren’t around anymore. Not only the books, the villages aren’t around. Nahalal was established in the place of Mahalul, and Gvat was established in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Huneifis and Kfar Yehoshua in the place of Tel Shaman. There isn’t any place that was established in an area where there had not at one time been an Arab settlement. (emphasis added)

Dayan’s larger point that the two peoples must learn to coexist in itself contradicts the picture painted by Walt and Mearsheimer of ruthless Israelis dispossessing and oppressing Arabs. But the key is the sentence in bold above, which was curiously omitted by Khalidi and therefore missed by the credulous Walt and Mearsheimer: “In a considerable number of places, we purchased the land from Arabs and set up Jewish villages where there had once been Arab villages.” Thus, once again, far from supporting the point Walt and Mearsheimer were trying to make, the quote, when rendered accurately, actually undermines it.

However Walt and Mearsheimer “researched” these “quotations,” it is clear that as a rule they choose to believe any allegation s of Israeli wrongdoing and cruelty. In this they are no better than the proverbial bad journalist who says that a certain story was “too good to check.”

But Walt and Mearsheimer would be insulted to be called journalists. They are renowned professors, and their book on the “Israel Lobby” receives attention and credibility – and got a more than $700,000 book advance – because of their academic credentials and supposedly rigorous scholarship. But the record shows that their scholarship is laughably inadequate. Indeed, Walt and Mearsheimer seem no more reliable than some of the more hate-filled anti-Israel websites that are an affliction on the internet.

As academics Professors Walt and Mearsheimer operate under a very clear code – errors are supposed to be corrected forthrightly and promptly. Not to do so – and therefore to knowingly perpetuate falsehoods – is clear academic misconduct. So will Walt and Mearsheimer publicly admit their errors and offer readers an apology? Since they thought these “quotes” important enough to warrant an entire chapter in their book, now that the quotes have been refuted, will they publicly drop their charges denying a moral case for Israel? And will they instruct their publisher, Farrar, Straus, to include an errata sheet in all copies of the book? Finally, will they correct the working paper that is still posted on Harvard’s Kennedy School web site?

Professor Mearsheimer repeatedly uses the word “scholar” to defend his work, as in asserting that his claims are commonplace among scholars, and disputed only by pro-Israel partisans. The question now is will Mearsheimer and Walt act like scholars or partisans?

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