It's been a while since a book about American Jews has elicited as much controversy as "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," in which professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University argue that America's Israel lobby exercises "undue" influence and blocks other views on the Middle East.
In the noisy debate that has sprung up among its many critics and few advocates, the issue has been unfortunately narrowed to the obvious: how powerful the lobby is or isn't, and whether it is appropriate to discuss it in such terms. All but lost has been an opportunity to examine it in a broader context.
That there is a Jewish lobby in America concerned with the well-being of Israel is a silly question. It is insane to ask whether the 6 million American Jews should be concerned about the 6 million Israeli Jews, particularly in view of the massacre of another 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. It's elementary, my dear Watson: Any people who do not care for their own are not worthy of concern.
And what the Israel lobby does is what all ethnic lobbies Greek, Armenian, Latvian, Irish, Cuban, and others do in this democracy. It is a natural outgrowth of the melting pot that makes this country what it is and helps to provide us with a bridge to our origins.
What everyone has missed is that all these ethnic lobbies have been built from the bottom up, with but a single exception, a sinister lobby that works from the top down: the American lobby for Saudi Arabia.
Maybe now several more books could look into how such a huge lobby exists, even though, unlike the other communities that lobby, there are hardly any Saudi-Americans. Yet we have a lobby composed of American businessmen, oilmen, and academics as well as Arab-Americans from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere all borrowed, hijacked, and, indeed, bribed into filling a void.
To be sure, maybe a handful of Saudis have dual citizenship, but a genuine lobby they do not make. But the noise made on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, and inside the White House on behalf of the desert kingdom can be deafening. If Saudi Arabia wants American arms, Saudi Arabia gets arms; if Saudi Arabia cries foul over the bin Laden flock being stuck here the day after their next of kin blew up the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, President Bush lets all 50 of them out, no questions asked. What gives?
The mighty Saudi lobby is made up of concentric circles that emanate from a Saudi Embassy in Washington that acts as a checking account. The dollars flow to Saudi-funded mosques and theological enterprises, to America's academic institutions, which are panting for Saudi dollars, to the American oil and arms industries, and to Arab-Americans in need. Whether those communities of interest have any familial, social, or immigrant ties to Saudi Arabia is totally beside the point. This is how a lobby is built from the top down.
Take the famed case of Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi prince whose $10 million check for the Twin Towers Fund was returned by Mayor Giuliani when the prince linked the September 11 attacks to changing American policies in the Middle East. A couple of years ago, the prince sneaked his bucks back into America by giving $20 million to Harvard University.
What's the money for? To study Saudi traditions, Bedouin society, or desert communities? No. As stipulated in the gift, it was uniquely given for the study of Islam, Islamic jurisprudence, and Islamic history.
Forget about cross-cultural dialogue or the study of Saudi traditions, society, or just getting to know each other. It is Islam, specifically the Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam, that is being funded. Harvard officials are far too smart to miss the point but, hey, even with an endowment of $33 billion, another $20 million might come in handy.
However, the Saudi lobby's agenda, unlike those of the Israeli, Greek, or Armenian lobbies, represents a real and present danger to America's national interest, particularly when we recall that it was Saudi Arabia that produced, nurtured, and promoted 15 of the 19 Muslim fundamentalist hijackers who attacked this country on September 11. Saudi schools still teach the same basic stuff "Hate thy neighbor" and their lobby seeks to spread the word.
There is nothing wrong with taking the money, in my view. But it is not a gift from American Muslims or American Arabs, and the expected quid pro quo could be the sale of America's soul.