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A Curious Incident at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

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Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose London Review of Books article on “the Israel Lobby” unleashed a major storm in the United States, have worked their article into a book. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, arguably the most top-drawer of all U.S. publishers, is bringing it out under the title The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy right after Labor Day. In this connection, the publisher had planned the usual tour to highlight the book, including a stop at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

But no. Evidently under intense, but anonymous pressure, the Council suddenly withdrew its invitation, saying that Mearsheimer and Walt could only appear if they were “balanced” by someone with a contending viewpoint. And here the Council specifically mentioned Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. Mearsheimer and Walt offer their summary of what happened in a letter to the Council, which I was able to obtain:

On July 19, while discussing the details of our visit with Sharon Houtkamp, who was handling the arrangements at the Council, we learned that the Council had already received a number of communications protesting our appearance. We were not particularly surprised by this news, as we had seen a similar pattern of behavior after our original article on “The Israel Lobby” appeared in the London Review of Books in March 2006. We were still looking forward to the event, however, especially because it gave us an opportunity to engage these issues in an open forum.

Then, on July 24, Council President Marshall Bouton phoned one of us (Mearsheimer) and informed him that he was cancelling the event. He said he felt “extremely uncomfortable making this call” and that his decision did not reflect his personal views on the subject of our book. Instead, he explained that his decision was based on the need “to protect the institution.” He said that he had a serious “political problem,” because there were individuals who would be angry if he gave us a venue to speak, and that this would have serious negative consequences for the Council. “This one is so hot,” Marshall maintained, that he could not present it at a Council session unless someone from “the other side”—such as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League—was on stage with us. At the very least, he needed to present “contending viewpoints.” But he said it was too late to try to change the format, as the fall schedule was being finalized and there would not be sufficient time to arrange an alternate date. He showed little interest in doing anything with us in 2008 or beyond.

Since the Council regularly offers its podium to a number of distinguished, and often enough not-so-distinguished speakers with sharply differing views on the Middle East (for instance, Michael Oren, Dennis Ross, Rashid Khalidi and Max Boot), it’s abundantly clear that this is not a matter of some established policy. Rather it’s the invisible hand of some heavy pressure group which has, likely through pressure and threats, secured a retraction of the invitation. And this reminds immediately of similar incidents which have recently occurred involving Tony Judt in New York and Jimmy Carter at Brandeis.

It’s as if someone were working feverishly to prove that the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis about the unseen hand of the Israel Lobby is the Gospel truth.

The Chicago Council has badly tarnished its name with this reprehensible conduct. It owes its members and the public a full accounting for this tale, including a description of the lobbying that went on to get Mearsheimer and Walt disinvited.

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