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'Israel lobby' critique roils academe

Some assail paper by a Harvard dean

A paper co-written by the academic dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government is setting off a firestorm in academic and political circles because of its assertions that US foreign policy is dominated by an ''Israel lobby" that ignores US national interest and makes the United States a target of Muslim terrorists.

According to the paper by Kennedy School academic dean Stephen M. Walt and University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer, American Jewish groups, leading Christian evangelicals, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Brookings Institution, and other think tanks have all contributed to sacrificing of US security needs to the interests of Israel.

''Saying that Israel and the United States are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards," the authors of the paper write. ''The United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel. . . . US support for Israel is not the only source of anti-American terrorism, but it is an important one."

The authors say that Israel long ago outlived its strategic usefulness to the United States and has become a strategic burden.

The paper first appeared two weeks ago in the Kennedy School website's ''working papers" section, where faculty members routinely post work in progress. It has received attention far beyond academia, drawing praise from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and Arab world media, and condemnation from many intellectuals and Israel advocacy groups.

But as challenges to the accuracy and evenhandedness of the authors have grown, the school removed the Harvard University-Kennedy School logo that originally appeared on the opening page, and inserted a strong disclaimer stating that the paper ''should not be interpreted or portrayed as reflecting the official position" of Harvard or the University of Chicago.

The paper is a broad synthesis of criticisms and charges against Israel long heard on the fringes of American politics and renewed in the debate over the Iraq war, allegations that also form the core of Arab world critiques of the Jewish state. The authors assert that Israel has not acted as an ally of the United States, that it has received inexplicably large amounts of US support, and that even in Israel's earliest days there was no moral case for the United States to support it.

The Israel lobby's activities ''are not the sort of conspiracy depicted in anti-Semitic tracts like the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' " Mearsheimer and Walt say. ''For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better."

But then they assert that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee ''is a de facto agent of a foreign government [and] has a stranglehold on the US Congress," that major newspapers, including The New York Times (which is owned by the same company as The Boston Globe), are biased toward Israel, and that ''pro-Israel forces dominate US think tanks, which play an important role in shaping public debate, as well as actual policy."

The significance of the paper, according to those who condemn it, as well as those who embrace it, lies in the Harvard and University of Chicago credentials of the authors and in the fact that it has been presented in a high-level academic forum, in a heavily footnoted style associated with accurate, objective scholarship.

Duke, a white supremacist whose website is dominated by articles and tape-recordings condemning Jews and Israel, devoted his entire half-hour Internet radio broadcast on March 18 to the paper, reading from it at length and suggesting that it confirms his long-stated views.

''Now it is finally revealed by some of the top academic sources in the country," Duke said. ''It is not just David Duke anymore. None other than researchers at Harvard and the University of Chicago" have said that ''the Israel lobby controls US foreign policy and is responsible for this war" in Iraq. ''What a fantastic step forward this is."

The paper is also getting heavy play on websites operated by the Arab satellite television network Al Jazeera, the Islamic extremist group Hamas, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In a brief telephone interview yesterday, Walt said: ''My coauthor and I stand behind our paper, and we welcome serious scholarly discussion of its arguments and evidence. Period." He would not respond to questions about Duke's use of the paper or to critics' comments made to the Globe.

In response to a Globe inquiry about the controversial paper, Kennedy School spokeswoman Melodie Jackson said in a statement that ''the Kennedy School is firmly committed to academic freedom and supports the practice of scholars introducing ideas into the public arena where they can be discussed and debated."

Mearsheimer did not return a call to his office in Chicago.

Ronald A. Heifetz, the King Hussein Bin Talal lecturer in public leadership at the Kennedy School, said in a telephone interview yesterday that Mearsheimer and Walt had exceeded the bounds of academic freedom and that the dean of the Kennedy School should look into the matter.

''When a member of the Harvard faculty speaks, people are inclined to view us as credible sources of analysis and insight," Heifetz said. ''We have a special responsibility to clarify the difference between voicing an opinion and presenting a work of scholarship. . . . It behooves us to be careful about what we say . . . if we express a point of view that can be embraced by David Duke and the Muslim Brotherhood to justify racist, terrorist activities."

Marvin Kalb, a veteran journalist and longtime faculty member at the Kennedy School, said the article contained factual errors and was written on the assumption that the United States should side with Muslims rather than Jews in the Middle East because of the much greater number of Muslims.

''I was disappointed that a paper of this quality appeared under the Kennedy School label," Kalb said. ''I understand this is no longer the case. That was a good move."

Alex Safian, associate director of the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, said that there were numerous factual errors, detailed on his organization's website, such as overstatement of the proportion of US foreign aid received by Israel. Safian also asserted that the authors' real issue is that US foreign policy is subject to public politics and the give and take of interest groups.

''Their problem is not that a cabal is running US foreign policy," he said. ''It is that they would like to be in the cabal."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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