Last Thursday, at a vociferous debate in New York City’s Cooper Union, we heard something that struck us as a bit bizarre. The event was an intellectual all-star panel convened to discuss — and mostly yell at and over one another — the infamous London Review of Books article published last spring by two respected political scientists, Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, outlining what they describe as the overwhelming strength of the Israel lobby in America and how it works against U.S. interests. Mearsheimer (Walt was not present) was forced to defend his ideas in front of some very able detractors — Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, both high level advisers to President Clinton on the Middle East, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, an articulate former Israeli foreign minister. But Mearsheimer was not alone. His perspective was at least partly backed up by the presence of Rashid Khalidi, an outspoken Columbia University professor, and Tony Judt, a heavyweight from the left who writes often for the New York Review of Books.
It was something Judt said that raised our eyebrow. In trying to explain what he saw as the effectiveness of the Israel lobby in shutting down any real public debate about the American relationship with Israel, Judt cited an example from his own recent experience.
“When I submitted an article on my views on the debate that Walt and Mearsheimer kicked off to a very well-known American newspaper, I was asked by the editorial directors, would I mind telling them whether I am Jewish or not. They felt it was something they would like to know before they published it,” Judt said.
“But they published it?” asked Indyk.
“I told them I was Jewish,” Judt said dryly.
There is every reason to believe that Judt is referring to his long op-ed in the New York Times on the Walt-Mearsheimer controversy that took up most of the page on April 19. If what Judt is claiming is true, it’s egregious, but also ironic. Judt’s op-ed takes the mainstream media to task for being too afraid of being branded anti-Semitic to discuss the issues that the Walt-Mearsheimer paper presents. Now, it is possible that the Times asked Judt about his religion as part of a standard search for relevant bio-box material, and that had Judt not been Jewish the piece would have run anyway. But if Judt’s suspicions are on target, this question was designed to make sure that the paper could avoid the taint of anti-Semitism — somehow more difficult to claim when it’s a Jew doing the finger pointing. It may also have been the Times editors at work in this awkward parenthetical in a sentence halfway through Judt’s op-ed: “Anti-Semitism is real enough (I know something about it, growing up Jewish in 1950’s Britain), but for just that reason it should not be confused with political criticisms of Israel or its American supporters.”
Beyond the issue at hand — whether papers are indeed afraid to pose questions about the Israel lobby — is this more fundamental problem: Why would the editors of the Times ask about a contributor’s background in this way? We can understand a paper wanting to know about potential conflicts of interest, but it appears to be the opposite in this case. It’s the conflict of interest that allows the paper to cover itself more thoroughly. But this is wrong. An honest op-ed page is a forum for strong, challenging ideas. As gatekeepers, editors certainly have the right to determine what gets on the page and what does not. But when those decisions are made based on some politically correct notion of who has the right to make an argument — or worse, out of a desire to deflect criticism — then something crucial is lost.