Vol. 31 No. 8 · 30 April 2009

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The Lobby Falters

The conspiracy theories about the pro-Israel community in America that are in full flower in John Mearsheimer’s ‘The Lobby Falters’ have three main characteristics (LRB, 26 March). First, they exaggerate the influence of the lobby. In the Charles Freeman affair, as in many other issues to do with the Middle East, the lobby’s perspective carried the day not because of its own unique power but because broader elements in American society shared that perspective. Charles Freeman’s views on Israel – blaming Israel for problems in the region as well as for the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States – are beyond mainstream American views, not only in Congress but in the media and in the country at large. Mearsheimer sets up a straw man in his claim that there is no diversity of thinking on Middle Eastern issues: in fact there is a lot of diversity. Freeman had nothing to do with diversity: he represented extremism.

A second characteristic of the conspiracy mongers is to present the legitimate actions of Israel’s supporters as somehow illegitimate or sinister. The lobby’s concern that Freeman blames Israel for every problem that arises is seen by Mearsheimer as stifling all criticism of Israel. Anxiety that Freeman would be in charge of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear programme is not legitimate, according to Mearsheimer, but instead an endeavour by the Israel lobby to control the intelligence community. The reality is much simpler than Mearsheimer suggests: supporters of Israel, as American citizens, are exercising their right to express views supportive of a strong US-Israel relationship. And the American people essentially share in that goal.

Finally, the conspiratorialists start with the assumption that no one could freely and rationally support the state of Israel. Therefore, if there is support it must be due to the lobby’s sinister influence. In fact, there are many good reasons why America supports Israel: the two countries share the same values, strategies and interests, including the common fight against Islamic extremists and the common desire for peace.

Abraham Foxman
Anti-Defamation League, New York

What if Aipac ceased to exist? What if there were a levelling of the playing field in the US media? What if Charles Freeman had become chair of the National Intelligence Council? What if the NIC continued to report that Iran is not making progress on its nuclear projects? What if there were more debate about the special relationship between the US and Israel? What if the US’s tilt towards Israel were reduced? All these changes would benefit the Palestinians. But only marginally. And none would speed the end of the conflict.

John Mearsheimer seems to believe that Israel’s intransigence is the stumbling block. He thinks that Israel would be less intransigent if the changes I’ve listed were to take place. But he’s wrong. Peace agreements have always, throughout history, reflected the relative power of the belligerents. Some agreements are fair. Some are tolerable. But no one should expect Israel to be the first nation in history to give away what it has fought long and hard to win.

Peace will ensue when each side is ready to acknowledge the other’s minimum requirements, not their minimum demands. Before this can happen, each side must achieve sufficient internal consensus on its bargaining position. This hasn’t happened yet on either side. The rocket firings and the invasion of Gaza are just the latest evidence that both sides are playing hardball. Outsiders will not hasten the arrival of peace. Level playing fields haven’t helped the victims in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Eritrea/Ethiopia – all of them conflicts in which the casualties and misery dwarf those in the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Louis Harovitz
New York

Not so nice after all

There is both good news and bad for Michael Wood, who is mildly worried about ‘something’ in The Class (LRB, 12 March). The good news is that the film is not, as he thinks, about the teacher M. Marin’s ‘niceness’, and the ‘social fact’ (of the politics of the classroom) that he is mildly worried about gets as hard a look as he could wish.

Wood’s mistake is to think that Laurent Cantet ‘wants us to see Marin as a good man who is trying to mix friendliness and understanding with firmness, and who is human enough to lose his grip now and then’. This makes The Class sound like just another inspirational teacher-under-fire scenario, but it is a misreading. Marin, whose behaviour in the classroom becomes increasingly unconnected from his behaviour in the staffroom as the film progresses, is a teacher who knows nothing about his students, sees it as his role to assimilate them ruthlessly to French culture, and controls them moment to moment with a sarcasm that passes for friendly wit. The contempt for him that Esmeralda shows is, by the film’s end, shown by virtually the whole class as they surround him with accusations in the playground.

To protect himself, he first attempts to hide the fact that it was his goading of Esmeralda that led to Souleymane’s outburst in the classroom, then gracefully allows the system to take its course (even to the extent of remaining on the disciplinary committee that expels Souleymane). The bad news for Michael Wood is that, if this reading of The Class is correct, he will start to feel more than mildly worried, because the ‘social fact’ that has been disclosed is very unpleasant indeed. Marin is not an especially bad teacher, and he is not a misfit in the system around him. None of the other teachers is doing any better than he is. No one suggests it might be a good idea to have someone present who can speak to Souleymane’s mother in her own language; no one suggests that knowing something about their cultures might make what the students say about food or respect or hospitality or silence more comprehensible to the teachers; no one thinks there is any chance of conducting a class on the basis of mutual respect.

Lesley Beaven
Christchurch, New Zealand

Italy’s Invertebrate Left

Perry Anderson is right to point out that the dismal state of the Italian left has its roots in past mistakes (LRB, 26 February). But he overestimates the room for manoeuvre available to the left in postwar Italy, and underestimates the Allies’ success in influencing the reconstruction agenda. By representing the Communist Party as always trailing timidly behind the Christian Democrats, he ignores its leading role in the social and labour conflicts of the 1950s, as well as the part it played in the civil growth of the country, transforming millions of ‘subjects’ or ‘rebels’ into ‘citizens’.

And only by refusing to compare the PCI with the rest of the Communist movement, of which it was an integral though increasingly reluctant part (at least until 1981), can Anderson regard it as Stalinist. In 1968 it wasn’t just the Manifesto Group (then an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese Cultural Revolution) that condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia: the executive committee of the PCI publicly expressed its ‘serious dissent and reprobation’.

Aldo Agosti
University of Turin

Perry Anderson sees a void in Italian cinema between the films made by Rossellini, Visconti and Antonioni in the 1940s and 1950s, and those of Nanni Moretti (LRB, 26 February). Italy, he writes, had no ‘combustible crossing of avant-garde with popular forms to compare with Godard in France or Fassbinder in Germany’. I find the omission of Pier Paolo Pasolini a bit surprising.

Alfio Bernabei
London NW3

Good Germans

It would have been fair of Jeremy Harding to mention that among the Germans in the French Foreign Legion were not only those who fought the Commune in 1871 and ‘ex-Wehrmacht and Waffen SS veterans’ after the Second World War, but also those who enrolled as foreign volunteers during the war to fight the Nazis (LRB, 26 March).

Gabriel Kahn

The Virgin and I

Hilary Mantel argues that before the Second Vatican Council, Marian devotion made girls miserable, and placed no ‘necessary limit’ on misogyny, because no woman could reach the standard of purity set by the Virgin (LRB, 9 April). I cannot speak for girls, but for boys the mischief of all this emerged early in adolescence. Mariolatry, so powerful to young minds, saddled us with the unwelcome feeling that to have sexual desires was to betray the love not only of Mary and the Church, but of our own earthly mothers. Not that this makes Mary the fount of misogyny, as Mantel seems to imply: that begins with Eve, and has never been exclusive to Catholics.

Robin Blake
London N1

Hilary Mantel’s review reminded me of the Oedipal injunction at my Catholic school, where we were expected to model ourselves on the Virgin Mary and advised to sleep on one side of the bed in order ‘to leave room for Jesus’.

Kate Soper
Rodmell, East Sussex

Uses of Guantánamo

In his review of Jana Lipman’s history of the US Naval Base at Guantánamo, Piero Gleijeses writes that ‘Bush gave it a new purpose’, claiming that ‘the US Constitution did not extend to the base and that it was, therefore, the ideal place to dump prisoners’ (LRB, 26 March). In fact, through the 1990s, both Republican (Bush Sr) and Democratic (Clinton) administrations made this claim in defence of their use of the base as a detention camp beyond the reach of US courts for Haitian, Cuban and Chinese refugees and asylum-seekers. Under Clinton, in a particularly shameful episode, the camp was used for HIV-positive Haitian refugees.

Mark Dow
New York

And now there’s this Julie Myerson

Tim Leggatt is indeed fortunate to have reached the age of 75 without experiencing ‘a naked and indefensible aversion to anyone’ (Letters, 26 March). I am a mere 73 yet have long recognised, like Spike Milligan, the benefit of forming an instant dislike: it saves time.

Garth Clarke


In her review of Daniel Karlin’s edition of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát, Marina Warner writes that the critical edition by Christopher Decker is no longer in print (LRB, 9 April). In fact it was reprinted in 2008 and is currently available from the University of Virginia Press.

Loren Biggs
University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville

What Auden Knew

I think I must be the colleague of Auden to whom Hugh Wright refers in his letter about Auden’s involvement in science at Christ Church in the early 1970s (Letters, 12 March). Auden did indeed read Scientific American. He even published in it. In the December 1972 issue, G.S. Stent had an article entitled ‘Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery’. After discussing it with me – I was a scientist at Christ Church at the time – and maybe with others, Auden sent a letter to the paper in reply to Stent’s article. It appeared in the issue of March 1973.

Roger Mallion


Through a fault entirely our own, an ‘f’ became an ‘s’ in the closing quotation in Hilary Mantel’s piece on the Virgin Mary (LRB, 9 April). The line should have read: ‘Ich herde a foul synge, id est angelum.’

Editor, ‘London Review’

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