IN its March 23rd issue the London Review of Books, a respected British journal, published an essay titled ''The Israel Lobby.'' The authors are two distinguished American academics (Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago) who posted a longer (83-page) version of their text on the Web site of Harvard's Kennedy School.
As they must have anticipated, the essay has run into a firestorm of vituperation and refutation. Critics have charged that their scholarship is shoddy and that their claims are, in the words of the columnist Christopher Hitchens, ''slightly but unmistakably smelly.'' The smell in question, of course, is that of anti-Semitism.
This somewhat hysterical response is regrettable. In spite of its provocative title, the essay draws on a wide variety of standard sources and is mostly uncontentious. But it makes two distinct and important claims. The first is that uncritical support for Israel across the decades has not served America's best interests. This is an assertion that can be debated on its merits. The authors' second claim is more controversial: American foreign policy choices, they write, have for years been distorted by one domestic pressure group, the ''Israel Lobby.''
Some would prefer, when explaining American actions overseas, to point a finger at the domestic ''energy lobby.'' Others might blame the influence of Wilsonian idealism, or imperial practices left over from the cold war. But that a powerful Israel lobby exists could hardly be denied by anyone who knows how Washington works. Its core is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, its penumbra a variety of national Jewish organizations.
Does the Israel Lobby affect our foreign policy choices? Of course -- that is one of its goals. And it has been rather successful: Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid and American responses to Israeli behavior have been overwhelmingly uncritical or supportive.
But does pressure to support Israel distort American decisions? That's a matter of judgment. Prominent Israeli leaders and their American supporters pressed very hard for the invasion of Iraq; but the United States would probably be in Iraq today even if there had been no Israel lobby. Is Israel, in Mearsheimer/Walt's words, ''a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states?'' I think it is; but that too is an issue for legitimate debate.
The essay and the issues it raises for American foreign policy have been prominently dissected and discussed overseas. In America, however, it's been another story: virtual silence in the mainstream media. Why? There are several plausible explanations. One is that a relatively obscure academic paper is of little concern to general-interest readers. Another is that claims about disproportionate Jewish public influence are hardly original -- and debate over them inevitably attracts interest from the political extremes. And then there is the view that Washington is anyway awash in ''lobbies'' of this sort, pressuring policymakers and distorting their choices.
Each of these considerations might reasonably account for the mainstream press's initial indifference to the Mearsheimer-Walt essay. But they don't convincingly explain the continued silence even after the article aroused stormy debate in the academy, within the Jewish community, among the opinion magazines and Web sites, and in the rest of the world. I think there is another element in play: fear. Fear of being thought to legitimize talk of a ''Jewish conspiracy''; fear of being thought anti-Israel; and thus, in the end, fear of licensing the expression of anti-Semitism.
The end result -- a failure to consider a major issue in public policy -- is a great pity. So what, you may ask, if Europeans debate this subject with such enthusiasm? Isn't Europe a hotbed of anti-Zionists (read anti-Semites) who will always relish the chance to attack Israel and her American friend? But it was David Aaronovitch, a Times of London columnist who, in the course of criticizing Mearsheimer and Walt, nonetheless conceded that ''I sympathize with their desire for redress, since there has been a cock-eyed failure in the U.S. to understand the plight of the Palestinians.''
And it was the German writer Christoph Bertram, a longstanding friend of America in a country where every public figure takes extraordinary care to tread carefully in such matters, who wrote in Die Zeit that ''it is rare to find scholars with the desire and the courage to break taboos.''
How are we to explain the fact that it is in Israel itself that the uncomfortable issues raised by Professors Mearsheimer and Walt have been most thoroughly aired? It was an Israeli columnist in the liberal daily Haaretz who described the American foreign policy advisers Richard Perle and Douglas Feith as ''walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments and Israeli interests.'' It was Israel's impeccably conservative Jerusalem Post that described Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, as ''devoutly pro-Israel.'' Are we to accuse Israelis, too, of ''anti-Zionism''?
The damage that is done by America's fear of anti-Semitism when discussing Israel is threefold. It is bad for Jews: 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. It is bad for Israel: by guaranteeing it unconditional support, Americans encourage Israel to act heedless of consequences. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev described the Mearsheimer-Walt essay as ''arrogant'' but also acknowledged ruefully: ''They are right. Had the United States saved Israel from itself, life today would be better the Israel Lobby in the United States harms Israel's true interests.''
BUT above all, self-censorship is bad for the United States itself. Americans are denying themselves participation in a fast-moving international conversation. Daniel Levy (a former Israeli peace negotiator) wrote in Haaretz that the Mearsheimer-Walt essay should be a wake-up call, a reminder of the damage the Israel lobby is doing to both nations. But I would go further. I think this essay, by two ''realist'' political scientists with no interest whatsoever in the Palestinians, is a straw in the wind.
Looking back, we shall see the Iraq war and its catastrophic consequences as not the beginning of a new democratic age in the Middle East but rather as the end of an era that began in the wake of the 1967 war, a period during which American alignment with Israel was shaped by two imperatives: cold-war strategic calculations and a new-found domestic sensitivity to the memory of the Holocaust and the debt owed to its victims and survivors.
For the terms of strategic debate are shifting. East Asia grows daily in importance. Meanwhile our clumsy failure to re-cast the Middle East -- and its enduring implications for our standing there -- has come into sharp focus. American influence in that part of the world now rests almost exclusively on our power to make war: which means in the end that it is no influence at all. Above all, perhaps, the Holocaust is passing beyond living memory. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that an Israeli soldier's great-grandmother died in Treblinka will not excuse his own misbehavior.
Thus it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state. It is already not at all self-evident to Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans or Asians. Why, they ask, has America chosen to lose touch with the rest of the international community on this issue? Americans may not like the implications of this question. But it is pressing. It bears directly on our international standing and influence; and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We cannot ignore it.