Can American Jews unplug the Israel lobby?
- As Bush's unbalanced Mideast policies careen from disaster to
disaster, people who don't toe the AIPAC line are beginning to speak out.
Can American Jews unplug the Israel lobby?
By Gary Kamiya
Last week, a familiar Washington ritual took place: Leading American
politicians from both parties lined up at the annual policy conference
of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to vie with each other
over who could pledge the most undying fealty to Israel. As usual,
much of Congress showed up -- half of the members of the U.S. Senate
and more than half of the House, including figures like Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama, along with Vice President Dick Cheney.
It was a typical AIPAC parallel-universe extravaganza, marred only by
partisan rifts that have begun to appear over Iraq. (Even some of the
AIPAC crowd, who overwhelmingly supported the war at the outset, have
begun to realize that it has been a disaster for both the United
States and Israel.) Cheney got a standing ovation, Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert said via a video link that winning the war in
Iraq was important for Israel, Nancy Pelosi was booed for criticizing
the war, a fire-breathing Christian dispensationalist who believes
that war on Iran will bring about the Rapture and the Second Coming
was rapturously greeted, and Barack Obama took heat for having the
audacity to mention the suffering of the Palestinians.
But AIPAC showed its true power -- and its continuing ability to steer
American Mideast policy in a disastrous direction -- when a group of
conservative and pro-Israel Democrats succeeded in removing language
from a military appropriations bill that would have required Bush to
get congressional approval before using military force against Iran.
The pro-Israel lobby's victory on the Iran bill is almost
unbelievable. Even after the nation repudiated the Iraq war decisively
in the 2006 midterms, even after it has become clear that the Bush
administration's Middle East policy is severely unbalanced toward
Israel and has damaged America's standing in the world, Congress still
cannot bring itself to stand up to the AIPAC line.
The fact that AIPAC, which is ranked as the second-most powerful lobby
in the country (trailing only AARP, but ahead of the NRA) virtually
dictates U.S. policy in the Mideast has long been one of those surreal
facts of Washington life that politicians discuss only when they get
near retirement -- if then. In 2004, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings had
the bad taste to reveal this inconvenient truth when he said, "You
can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around
here." Michael Massing, who has done exemplary reporting on AIPAC for
the New York Review of Books, quoted a congressional staffer as
saying, "We can count on well over half the House -- 250 to 300
members -- to do reflexively whatever AIPAC wants." In unguarded
moments, even top AIPAC figures have confirmed such claims. The New
Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg quoted Steven Rosen, AIPAC's former
foreign-policy director who is now awaiting trial on charges of
passing top-secret Pentagon information to Israel, as saying, "You see
this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of
seventy senators on this napkin."
Until 9/11 and the Iraq war, this state of affairs was of little
concern to anyone except those passionately interested in the Middle
East -- a small group that has never included more than a tiny
minority of Americans, Jews or non-Jews. If the pro-Israel lobby
wielded enormous power over America's Mideast policies, so what?
America's Mideast policies were always reliably pro-Israel anyway, for
a variety of reasons, including many that had nothing to do with
lobbying by American Jews. And the stakes didn't seem that big.
But in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war, that all changed
dramatically. 9/11, and the Bush administration's response to it, made
it inescapably clear that America's Mideast policies affect everyone
in the country: They are literally a matter of life and death. The
Bush administration's neoconservative Mideast policy is essentially
indistinguishable from AIPAC's. And so it is no longer possible to
ignore it -- even though it is a notoriously touchy and divisive subject.
The touchiest aspect of all is the role played by pro-Israel
neoconservatives in laying the groundwork for the Iraq war. Much of
the media has been loath to go near this, for obvious and in some ways
honorable reasons: It feels a little like "blame the Jews." But that
taboo has faded as it has become clearer that "the Jews" are not the
ones being blamed for helping pave the way to war, but a group of
powerful neoconservatives, some but not all of them Jewish, who
subscribe to the hard-right views of Israel's Likud Party. This group
no more represents "the Jews" than the Shining Path represents "the
Logic and forthrightness has traditionally taken a back seat to
timorous self-censorship when it comes to discussing these matters.
But in addition to the war debate, several other watershed events have
helped erode the taboo against discussing the power of the Israel
lobby. The most important were the publications of John Mearsheimer
and Stephen Walt's "The Israel Lobby," and Jimmy Carter's "Palestine:
Peace Not Apartheid." The overwrought reaction to Mearsheimer and
Walt's piece, ironically, only supported its thesis. Similarly, the
opprobrium heaped on Carter only succeeded in making it clear how
little room there is for open discussion of these issues in America.
For all these reasons, a powerful spotlight has been turned on the
pro-Israel lobby. And there are signs that increasing numbers of
Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, are willing to openly question
whether it is in America's national interest for AIPAC, whose
positions are well to the right of those held by most American Jews,
to wield such disproportionate power over America's Mideast policies.
As a group, American Jews continue to be staunchly liberal. A new poll
shows that 77 percent of American Jews now think that the Iraq war was
a mistake, compared with 52 percent of all Americans. (Jewish support
for the war has collapsed: A poll taken a month before the war showed
that 56 percent of Jews supported it, somewhat below the national
average at that time.) Eighty-seven percent of Jews voted Democratic
in 2006. And although data here is murkier, polls also show that most
American Jews hold views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are
to the left of AIPAC's.
What all this adds up to is that for liberal or moderate American Jews
who don't support Bush's war in Iraq or his "war on terror" and who
are willing to look at Israel warts and all, the fact that AIPAC has
anointed itself as the de facto spokesmen for American Jews is
becoming more and more unacceptable. And increasing numbers of them
are beginning to speak out.
One of the most trenchant commentators is Philip Weiss, a regular
contributor to the Nation. Weiss' blog, MondoWeiss, offers informed
and passionate discussions of what he calls "delicate and
controversial matters surrounding American Jewish identity and
Israel." He routinely skewers attempts by mainstream Jewish
organizations and pundits to lay down the law on what is acceptable
discourse. This means being willing to look at off-limits subjects
like "dual loyalty." When the American Jewish Committee, a powerful
advocacy group that shares AIPAC'S line, issued a reactionary response
to the Mearsheimer-Walt piece and the Carter book, accusing Jewish
intellectuals who didn't toe the party line on Israel of being
"self-haters," Weiss pointed out that the heavy-handed attempt had
backfired -- instead of silencing dissenting voices, the AJC piece
revealed for all to see the "anti-intellectual, vicious, omerta
practices of the Jewish leadership."
Other widely read writers who have been outspoken on formerly taboo
subjects include Matthew Yglesias of the American Prospect and Glenn
Greenwald of Salon. Both Greenwald and Yglesias, for example,
punctured a classic attempt by the Jewish establishment to smear Gen.
Wesley Clark, who, saying that he feared that Bush might be preparing
to attack Iran, added, "The Jewish community is divided but there is
so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the
office seekers." Clark was immediately -- and predictably -- accused
of being anti-Semitic for referring to "the New York money people" and
implying they wanted war with Iran. But as both Yglesias and Greenwald
pointed out, everything Clark said was demonstrably true. Adding
insult to injury, Greenwald proved it was true by citing such
right-wing, pro-Israel media sources as the New York Sun and the New
Of course, a few blogs, articles and organizations do not necessarily
a movement make -- certainly not one capable of standing up to a
deep-pocketed powerhouse like AIPAC. But there are other signs that
the hegemony of AIPAC and its ilk is weakening. Last year liberal
Jewish groups like Americans for Peace Now, Jewish Alliance for
Justice and Peace, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and
the Israel Policy Forum succeeded in handing AIPAC a legislative
defeat, persuading Congress to gut a harsh AIPAC-supported bill that
would have cut off all aid to the Palestinian people. These groups
still have only a fraction of AIPAC's clout and money. But as Gregory
Levey noted in Salon, there has been talk of a new lobby, possibly
bankrolled by billionaire George Soros, which would compete with
AIPAC. If such a group comes into existence -- and it's much too soon
to say that it will -- the entire playing field would be changed.
How long AIPAC will hold sway depends on how long it can convince
politicians that it speaks for American Jews. It doesn't, but only
American Jews can prove that. American politicians are not going to
stop paying homage to AIPAC until there's an alternative -- and only
Jews can provide it. Are liberal Jews really beginning to turn speak
out against AIPAC? And if not, why not?
To try to get some answers, I called M.J. Rosenberg, the director of
policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington-based
liberal counterpart to AIPAC that advocates muscular U.S. support for
a two-state solution in Palestine. Rosenberg worked for AIPAC between
1982 and 1986, but broke with the group when he became disenchanted
with its hard-line response to the Oslo peace process.
I asked Rosenberg how AIPAC has been able to maintain its power.
"Although they [AIPAC] don't represent anything like a majority of
American Jews, they may represent a majority of those who are most
interested in Israel," Rosenberg said. "American Jews who care about
Israel and other things are more likely to be supporters of the IPF
kind of approach. I think Jews who care only about Israel are closer
to the AIPAC position. In our politics today, single-issue voters and
donors tend to have clout out of all proportion to their numbers.
That's nothing new. My father used to tell me that in the 1930s when
you had any kind of a meeting of liberals, the Communists always
prevailed because they were the most single-minded -- everybody else
would go home. Things go to extremes. And that would apply to the
right-to-life movement and the gun movement as well. We always claim
we're the majority -- we are, but we have a soft majority. And they've
got a hard minority."
Why weren't more American Jews with moderate views on the Middle East
stepping forward to challenge AIPAC and its hawkish policies? I asked
Rosenberg. Was it because they were afraid of being morally
blackmailed -- facing the predictable accusations of being self-hating
Jews, disloyal to Israel, collaborationist "kapos," and so on?
"I think the number of people in that group is relatively small,"
Rosenberg said. "I think the much larger number are people who are
absolutely indifferent. And therefore they're not susceptible to moral
blackmail because they will never hear what AIPAC or the IPF or any of
the Israel organizations say. I don't know what percentage it is, but
my guess is that no more than 40 percent of American Jews think about
Israel in any way, shape or form. Most of them live their lives, like
most people do. So we're fighting over people who think about it at
all, and as I said the single-issue ones tend to be more with AIPAC
for now. We're trying to get the rest. But I do think that as time
goes on, with more and more young people, that moral blackmail thing
doesn't work anymore."
Rosenberg said that long-term demographic trends were working against
AIPAC and its fear tactics. The AIPAC leadership, which he described
as a "true believer [on Israel] crowd with money," is "a much older
crowd," he said. "Their children and grandchildren don't have those
views. As we get further from World War II, it's harder to scare young
people into support for Israel. They will support Israel if they
believe in Israel and if Israel appeals to them. But those scare
tactics, 'write checks because there's going to be another Holocaust'
-- that's doesn't work with the under-60 crowd. The people who
demonstrated against the Vietnam war in the '60s, they're just not
going to buy into the 'Hitler is coming' stuff. They're just too smart
for that. I've got kids in their 20s -- the idea of telling them that
America could be a dangerous place for them? They would laugh in my
face. That's ridiculous."
Rosenberg also pointed out that "Israel's popularity with American
Jews has gone down since 1977, when Begin became prime minister. The
way Israel was sold, the Leon Uris Israel, was the Israel of the
kibbutz, this socialist paradise. And that's totally changed now. A
lot of the glow is really gone, which makes me sad, because I'm very
involved with Israel and I care a lot about Israel."
Rosenberg said that one of the best things American Jews can do to
educate themselves about Israel is to read the Israeli press, which
routinely prints pieces far more harshly critical of Israel than
anything found in the American media. "If people who don't follow the
situation closely started to read the Israeli press, started to read
Haaretz, they'd realize how much debate there is there, and how many
people feel terribly about what's happened to the Palestinians, and
how many people are determined to break out of this situation,"
Rosenberg said. "And they'd realize that Israelis in general feel that
the rhetoric of American Jewish organizations is about as outdated as
the last century. It says nothing to Israelis. They laugh at that kind
of rhetoric. If American Jews saw what the debate is like there, that
would make Israel more popular. The more knowledge, the better.
American Jews would see that the kind of liberal humanitarian views
they have on issues here are perfectly legitimate in Israel, and
perfectly common in Israel, even though in the mainstream American
Jewish organizations they're considered off-center."
Rosenberg compared American Jews' evolving attitudes to Israel to the
achievements of the civil rights movement. "Look, 25 years ago you
couldn't even talk about the Palestinians. I mean, Golda Meir said
there was no such thing as a Palestinian. Now there's not a single
major Jewish organization except the far-right organizations that does
not give at least nominal support to the two-state solution. So it's
moving. It's kind of like the civil rights movement in this country.
It's not perfect, but you see the change. I would say that 90 percent
of American Jews understand that there's going to be a Palestinian
state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
That's what most Israelis know is going to be the future. So that's
Liberal American Jews are in a difficult situation, with powerful and
understandable emotional crosscurrents pulling them both ways. If they
are liberal, antiwar, anti-Bush Democrats, willing to look critically
at Israel, you'd think they might be willing to speak out against
AIPAC. But why should they? Like most other Americans, most Jews are
probably sick of Israel's endless conflict with the Palestinians,
don't know much about it, and aren't that interested in learning more.
Everyone knows that holding strong opinions about the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a surefire ticket to painful arguments
-- in this case, possibly within one's own family. Much easier just to
let AIPAC be in charge of speaking for Jews on Israel and be done with it.
American Jews may not be as susceptible as they once were to the old
fear-and-guilt approach, as Rosenberg suggests, but for many Israel
remains something of an untouchable subject. They may not support it
100 percent, maybe not even 50 percent, but they're still not ready to
do anything to undercut a group like AIPAC that does. For some, this
is simply a reflection of a more or less ardent Zionism. For others,
the reasons can be subtler. For Jews who have little attachment to
their religion or their cultural traditions, supporting Israel --
which for many, unfortunately, means actively or passively supporting
AIPAC's position on Israel -- may be a way of demonstrating that they
haven't completely abandoned their heritage. The internalized
second-class status of being in the diaspora, too, may play a role:
"Who am I in New York City to say anything against a guy in the West
Bank facing suicide bombers?" As Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent
and my longtime Salon colleague Aluf Benn once told me, "For American
Jews, Israel is a cause. We Israelis don't see it that way."
We find ourselves in a very strange situation. America's Mideast
policies are in thrall to a powerful Washington lobby that is only
able to hold power because it has not been challenged by the people it
presumes to speak for. But if enough American Jews were to stand up
and say "not in my name," they could have a decisive impact on
America's disastrous Mideast policies.
Gary Kamiya is a writer at large for Salon.
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