The myth of the `Jewish lobby'

Print edition : October 10, 2003

The power and influence of major U.S. Jewish organisations owe a lot to the convergence of their views with the neo-conservative elements who dominate the ruling coalition in Washington.

SHORTLY after 9/11, a group of non-resident Indians (NRI) in the United States formed the Indian American Political Action Committee (INAPAC, shortly to be renamed USINAPAC). USINAPAC held two related briefs: to ensure that Indian Americans enjoy the same amount of political power it feels is held by the Jewish American community, and to deploy that power in the service of India, so that India may have something akin to the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship".

Formed in stealth and without any adequate claim to being a representative of the Indian American community, USINAPAC did however make common cause with various Jewish American lobby groups as the mainstream NRI group. On July 16, 2003, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and the USINAPAC held their first joint briefing.

Congressman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat and former co-chair of the India Caucus of the U.S. Congress, said: "One of the first things I would hear whenever I went around to the Indian American communities was how we can emulate the Jewish community, particularly how we can emulate AIPAC - in terms of their lobbying abilities, their grassroots abilities, their ability to organise the community politically." Kumar Barve, the highest elected Indian American and majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, told The Washington Post: "I think Indian Americans see the American Jewish community as a yardstick against which to compare themselves. It's seen as the gold standard in terms of political activism."

There are less than six million Jews in the U.S., just about two per cent of the population. If they can determine U.S. foreign policy, then they should certainly be the model for all communities that have the same agenda.

AIPAC, without a doubt, is a very strong lobbying organisation - in 2000, it gave the fourth largest donation to members of Congress who sit on both sides of the aisle. With an annual budget in excess of $15 million, a group of registered lobbyists and a staff in the hundreds, AIPAC can send out the troops to patrol the halls of Congress if any Bill inimical to the Israeli right-wing appears on the floor. The genius of AIPAC is that it sits at the centre of almost a hundred pro-Israel groups and coordinates their donations. Money lubricates the American political system, and AIPAC has been able to use its funds strategically to gain the support of a slew of elected representatives.

When Israel defeated the Arab armies in the Six Days War of June 1967, its profile increased in the eyes of the U.S. strategic planners. Israel took on the role of the gendarme of the oil lands, earned a massive aid package from the U.S. government and became an importer of U.S. arms. Stephen Zunes, Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Programme at San Francisco University, points out that, as a result the "Aerospace Industry Association, which promotes these massive arms shipments to Israel, is even more influential" than the so-called Jewish lobby. The "general thrust of U.S. policy would be pretty much the same even if AIPAC didn't exist. We didn't need a pro-Indonesia lobby to support Indonesia in its savage repression of East Timor all these years." In other words, AIPAC is powerful not because of its use of money alone, but decisively because of the strategic convergence of interests between Israel, AIPAC and the U.S. Congress.

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney (centre) and his wife at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem in March 2002.-GAMMA

THE U.S. Congress stands united behind Israel. Any dissension is met with the reproach of anti-Semitism. If this is the work of the "Jewish lobby", then it has achieved a remarkable feat: a totally bipartisan Congress with little opposition to its general goals. However, most American Jews tend to lean toward the Democratic Party, so why should the Republicans come out so strongly for Israel?

The Republican Party, particularly the Bush family, has the closest links to the oil sheikhs. In 1990, George W. Bush made almost a million dollars in a deal bankrolled by the emirate of Bahrain. Harken, a tiny Texas company that had Bush on its board won a contract in Bahrain against the giant Amaco, mainly because of Bush's contacts with his father, the then President. On the board of Harken, beside Bush, was Talat Othman, recently under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department for his role with Islamic charities. Othman, who offered the benediction at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, joined with Republican strategists Grover Norquist and Khaled Saffuri to create the Islamic Institute and to draw Muslims to the Republican Party. The Bush administration also elevated the first Arab American, Spencer Abraham, to the post of Energy Secretary. So why should a government so eager to please its Gulf allies, particularly the Saudis, go out of its way to take the side of Ariel Sharon's Israel?

Two public policy organisations give us a sense of an answer: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Martin Indyk, who worked as research director at AIPAC, founded WINEP in 1985 to produce policy papers on Israel in order to strengthen U.S.-Israeli relations. In 1988, WINEP published a report, "Building for Peace: An American Strategy for the Middle East", that focussed on what the new administration must do about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. WINEP concluded that the U.S. government should "resist pressures for a procedural breakthrough until conditions have ripened", that is, until the Palestinian resistance had been broken. Six members of the WINEP study group that wrote the report entered the 1988-1992 Bush administration, which, as it happened, adopted the right-wing Israeli line to alienate the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) despite its recognition of Israel at the Palestinian National Council of November 1988. While WINEP tended to toe the line of whatever party came to power in Israel, JINSA was the U.S. offshoot of the right-wing Likud Party.

Set up in 1997, JINSA draws from the most conservative hawks in the U.S. establishment for its board of directors: Richard Cheney (now Vice-President), John Bolton (now Under-Secretary of State), Douglas Feith (now Under-Secretary of Defence), Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Secretary of Defence), Lewis Libby (now Vice-President's Chief of Staff), Zalmay Khalilzad (now special envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan), Richard Armitage (now Deputy Secretary of State), Elliott Abrams (now National Security Council Adviser), and Richard Pearle (formerly on the Defence Policy Board).

Pearle and Feith, among others, drafted a paper entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm", published by the Institute for Advanced Strategic Political Studies (Washington and Jerusalem), that urged the Israeli government to repudiate the Oslo Accord, to annex permanently the Occupied Territories, to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein (and restore the Hashemite monarchy) - this last, "an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right". Benjamin Netanyahu, as Prime Minister of Israel at the time, rejected the report, particularly the adventurism against Iraq. When George W. Bush came to power, he adopted it, not because he was pushed by the "Jewish lobby", but because of the neo-conservative vision for American power in the world.

THE idea of the "Jewish lobby" is attractive because it draws upon at least a few hundred years of anti-Semitic worry about an international conspiracy operated by Jewish financiers to defraud the European and American working poor of their livelihood. The "Jew", without a country, but with a bank, had no loyalty to the nation, no solidarity with fellow citizens. The anti-Semitic document, "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", is a good illustration of this idea. The Nazis stigmatised the "Jew" as the reason for poverty and exploitation, and obscured the role played by capitalism in the reproduction of grief. The six million Jews in the U.S. do not determine U.S. foreign policy; nor are they united. Jews in America, like other communities, are rent with division, not united behind one agenda. When Charles Brooks of the AJC says: "We're fighting the same extremist enemy," the question to ask is who is included in "we"?

The AJC and AIPAC do not speak for all Jews in the U.S., but for the mythical "American Jewish community". Here are a list of organisations within the U.S. that totally oppose AIPAC and the AJC: Jewish Voices for Peace, Jews Against the Occupation, Jews for Peace in the Middle East, the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Tikkun, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and Women in Black.

In my two decades in the U.S., in almost all the struggles with which I have been involved (from the anti-Apartheid movement to the El Salvador solidarity work to labour struggles to anti-war work to work against the destruction of the U.S. welfare net), there have always been people of Jewish ancestry. The river of radicalism runs deeply through the world of American Jewry.

This tradition is well analysed by the philosopher Judith Butler: "The ethical framework within which most progressive Jews operate takes the form of the following question: Will we be silent (and thereby collaborate with illegitimately violent power), or will we make our voices heard (and be counted among those who did what they could to stop that violence), even if speaking poses a risk? The current Jewish critique of Israel is often portrayed as insensitive to Jewish suffering, past as well as present, yet its ethic is based on the experience of suffering, in order that suffering might stop."

The strand of progressive politics among American Jews draws strength from the litany of broadminded organisations within Israel itself: B'Tselem (human rights organisation), Gush Shalom (anti-occupation movement), Ta'ayush (Arab-Jewish organisation), Yesh Gvul (an organisation that represents Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in Palestine).

AIPAC and the AJC are powerful, but they do not determine U.S. foreign policy. They are powerful not just because of their money, but because their views converge with those of the neo-conservative elements who dominate the ruling coalition in Washington. Until the 1967 war, few American Jews wanted to identify themselves with Israel. In his 1957 survey of Jewish American attitudes, the sociologist Nathan Glazer found that Israel "had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry". Only one in 20 American Jews travelled to Israel before June 1967, and intellectuals at an AJC symposium on Jewish Identity held a few months before the war barely considered Israel in their comments. After the war, when Israel became a crucial player in U.S. strategy, Israel became, according to Norman Podhoretz, Editor of the neo-conservative monthly Commentary, "the religion of the American Jews", at least of the mainstream organisations. When AIPAC and the AJC go to Washington now, they meet receptive, even eager, ears. The lobbyists did not create the conditions for Israel's elevation. U.S. foreign policy did the work for them.

Groups like USINAPAC and others do not grasp that there is no "Jewish lobby" that has its hold on Washington. While such NRI groups want to emulate the "Jewish lobby", there are others who revile it. Both are in error. Israel is important to the United States for its major military presence and for its ability to keep the Arab allies, such as the Saudis, in line. Israel is important because of the Israeli Defence Force and Mossad, not the mythical "Jewish lobby".

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