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Israel on the Potomac: power under pressure

About the author
Norman Birnbaum is university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center. He is active in the US Democratic party and has close ties to western Europe.

The discussion of Jews in United States politics and society, too often attended by polemical and polarising rhetoric on all sides, can only benefit from calm inquiry with a strong, independent factual basis. If this is true in the context of domestic policy, it is equally so where the United States-Israel relationship is concerned. This essay seeks to present the realities of Jewish and pro-Israeli political activity in Washington, and to look at how they are being affected by evolving political and strategic arguments in the second term of the George W Bush presidency.

The arguments begin, as so often, with numbers. How many Jews live in the United States? Not even the demographers agree - perhaps not surprising, given the doubts surrounding questions of identity, intermarriage, and affiliation. A useful working figure is 6 million, or about 2% of the US population (now over 300 million), with especially large concentrations in the urban areas of Los Angeles and New York above all.

Most American Jews are descended from the eastern European Jewish emigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. About 150,000 came in the 1930s from Austria, Germany and western Europe, followed after the war by another 150,000 holocaust survivors. There is also a post-1989 Russian Jewish population, and a large number of Israelis.

As a whole, Jews in the US are economically and culturally successful: well educated, prominent in business and finance, the arts, education, science and politics. The Jewish electorate is overwhelmingly Democrat: 80% voted for the Democratic Party in the congressional elections of November 2006, eleven out of 100 senators are Jewish, and the party draws at least a third of its funding from Jewish donors.

Notwithstanding their own prosperity, Jews generally favour the American welfare state - and (a vocal minority of the Orthodox excepted) consider that modernity demands a rather liberal reading of the Old Testament in matters of sexuality. In foreign policy, Jews have generally been multilateralist: their great modern hero was Franklin D Roosevelt. Many American Jews, moreover, share with their fellow-citizens the view that a negotiated solution to the conflict with the Palestinians ("land for peace") is desirable.

Norman Birnbaum is university professor emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center. He was one of the founding editors of New Left Review, was on the editorial board of Partisan Review, and is on the board of The Nation. He is active in the US Democratic party and has close ties to western Europe. Among his books is After Progress: American Social Reform And European Socialism In The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Also by Norman Birnbaum in openDemocracy:

"Remember Solidarity: Poland's journey to democracy"
(26 August 2005)

"Election and empire" (17 October 2006)

"One week after the storm"
(15 November 2006)

A political bond

There is a contrast here with the most audible and influential voice of American Jewry, the network of individuals and organisations often referred to as the "Israel lobby" - the grouping led jointly by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations. Their work - coordinated with, inter alia, the Israel government, its embassy in Washington and the political parties of the Israel right - takes a very different approach to that of most American Jews, above all in foreign policy.

The lobby supports American unilateralism, disparages the large parts of world opinion critical of the Israel occupation of Palestine, and endorses Israel's most repressive measures against the Palestinians; and many of the lobbyists, having successfully agitated for war on Iraq, are now mobilising for an equally hard line against Iran.

Its tactics have (until recently) been remarkably successful in neutralising the considerable criticism of Israel, and of the American alignment with Israel, voiced by many in the American churches, among the leadership of some black organisations, and by anti-imperial Democrats in Congress. Its rhetorical weapons include insisting on a direct connection between Arab and Muslim opposition to Israel's occupation and European anti-Semitism. The argument is that those who voice sympathy for that opposition are objectively anti-Semitic, whatever they may believe or say. If the critics are Jewish, the explanation is simple: they suffer from self-abnegation if not self-hatred.

After the six-day war of 1967 war, the Israel lobby was able to count on the support of the media, the marginalisation of Israel's critics, and overwhelming support in Congress. A politician who incurs the anger of the Israel lobby is taking a risk. One example of many is from the 2004 presidential campaign, when Howard Dean called for American "even-handedness" in the middle east - and then retreated, in haste and under fire.

A problem here is that American Jewry has allowed itself to be represented by persons who in manner and personality resemble not the Nobel prizewinners, writers and thinkers of whom it has every reason to be proud, but an earlier generation's formidable gangsters, who are not above descending to vulgar ethnocentrism for the sake of defending Israel.

This can be manifest in the tension between the claim of full rights in the (majority-Christian) United States by virtue of the universal principles of citizenship, and the insistence that nothing be done to alter the Jewish character of Israel. It is also apparent in the acceptance of an alliance with fundamentalist Protestants, whose Biblical literalism translates into uncritical support for Israel. Such contradictions can only be explained by a visceral identification with Israel.

For most American Jews, however, the ties to Israel are symbolic. They are not ready to abandon their promised land (the American suburbs) to settle in Israel. What does generate support for Israel is the combination of ancestral memories both of European anti-Semitism and American variety (once very widespread), along with awareness and imagery of the Nazi genocide of the 1940s.

Moreover, Israel in the American Jewish psyche is not the present corrupt, conflicted and poorly-led country, but a half-heroic, half-victimised and entirely mythic nation. Despite the integration of American Jewry in the larger society, many American Jews live in a hermetic world in which other Jews reinforce their beliefs. It is not only the active minority of committed Zionists whose instinctive reaction to the situation in the middle east is that Israel can do no wrong: otherwise critical and reflective American Jews think the same way.

They could not do so in such serene fashion were their non-Jewish fellow citizens more sceptical of Israel's claims. Such scepticism is made rare by the combination of guilt over the holocaust, a commendable reluctance to appear anti-Semitic, the systematic pro-Israel bias of the media, and (more recently) an identification of the US campaign against Islamist radicalism with Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.

More profoundly, the US's Calvinist traditions, which influence America's political as well as overall culture, nurture sympathy for Israel. If the US is the new Israel, all the more reason to support the old one. The geopolitical advantages of a military alliance (albeit ambiguous), and Israel's capacity to function as a preferred client, help to consolidate this potent mix.

The current president - a fundamentalist Christian attached to Biblical literalism, and a unilateralist in his conception of American power - is in this context a representative figure. His refusal even to pretend that the US feels any moral obligation to the Palestinians, his dismissal of the legitimacy of their elected representatives, his encouragement of the most brutal and reckless of Israel's policies - all are familiar, and any criticism by more rational imperial managers leaves him unperturbed.

In any case, Bush can for the most part count on the Democrats. In the new Democrat-controlled Congress, enough party stalwarts are sceptical of negotiating with Iran and Syria, and opposed to serious pressure on Israel to abandon its unilateralism with respect to the Palestinians, to prevent serious movement in the middle east.

A sign of retreat

That said, the Israel lobby is these days not entirely triumphant. Some influential Republicans are in open dissent from Bush's unilateralism; they include prominent figures like the former national-security advisor Brent Scowcroft, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and senior senators such as Richard Lugar and John Warner.

In September 2006, Haass defied the Israel lobby by inviting Iran's president to the CFR. Elie Wiesel attempted to organise a resignation of Jewish members of the council and was rebuffed. The moment was significant: one doesn't become president of the CFR, as official an unofficial body as there is, by solitary displays of iconoclasm - Haass, an admirable figure, must surely have coordinated his decision with a number of very senior persons.

A current, intriguing judicial prosecution offers further signals. A former mid-level official of the defence department, Lawrence Franklin, has pleaded guilty to misappropriating classified information on middle-east policy and giving it to two officers of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee; the latter, also under indictment, have been dismissed by Aipac. One of them, Steven Rosen, is known as an aggressive proponent of an American attack on Iran.

The Aipac officials, who have said they were carrying out the policies of their organisation, may be mindful of the fate of the civilian naval-intelligence official Jonathan Pollard. He spied for Israel, was sentenced to life imprisonment, and was left to his fate by most of the American Jewish organisations.

None of this prevented Aipac from persuading an extraordinary number of senior officials, congressmen and senators to appear at its annual meeting in Washington. Indeed, it has used the indictment to mobilise its supporters, arguing that it is proof of "anti-Semitism" in the government itself. Aipac has been unable to explain why its close friend, President Bush, has not intervened to terminate the prosecution. The answer is clear enough: the sheer effrontery of the Israel lobby and its placemen has provoked a reaction in the permanent government.

The indications that the capacity of the Israel lobby to set the limits of US policy appears now to be somewhat reduced may pass unnoticed by the American public. By contrast, Jimmy Carter's book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid has been widely discussed; the Israel lobby's contribution to the discussion has been an extensive campaign of denigration, alleging Carter's bias and incompetence (which has not stopped the book appearing on the best-seller lists).

Rabbi Henry Siegman, writing in The Nation, said: "Carter has been vilified for saying things about the occupation that appear regularly in almost all major Israeli newspapers." The book also provoked resignations from Carter's institutional colleagues, as well as criticism (in the midst of the mid-term election campaign) from Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean; Democratic politicians sought to emphasise that Carter did not speak for the Democrats.

Two episodes

A segment of the educated public (including many liberal and secularised Jews) is clearly not prepared to accept the Israel lobby's rules as to what may or may not be said about the middle east. A great deal of credit is due to the universities for maintaining a free space for discussion despite a great deal of pressure. Columbia University, for example, defended Edward Said, the late Palestinian scholar, from many attacks. The pressure continues; so does the opposition to it.

Two recent episodes are instructive.

The first involves the distinguished historian of Europe, Tony Judt, who (in an article in the New York Review of Books, 23 October 2003) described the idea of a Jewish state as anachronistic, and said that Israel's refusal to give the Palestinians a viable state would in the long run oblige both peoples to live together in a bi-national polity.

Judt, accused of calling for Israel's destruction, was undeterred. When an international group of younger New Yorkers invited him to speak in 2006 at the Polish consulate in New York, the Anti-Defamation League (which had just issued a report very critical of Poland) contacted the consulate, and the event was subsequently cancelled. The head of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, declared that the decision was entirely that of the Poles.

In a grotesque sequel, Judt himself withdrew from a speaking engagement at Manhattan College when a rabbi (also a member of the state legislature) threatened to convene a demonstration of holocaust survivors. Judt's own New York University has, like Columbia, been steadfast in upholding its faculty's rights to speak.

The second episode involves two more academics: the prominent Harvard professor, Stephen Walt, and his University of Chicago colleague, John Mearsheimer. Their London Review of Books article (23 March of 2006) entitled "The Israel Lobby" - written for the editors of the Atlantic Monthly, who decided against publishing it - provoked a firestorm of criticism.

The Israel lobby seemed to sense (correctly) that Mearsheimer and Walt are dangerous adversaries. They are not Jewish (some of the arguments about Judt - once a young Zionist - resembles one of those New York Jewish family quarrels which from time to time bring more heat than light to Manhattan); they are respected academic figures; and they have no sharply etched political profiles.

The scholars argue that the present alignment with Israel is not in the US's national interest, and that its continuation can be explained only by the Israel lobby's success in blocking serious debate about it. The response by Israel's supporters - where serious criticism has been drowned by calumny, distortion and self-righteousness - does not disprove their assertion. A number of Harvard graduates even announced that they will no longer contribute to their alma mater. Yet the overall response has been interesting: the prestigious publishing house, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux has asked Mearsheimer and Walt to write a book on the issue.

The Judt affair and the Mearsheimer-Walt paper have engendered two statements by rather different groups. Mark Lilla and Richard Sennett organised a set of scholars and writers to protest the ADL's intervention in Tony Judt's invitation (New York Review of Books, 16 November 2006). The letter treated the leader of the ADL as a public-spirited citizen devoted in principle to freedom of expression; its authors and signatories took no account of the ADL's having settled out of court a civil action brought against it in 1993 for (amongst other things) having collaborated with Israel and then-apartheid South Africa in spying on people in the US.

Another statement, which appeared on the website of the cultural-political journal Archipelago, had a somewhat broader range of signatories, including some very senior retired officials of the US foreign-policy apparatus. It is rather less solicitous of the ADL's bona fides (see Michael Massing, "The Storm over The Israel Lobby," New York Review of Books, 8 June 2006; and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's lengthy document, "Setting The Record Straight: A Response To Critics of 'The Israel Lobby'.")

Tony Judt's articles and the pieces by Mearsheimer and Walt, and Michael Massing, are certainly evidence for a widening of the scope of discussion in the academy and at the apex of the US's culturally stratified society. They are part of a counter-offensive of reason which in the end unites critics of the American empire and the more intelligent and honest imperial managers, against the Israel lobby and its unilateralist allies.

A time to rethink

Still, much of the body politic remains immobilised, constrained by the Israel lobby to narrow and ritualised responses to problems that cannot be solved (or even described) by its rhetoric. The catastrophe in Iraq may provide three groups with an incentive to rethink.

The first is the Jewish community itself. The Israel lobby speaks for organisations which amount to no more than half, at the most, of the American Jewish population. Its leaders exploit the community's fears and its solidarity with Israel - but ignore the willingness of many in the community to explore alternatives to policies which (in Gaza, the West Bank and most recently in Lebanon) have produced serial disasters.

The largest single Jewish group in the US is the Union for Reform Judaism, with nearly 1.5 million members. It is open to the arguments of the advocates of changed policies in Israel itself, sceptical of the Israel lobby's alliance with the Christian fundamentalists, and could serve as a bridge between the Jews who make their Jewish identification central to their lives and those more integrated with the secular pluralism of American life.

A Jewish identification by no means entails a blind endorsement of Israel: indeed, it has often led Jewish leaders to severe criticism of Israel's policies. Some of the groups closest to the critics of Likud in Israel itself are now discussing the formation of a bloc that would, in American politics, actively oppose the present alliance of the Israel lobby with those in Israel who are opposed to a critical reappraisal of the occupation.

The second group is the Democratic Party. It cannot hope to develop an alternative American foreign policy while retaining its present financial and intellectual dependence on the Israel lobby. Many factions inside the party are restive at the relationship - from the black and progressive congressional caucuses to human-rights advocates and liberal Christians.

The third group consists of those custodians of American tradition amongst the imperial managers who look back to Franklin D Roosevelt for inspiration, and to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr for ideas on the limits of American power. They see no reason for the US to incur the permanent enmity of the Arab and Muslim peoples by encouraging Israel's illusions of omnipotence. They consider that a policy which would do justice to American ideals and interests would demand far more even-handedness in the middle east.

In an interdependent world, the United States cannot and does not act alone. A European contribution to change in its policy is possible; but for that to happen, the Europeans would have to think of themselves as the equals of the US in their right to participate in shaping the middle east. That would be good for Europe, good for the United States, good for Israelis and Palestinians - and good for American Jews.


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