Two cheers for AIPAC; this is not the most popular sentiment in the foreign policy world, where the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is often both feared for its power and loathed for an approach to Middle East policy that, in the opinion of its many critics is often seen as unsubtle, one-sided and unhelpful.
I’d agree that AIPAC isn’t always right, and like most of us is most confident and determined when it’s least helpful, but so what? In pasts posts I’ve shared my opinion that AIPAC is powerful less because of the money and energy that its (mostly Jewish) members bring to the table than because of the widespread sense in Washington that being pro-Israel is the popular position in the United States, and that if AIPAC blasts you as anti-Israel, the charge tends to stick. If you think US Middle Eastern policy should be less pro-Israel, attacking and bemoaning AIPAC won’t get you anywhere. There’s not even much point in trying to persuade the Jews; American Jews tend to be more liberal on US-Israel policy than most gentiles already. It’s the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t Jewish that you need to persuade; if the broad American majority ever decides that backing Israel as much as we do is a bad thing, then policy will gradually but decisively change — no matter what AIPAC does or how much money it works. This is what happened to the Tobacco Lobby; it is what will happen to the Israel Lobby if Israel if the tide of opinion on this question ever turns.
But there’s another question about AIPAC: regardless of its effects on American Middle Eastern policy, is the presence of high profile and influential lobby groups based on Jewish money and Jewish community organizing a danger to the American Jewish community? All over the world, AIPAC and its ilk are held up as examples of the devious and insidious occult power of American Jews: ‘they’ control the media, ‘they’ buy and sell politicians and elections, ‘they’ are the puppet-masters who pull the strings. Many of the people who make these charges insist, with smug and tedious pomposity, that they aren’t anti-Semites. I’m sure some of them are right; Brutus says he is no anti-Semite, and Brutus is an honorable man.
The question is whether AIPAC’s public advocacy of US support for Israel ultimately must bear responsibility for the rise of anti-Semitism here and abroad? Does Jewish advocacy that calls attention to itself ultimately get the whole people in trouble, and would diaspora Jews do better to keep their heads down and creep around the fringes of public life?
The answer, I am glad to say, is a clear no. In the United States at least, lobbying for Zion turns out to be good for the Jews. The rise of AIPAC and other Jewish groups who make the case for stronger US support for Israel angers some international affairs specialists and others who think that on the whole the US-Israel relationship is bad for the United States. There definitely are groups of people who, while doing their level best to fight the temptation (so are they all honorable men), are so angry and so frightened by what they see as the Jewish juggernaut crushing dissent and imposing suicidal Middle Eastern policies on the stupidly passive American gentile population, sometimes cross that all-important line that separates the virtuously anti-Zionist from the vilely anti-Semitic. But out there where it really counts, in the great sea of American public opinion, Jewish support for Israel doesn’t work that way. In fact, from what I can see the (mistaken) view that Jews are more hawkish than most Americans on the subject of Israel probably works to reduce anti-Semitism in the United States.
AIPAC, in other words, is good for the Jews, regardless of whether the positions it advocates are good for either Israel or the United States from a foreign policy perspective. And because AIPAC and its allies help defend this country against a potential upsurge in anti-Semitism, these groups provide a valuable public service that has nothing to do with the merits of the policies they support.
To understand why, it’s important to think about what American anti-Semitism would look like if it did–although it won’t, as I explain below—became a genuinely powerful and dangerous force. If the disease of anti-Semitism were to take hold in this country, it would be directed at a perceived anti-American, anti-middle class conspiracy involving the elite media, Wall Street, Hollywood and liberal pressure groups like the ACLU. Anti-Semites would accuse Jews in the media of reporting anti-American, anti-strong defense stories in an effort to destroy America’s self image as an exceptional nation. Wall Street — which would be depicted as dominated by Jews — would be out to destroy middle class life by promoting globalization and financial schemes to transfer wealth to the hands of a few (mostly) Jewish plutocrats. Hollywood would work with the media to undermine America’s sense of exceptional nationalism and its Christian faith, while liberal political pressure groups like the ACLU would be eating away at our moral fiber and the defenses of the state. These different forces would all be seen as operating with one will, subverting democracy, marginalizing dissent from their destructive agenda, and making the United States economically, morally and militarily weak. The Jewish puppet masters pull the strings; the tame politicians and the media dance to their tune.
This was the kind of message that men like Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1930’s, spewed out on the airwaves; this is the message that the KKK and the American Nazi Party hope catches on. It’s the Americanized version of the standard European anti-Semitic complex: the Jew is the enemy of the ideological and cultural cohesion of the folk, seeking to inflict a cosmopolitan worldview on the populace, because that is the only kind of world in which the Jew can flourish. The Jew is the agent of cosmopolitan secularism linked to soulless, post-national capital — that is the classic anti-Semitic rant. This is what the anti-Dreyfusards said in France; it is what the Nazis said in Germany. It’s what generations of anti-Semites have said all over the world.
We can all be glad that American life is relatively free of this evil and that populist upsurges, like the Tea Party movement for example, don’t lurch in this direction.
There are a number of reasons why this isn’t happening here, and I’m grateful for all of them. A society afflicted by this kind of anti-Semitism is a society on its way down — economically and politically as well as morally. As I’ve written in God and Gold, the ability of a society to thrive on the kind of dynamic diversity that comes when there are religious and ethnic minorities who play important roles in national life is one of the key traits necessary for success in a capitalist era. Anti-Semitism is a kind of social mark of Cain that indicates a society or culture that is not ready for prime time and which will fail the tests of modern life; when anti-Semitism gains a foothold, the canary in your coal mine has just keeled over and died.
One of the reasons that America is so relatively impervious to the anti-Semitic virus is the existence of well publicized groups like AIPAC. In America, lobbying for Israel makes Jews look more patriotic, more American, even in a certain way more pro-Christian.
First, in America, you can’t forget God. It’s not just the long history of American pro-Zionism, a history that can be traced back to Cotton Mather and before him to the Puritans in England. And it’s certainly not just fundamentalist religious fervor. Nobody ever called Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman or Bill Clinton Christian fundamentalists, but there is plenty of evidence that their personal religious convictions played a substantial role in their decisions to support the Jewish project in the Middle East.
There’s a sense in which Americans (liberal as well as conservative, theologically moderate or even modernist as well as evangelical or fundamentalist) feel that the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land is proof that America’s God is real. For centuries, Americans of many different theological perspectives have read their Bibles in ways that highlight the importance of the Jews in the divine plan and the parallels between God’s plans for the Jews and the divine intentions towards the United States. The continuing existence of the Jewish people against so many odds and through so many persecutions is one of the most powerful arguments that Christian apologetics can produce for the truth of Christianity. The preservation of the Jews and their return to Israel is seen as proof that God acts in history — a very reassuring thought for people concerned about the dangers of modern life. While premillennial dispensationalists and others may believe that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land signals the beginning of the apocalypse, there are many others for whom it means just the opposite. Despite the nukes, the ozone layer, the biological WMDs and the other horrors lurking out there we aren’t about to disappear because history remains under the control of an all-powerful, all-loving God. The God who delivered Daniel from the lions’ den, who rescued Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego from the fiery furnace, who brought the children of Israel dry-shod through the Red Sea, and fed them on manna for forty years in the wilderness, this God is still around, still faithful to his promises, and still guiding humanity through the dangers that surround us. To be pro-Israel is to be pro-hope.
The perception that American Jews support Israel and that they want the United States to support Israel strikes many Americans as less evidence of dual loyalty than of evidence that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God.’ For scores of millions of people in this country, loyalty to the United States, support for Israel and love of God all go hand in hand — and America’s special relationship with Israel is a sign of America’s special relationship with God.
It is those who challenge this set of ideas who seem to many Americans to be anti-national cosmopolites. To be pro-Israel is to be pro-American exceptionalism, to buy into the great myths that sustain America’s self image. Gentile Americans who think that AIPAC represents American Jews at large are reassured, not disturbed by this support. It stands as proof of the essential compatibility between American Jews and American values.
Next, it’s not just that being pro-Israel is seen as being pro-American. It’s also that being anti-Israel looks anti-American to much of this country. It’s not just that Israel is ‘good’ — democratic, pro-American, etc. Its enemies (Iran, Hamas, Hezbolleh and so on) are ‘bad’. They are anti-American and anti-democratic. They practice terrorism. A number of Arab leaders sided with Hitler in World War Two. They sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And there are the terrorists of today. Even when they aren’t openly joining our enemies, they are overcharging us for oil.
Obviously the reality is much more complicated than this caricature. But something like this picture is what many ordinary Americans see when they look at the Middle East.
Non-Jewish Americans may sometimes think that AIPAC and its allies go ‘too far’. They may think that Israel sometimes overreacts or reacts in counterproductive ways. That can be exasperating, but it is understandable. And that Jewish Americans have a soft spot for Israel makes sense to a lot of Americans. It’s no more un-American for Jews to back Israel a little too hard than it is un-American for Greek and Armenian Americans to get too emotional about Turkey.
The basic point here for the kind of non-expert Americans–who in other times and other circumstances might be vulnerable to anti-Semitic concepts–is that Israel is on our side, its enemies are not, and the fact that Jews get emotional about this only means that they are a little too pro-American and, like the rest of us, sometimes need to take a deep breath and count to ten before acting on impulse. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Barry Goldwater once said — quoting Thomas Jefferson. Extremism in the defense of Israel, even if it is wrong, is endearingly wrong to many Americans. AIPAC’s militancy on the subject of Israel merely testifies to the depth and strength of the bonds that tie America and Israel together; it may sometimes go too far, but it goes too far in the right direction.
Finally, even some of the ‘bad’ aspects of Israel’s public image strike at classic anti-Semitic stereotypes. The Jews of Israel are, if anything, too tough, too nationalistic, too rooted in a solid identity. It’s hard to see them as ‘rootless cosmopolites’ out to destroy the cohesion of our country — and that’s especially true since Israel is such a close (if sometimes difficult and contentious) ally. The belief that a strong America is necessary for Israel’s security, combined with the belief that American Jews are strongly committed to Israel’s security, has the consequence of immunizing American Jews against some of the traditional bigoted charges that Jews are anti-national.
If you believe that American Jews are hardliners on Israel and that they think that America is necessary for Israel’s survival, it’s going to be hard to argue that Jews are termites trying to destroy America from within.
The occasional attacks on Jewish-American activists for ‘dual loyalty’ are, from an anti-anti-Semitic standpoint, a small price to pay for helping to protect American culture against one of the greatest evils in modern life. As long as most non-Jewish Americans see a deep connection between Israel and the United States, the presence of an active and visible — even if sometimes one-sided and excessive — Jewish lobby is likely to dampen anti-Semitism more than promote it. For this, even those of us who sometimes disagree with AIPAC on policy specifics should be grateful. It is an important part of the American immune system that helps us over time to become a less racist, less anti-Semitic, more open society even as we retain our religious and cultural roots.