The more I’ve studied the long-term politics of Zionism in the United States, the more I’ve been struck by a paradox. While most people see the Israel lobby as an attempt to use Jewish financial and electoral power to impose a special Jewish agenda on American foreign policy, it hasn’t actually worked that way.
In the first place, as I blogged yesterday, the Zionist agenda in the Middle East has generally been pretty popular with American gentiles. In some ways, the religious nationalism agenda supported by Likud is more popular with American gentiles than with American Jews; most American Jews side more with the Israeli left than with the right.
The power of Likud-supporting American Jews both in the Jewish community and in American politics generally has much less to do with the success of Likud’s ideology among American Jews than it does with the broad, pre-existing alignment between the ideas of the Israel lobby and general American public opinion.
Take AIPAC. From where I sit, AIPAC isn’t powerful because of the Jewish votes it can sway. Most Jews have views on Israel that are closer to the J-Street lobby vision than to the AIPAC line, and if a vote among America’s Jews decided our Israel policy the policy would be significantly to the left of where it is now. It’s not even because of the money; ‘pro-Israel’ PAC money is a drop in the vast and ever-expanding river of American campaign funding.
A group like AIPAC enjoys power and recognition not because it controls or even represents the votes of Jews. AIPAC’s power rests on gentile ideas and support; if a politician gets loudly and publicly labeled anti-Israel by AIPAC and its allies that politician will get hammered in the next election because so many American gentiles want their politicians to support the Jewish state. AIPAC works like the NRA; it is the publicly accepted voice on an issue about which the public has strong views.
Politicians don’t fear the loss of National Rifle Association PAC money nearly as much as they fear the loss of millions of pro-gun votes at the next election. This, I think is why AIPAC is so powerful. To be convincingly labeled an anti-Israel politician is the kiss of death almost everywhere in the United States — just as to be anti-gun is the kiss of death. American gentiles consider AIPAC and those affiliated with and endorsed by it to be reliable guardians of pro-Israel policy; politicians don’t want to cross a force with this kind of hold on the public.
AIPAC has the power that it does because it has been in effect deputized by American pro-Israel gentiles to guard the frontiers of our Israel policy. Like the NRA and like the fabled Tobacco lobby of old, it is strong because the public accepts it as the watchdog on an issue it cares about. Lose that bond with the public, as the Tobacco lobby finally did, and the clout bleeds away — even if the lobby has all the money, all the organizers and all the connections that it previously had.
The Israel lobby is not simply the passive instrument of the dominant gentile view. It can and does use (and perhaps sometimes abuse) its position of trust to push policy farther than its real mandate. It can and does work to extract as many advantages as it can, to milk the cow for all it is worth. But it can only go so far, and if over time it were to develop a reputation among the public at large as an unreliable deputy, its influence and therefore its power would decline.
There are clear limits to what the lobby can do. When groups like AIPAC ask for things that American gentiles don’t want to give — like banning all arms sales to Arabs or freeing Jonathan Pollard — they have to fight much harder and they very often fail. Politicians and policy-makers have no trouble defying the lobby when its agenda deviates too far from what gentiles are prepared to accept.
This is exactly the situation that politically active Jews faced all during the twentieth century. Zionism was usually popular with gentiles; requests for special immigration privileges for Jews were not. The key to success for American Jews has not been to pile up the money and the promises of Jewish voting support at the polls. The way to succeed is to develop an agenda which commands widespread non-Jewish support.
This role as mobilizing agents, as a group that takes public support and converts it into political and policy power, has historically boosted the power of Zionist Jews within the American Jewish community, helping for example the Russian Jews build their own institutions and power base in opposition to the mostly German, mostly anti-Zionist Jewish establishment during the first half of the twentieth century. This still works today. AIPAC has clout in Washington because of its role as an agent of gentile political sentiment, and that role in turn boosts AIPAC’s clout among American Jews.
That role also makes membership in AIPAC and similar groups an attractive option for American Jews who might not have strong views either way on US policy toward Israel. It is a well-connected group of people with more access to the power structure than a group organized around Jewish causes of no interest to gentiles or with an agenda that gentiles don’t like. (A lobby to ban US arms sales to Saudi Arabia or to ban oil imports from and trade with countries who boycott Israel would not get very far.)
The lobby’s intermediary role actually makes AIPAC’s leadership much more powerful among Jews than it would otherwise be. Staying on good terms with a group this powerful makes sense. From this point of view, AIPAC and similar groups look less like a way that Jews exert power over gentiles in American life than a way that gentiles support American Jewish leaders whose purposes and vision they trust, in turn empowering those leaders within the Jewish community.
This is a very old pattern that goes back to the dawn of the modern Zionist movement. Ever since the chaplain at the British embassy in Vienna (a Christian Zionist who wrote on the subject before Herzl did) introduced Herzl to the Prince of Baden, and the Prince introduced Herzl to Kaiser Wilhelm II (the two men are depicted in the famous, and famously photo-shopped picture above, taken during the Kaiser’s 1898 visit to Palestine), the ability of Zionist Jews to enlist high profile and effective support from gentiles has been instrumental in propelling Zionists to political power among Jews.
Many Jews wrote pamphlets about the Jewish Question in the late nineteenth century. Herzl’s pamphlet led to a meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II and led Kaiser Wilhelm to bring up the question of a Jewish national home with the Turkish Sultan, at the time the ruler of Palestine. Nothing came of the conference between the Kaiser and the Sultan, but Herzl and his ideas had been catapulted into the world of high politics.
Time after time in the twentieth century, the ability of Zionist Jews to mobilize the support of gentile sympathizers increased their power and their credibility in the world of Jewish politics. Without this ‘secret weapon’ of gentile support, the Zionist movement could never have delivered on its promises or consolidated its political hegemony among Jews. The Israel lobby in the United States today is working that ancient seam where Jewish and gentile hopes and views meet but now, as always, it is gentile politics and gentile will that establishes the context and sets the bounds within which the Israel lobby can work.