Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Problem with "Pro-Israel"

Walter Russell Mead has a fabulous post up entitled "The Problem with J Street", but which would be far better titled "The Problem with 'Pro-Israel'". Mead's basic thesis is that the entire premise underlying J Street is wrong. J Street exists to mobilize a pro-engagement, pro-peace, "anti-Likud" (though I find that phrase to be aggravating) American Jewish polity in hopes of affecting US policy towards Israel and, ultimately, foster peace between Israel and Palestine. The problem, Mead says, is that this fails to understand what's actually driving American mid-east policy. Hint: It's not the Jews:
J Street fundamentally misreads the politics of America’s Middle Eastern policies, and as a result it is essentially irrelevant to the real debates that will decide what America will do in the region. Globally, one of the most common (and idiotic) assumptions about American foreign policy is that “the Jews” control it. Virtually everyone in the Middle East, a deeply depressing number of Europeans (who cling to anti-Semitic myths about Jewish power and clannishness even while claiming to be completely free of prejudice), and even a handful of misguided Americans think that American gentiles are so weak and so foolish that a handful of clever, rich and unscrupulous Jews have led us around for decades with rings through our noses when it comes to the Middle East. The allegedly awesome mindbending power of Jews in the media and the allegedly irresistible power of Jewish money (through AIPAC and other organizations) bribed politicians and bamboozled the public. How else, these theorists of occult Jewish power ask, to explain America’s stubborn and stupid support of the Jewish state?

Everything I know about the history of American foreign policy, the state of American opinion, the nature of American ideology and theology, and the state of American politics tells me this is wrong. Support for the construction of a Jewish state in the Holy Land has been an important part of American Christian and political thought going back to colonial times. The ideas of Jewish exceptionalism and American exceptionalism have been bound together in the American mind for more than two hundred years. During the Cold War, Americans gradually got into the habit of considering Israel one of our most valuable and reliable allies. In recent years this longstanding association has been substantially strengthened by the widespread public belief that the same people who most hate Israel and want to bring it down are the bitter enemies of the United States and will stop at nothing to kill as many American civilians as they possibly can.

AIPAC’s power, which is real, is a bit like the power of the National Rifle Association. The NRA has a lot of influence over American gun legislation, and few politicians want to take it on. It spends plenty of money and mounts plenty of PR campaigns, but if large numbers of Americans didn’t care about gun rights, the NRA would be a much less important and relevant organization. The NRA mobilizes an existing public consensus, and it increases the impact of the public support of individual gun rights, but its power flows from the public’s belief that gun rights are good — and that the NRA is a reliable watchdog. Politicians quake in their boots and obey because they know that if the NRA labels them ‘anti-gun’, the voters will believe the NRA on an issue that matters to them — and in most races the politicians who cross the gun lobby will pay a heavy political price.

AIPAC’s power works the same way, but it needs to be stressed that the politicians who fear it aren’t thinking much about the Jewish votes it allegedly commands. Less than two percent of the US population is Jewish, and Jews aren’t exactly swing voters. Next to African-Americans, Jews are the most reliable (and most liberal) bloc of voters in the Democratic Party.

AIPAC’s political power ultimately comes from its ability to influence non-Jewish voters. If AIPAC and related groups call politicians anti-Israel, the tens of millions of non-Jewish voters who connect Israel’s security with American values and interests will believe them. (A recent poll found that 53% of voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who was ‘pro-Israel’.) AIPAC is powerful because it is the accredited watchdog on an issue the non-Jewish public cares about; if the dog barks, something is wrong.
Non-Jewish Americans aren’t listening to AIPAC because they are prepared to give “the Jews” whatever they want when it comes to Israel policy. Still less do they worry that defying AIPAC will bring down the awesome power of “the Jews” on their heads. They listen to AIPAC because they believe it is a reliable advocate for the approach to the issue they want American policy to take. A sturdy majority of non-Jewish Americans support Israel for reasons that have nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the generally more liberal and nuanced views of American Jews. Back in the 1920s, when most American Jews were still anti-Zionist, both houses of Congress unanimously supported the Balfour Declaration, the British statement that it would support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Generalizations are always tricky, but from where I stand Jews in the media are also, on balance, if anything perhaps a bit less likely to take hard-line pro-Likud positions than non-Jews. Yes, there is Commentary and a relative handful of highly visible Jewish conservative and neoconservative writers at places like The Weekly Standard. But William Kristol and John Podhoretz are not exactly typical figures among contemporary journalists who happen also to be American Jews. Roger Cohen, Joe Klein, and Tom Friedman are, for example, considerably more critical of Israel than, say, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. David Remnick’s New Yorker doesn’t read much like a Likud PR outlet. The New York Review of Books stands, if anything, a bit to the left of J Street on Middle East issues.

The mainstream American Jewish journalistic establishment is firmly anti-Likud; the Jewish side of Hollywood is almost vituperatively anti-Likud; the predominantly liberal financiers of Wall Street — like George Soros — feel much the same way. To the extent that there is an American Jewish establishment, that establishment favors J Street style ideas. If the Jews of Hollywood, Wall Street and the mainstream media were as powerful and clannish as European anti-Semitic legend has it, Europe would actually like America’s Middle East policies much more than it does.

It can’t be repeated too often: the American Jewish community is not responsible for the popularity of hard line views among American non-Jews on Middle East issues. Individual Jews and predominantly Jewish organizations like AIPAC derive their influence over American foreign policy not from their Jewishness, but from the affinity of their policy agenda with the views and priorities of America’s non-Jews. When American Jews say things about the Middle East that resonate with the views of American non-Jews, they are influential. When, as in the case of the persistent agitation to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, Jewish conservative supporters of Israel deviate from the gentile consensus, that influence suddenly disappears. When, like the many liberal Jewish journalists and pundits who think hard line policies in the Middle East are bad for both Israel and the United States, they say things that American non-Jews don’t like — their views and their insights are largely cast aside. In none of these cases is the Jewish identity of the writers the key to the reception accorded their ideas.

J Street, in other words, is trying to mobilize a community that already agrees with it -- under the false presumption that largely Christian America cares what Jews think. I think Mead is correct at the shortcomings of the strategy, though I don't think the problem is with J Street so much as it is with the broader American populace which treats Jews so cynically and instrumentally. J Street remains important simply for expressive reasons -- if America wants to take a hawkish line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fine, but it shouldn't be allowed to hide behind the skirts of "the Jews" to do it. And, by the same token, I think Jews have a clear right to prevent a reformulation of "pro-Israel" that would act to exclude most Jews! It's hardly a knock on J Street that it thinks that Jewish opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should carry actual, as opposed to mythological, weight, in our political discourse.

As you might expect from the sustained block quote, Mead's entire article is spectacular, and (title notwithstanding) I recommend it without reservation.


N. Friedman said...

I think that Mead is half correct. Jews, a small minority group in the US, could not possibly be the driving force in the US's policy towards any issue.

On the other hand, the most recent data suggest he is clearly wrong regarding the view of Jews towards the Arab Israeli dispute and, further, towards the Obama administration - where the love affair has come to a clear end. Jews, since information has come out about how Obama played roughhouse towards Netanyahu, have cooled decidedly on Obama who, to a great many Jews, both on left and the right, think Obama lacks a soft spot for Jews or Israel.

While Mead, as usual, has written an interesting article, he is clearly not looking at the latest data.

Bruce said...

I think Mead's focus on the non-Jewish majority is critical, and refreshing. On the other hand, one can reject Walt and Mearsheimer and still recognize that the American political leaders pay attention to the American Jewish community. As to J Street, it could have been, and perhaps still could be, an important voice on behalf of American Jews. But criticizing and stressing differences with AIPAC, etc. is only part of the battle. Without a corresponding and IMO equally important focus on those in the American Jewish community that, for whatever reason (and I think they're historical and psychological as much as they are political) tacitly and overtly join forces with the delegimization movement. Thus, for example, the Mondoweiss groupies of the world should neither be invited nor "given space" at a J Street conference. Haters of the Jewish State and the opponents of the two-state solution, whether right or left, obfuscate an important message J Street can send and sometimes has sent to the American Jewish community.

Bruce said...


Ninth line down should read:

Without a corresponding and IMO equally important focus on those in the American Jewish community that, for whatever reason (and I think they're historical and psychological as much as they are political) tacitly and overtly join forces with the delegimization movement, J Street's message is mortally diluted.

N. Friedman said...


You write: "On the other hand, one can reject Walt and Mearsheimer and still recognize that the American political leaders pay attention to the American Jewish community."

What is wrong with paying attention with the American Jewish community? And, where is the evidence that JStreet represents the views of Jews or, more tellingly, that AIPAC represents the views of the Israeli right. I do not think that either proposition is really supported by the evidence.

As for JStreet, if it really represented the views of most or even a large segment of the Jewish community, it could not possibly have spent time introducing a person like Judge Goldstone to members of Congress and then feel the need to deny doing so. Goldstone showed himself to be no friend of Israel. That event, in my mind, suggests that JStreet represents the views of its largest backers, among whom there is the non-Zionist Soro and some lady in Hong Kong (who is presumably a front).

Bruce said...

N. Friedman:

I didn't write that there is anything wrong with American politicians paying attention to American Jewish voters, nor do I believe that there is anything wrong with it at all. My point is that I think, having read Mead's article, that in making his point-that the American public is pro-Israel-he perhaps underplays the significance of Jewish voters. And I don't see anything sinister in being accountable to Jewish voters.

As to J Street, I think for now the organization has hoisted itself on its own petard by trying to be too many things to too many constituencies. Since I consider myself absolutely reasonable--kidding but not entirely--I think that J Street should have focused on where I come from, and they would be better off. Seriously though, J Street made a huge political blunder by overly-naancing its position on things like Goldstone--one thing J Street fails to give credence to because -it's not groovy to give it credence these days--is that the Jewish community really isn't paranoid, but in fact it is the case that just everybody is indeed against us!

N. Friedman said...


You write: "My point is that I think, having read Mead's article, that in making his point-that the American public is pro-Israel-he perhaps underplays the significance of Jewish voters."

The Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, is also, as you probably know, a rather first rate historian, making his reputation in considerable part on his history of the 1967, Six Day War, but also, more recently, with his history of America's involvement with Muslims and with the Islamic regions. His book on the latter topic, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, traces, among other things, the attitudes of American's towards the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, beginning from colonial days and the formation of the Protestant movement called Restorationism - which was Christian Zionism long before the formation of modern Zionism. Advocates for restoration included, to say the least, nearly a who's who of prominent American politicians and religious leaders. I point this out because I rather suspect that Mead has read Oren's book, which is really a rather first rate piece of history writing.

I do, however, agree with you that Jews are an influential group. However, were the majority of Americans decidedly hostile to the idea of Israel, I do not see the influence of Jews as being able to overwhelm the view of the majority, at least if that view were passionately held.

As for JStreet, I note that it went to rather great lengths to hide associations. While Mead does not view Soros as a sinister force - and neither do I, generally speaking (except with respect to Jews and Israel, where his thinking is certainly not mine or remotely mainstream) -, I still think that the group was set up to advance his viewpoint and to undermine other viewpoints. And, the aim is to bring out anyone and everyone to be at cross-purposes and ill-defined yet nominally pro-Israel, so that the group could lobby for his interests using the cover of those interests supposedly having the support of the Jewish community. Which is to say, I think most supporters of JStreet who are pro-Israel have been duped.