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.