Why the Israeli Government Ignores American Jews

January 28, 2016 § 4 Comments

Israel has an American Jewish problem. This problem manifests itself in different ways, but it seems unquestionable that varied segments of American Jewry do not support Israel in the all-encompassing and largely uncritical way that they once did. This can be seen nearly anywhere one looks, whether it is on college campuses where J Street student groups dominate the scene, or in the string of articles by American Jews – including this American Jew – that take the Israeli government to task on a number of issues, or in the criticism from prominent Jewish intelligentsia that left former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren so disappointed in his memoir. This is not to say that there are not large segments of American Jews whose relationship with Israel has remained the same over time, and making broad characterizations about an entire group is always going to miss the nuance inherent in a detailed examination. But suffice it to say that Israel’s status with American Jewry writ large, while still very strong, is not quite as strong as it once was.

Yet, in ways large and small, the current Israeli government oftentimes gives the impression that it just doesn’t care. Take the Iran deal, for instance. The Jewish community in the U.S. was bitterly divided over its merits, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of his government gave the impression that anyone who cared about Israel must oppose the deal, which divided the American Jewish community even further. The prime minister then insisted on coming here to campaign against it before Congress over the objections of myriad American Jewish groups – reportedly AIPAC included – who knew that the speech and overall campaign would put American Jews in an uncomfortable position. None of this, however, managed to change Netanyahu’s calculus, and so events proceeded apace. Other examples abound as well. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S. is controversial, to say the least, among many American Jews, and yet Netanyahu is content with the status quo. The overwhelming preponderance of American Jews are not Orthodox and are alienated by Israel’s position on religious issues that affect them directly, from conversion to being able to pray at the Western Wall in an egalitarian tradition, but such issues are consigned to the sidelines. One of the things that was so remarkable about Netanyahu’s recent partial about-face on the NGO bill was that it came after weeks of hammering away by American Jewish groups (although there is no evidence that this was dispositive, rather than pressure from Western governments). So why doesn’t the Israeli government care what we think?

One important factor is of course the one that I wrote about last week, which is that American Jewish organizations – in contrast to ordinary American Jews – are more willing to give the government leeway on most issues. The Israeli government knows that even if support is softening among significant numbers of American Jews as individuals, the organizations are going to remain a lot less critical of the government. This is an enormous mitigating factor, and there is no question that for very practical and understandable reasons any Israeli prime minister cares more about what AIPAC’s position is on an issue than the position voiced by your representative American Jew on the street. The irony is that so long as American Jewish groups are more supportive of Israel than American Jews, the wishes of many American Jews will be subsumed to the wishes of the organizations tasked with representing them.

There is another important factor that has nothing to do with groups but with demographics. The group most supportive of Israel in the U.S. is Orthodox Jews, who have the strongest ties to Israel that are inculcated in a variety of ways, from day schools that put a premium on Zionism to students spending a gap year in Israel before college. As the Pew study demonstrates, the farther away from Jewish observance and Jewish identity one gets, the less supportive of Israel one tends to be. Israeli officials look at the rising intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and the growing proportion of Orthodox Jews in urban centers such as New York, and assume that the numbers are on their side. What looks like a growing trend of eroding support for Israel becomes little more than a squall that Israel only needs to wait out for the next couple of decades, since the intermarried and non-observant will likely cease to have much Jewish identity and a more Orthodox American Jewry is a more supportive American Jewry. This thinking is erroneous on a number of fronts – among other things, it ignores the influence disproportionately wielded in American Jewry by pockets of non-Orthodox Jews in places like Wall Street and Hollywood and also assumes that Orthodox Jews will remain uniformly supportive of rightwing Israeli policies forever – but it does explain a lot about why American Jewish voices often go unheeded.

So is this a battle cry for American Jews to abandon Israel until the Israeli government becomes more felicitous of its desires? Absolutely not. Any Israeli government has to worry first and foremost about its own constituents – who in this case are more politically conservative and more religious than their American Jewish brethren – before it worries about Diaspora Jews. More saliently, there are some small but encouraging signs that things may be changing a bit, from Netanyahu’s new position on the NGO bill to the reports of an emerging deal on egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The relationship between American Jews and Israel has often resembled a one-way street since the state’s founding, and it is naïve to believe that this will change wholesale overnight, but if the Israeli government’s sudden responsiveness on the NGO and pluralism issues were affected by American Jewish concerns, it reiterates the importance of keeping our voices up. Even if unrequited love is more often than not going to continue to be American Jewry’s lot in life, we should make sure that we are heard in order to make a difference wherever we can and continue to give the Israeli government a way of listening to the American Jewish community’s disparate parts rather than just the ones that reinforce its current policies.

Liberal Jews Without Liberal Organizations

January 21, 2016 § 4 Comments

Why are American Jewish organizations predominantly silent on Israeli illiberalism? This is the question posed and answered by J.J. Goldberg in a much-discussed piece this week on Martin Luther King Day tying the American Jewish organizational voice on Israel to the breakdown of the black-Jewish partnership on civil rights. Goldberg’s theory quickly summed up – and you should really read the piece in its entirety if you haven’t yet – is that the biggest factor in how American Jewish organizations relate to Israel today is the collapse fifty years ago of the alliance between blacks and Jews on civil rights. As black activists increasingly called for blacks to fight for their civil rights by themselves, and as Jews got to a point where their own equality seemed secure, Jewish organizations that were built to fight for civil rights needed another battleground. This coincided with the Six Day War, which imparted the lesson that Israel was living in a neighborhood where its neighbors wanted it gone and could be wiped out at any time, and American Jewish organizations thus pivoted to devoting their time to supporting Israel as their primary mission. Despite the liberal bent of American Jews, they are passive on the Israel issue because they learned to live without a collective voice that was connected to group self-interest.

There is a lot to mull over in Goldberg’s piece and many typically keen insights. He makes a strong historical argument, but as strong as that argument is, I am not sure that the fracture in the civil rights movement is what is primarily driving today’s dynamic. To begin with, Goldberg rightly points out a number of organizations that do not fit into this picture of checking their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel, and their number is not insignificant. Furthermore, the three most prominent Jewish organizations that were involved in the civil rights movement were the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. The American Jewish Congress has all but folded and the ADL is one of the organizations that Goldberg identifies in his piece as not being afraid to speak out on Israel today, so the historical institutionalist argument that he sketches doesn’t appear to apply in scale to the organizations operating today. In addition, the organization that most people would point to as driving the American Jewish organizational stance on Israel is AIPAC, which does not fit into Goldberg’s theory.

I would instead point to two other variables that I believe are causing the dissonance between a very liberal American Jewry and a far less liberal American Jewish organizational stance toward Israel. The first fits into the structure of Goldberg’s overall argument about a crisis in mission leading to a new focus on Israel, but rather than point to civil rights, I would point to the decline of Judaism itself. As traditional religious observance waned over the course of the 20th century, Israel was elevated into a religious cause that became for many American Jews their primary way of expressing their Judaism as a religion, as opposed to their embrace of Judaism as an ethnicity or a culture. Support for the Jewish state became de rigeur at synagogues of all denominations, prayers for the Israeli government and the IDF were adopted into the Shabbat morning liturgy, and Israel itself became intertwined with Judaism so that it became a focal point of the American Jewish religious tradition. Support for Israel was the equivalent of fasting on Yom Kippur or holding a Passover seder; even if your religious observance was minimal, Israel was a part of it. For many American Jews, Israel was what bound them to Judaism, rather than the religious practices of their parents and grandparents. For Jewish organizations that needed to stay relevant, pivoting to supporting Israel was an obvious move, and naturally any organization devoted to advocating for something is going to be reluctant to be overly critical, even when there are things taking place that are particularly unpalatable.

The second variable is political trends in Israel. In the twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have only once voted a left of center prime minister into office, and Ehud Barak did not last even two years. Going back even further to the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, which marked a revolutionary shift in the Israeli political landscape, Rabin’s election in 1992 was the only other time since then that Israelis have voted a Labor prime minister into office (Shimon Peres’s first term in 1984 was part of a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir and Likud). In other words, for nearly four decades Israelis have displayed a clear rightwing preference when it comes to their leaders. Is it any surprise then that American Jewish organizations, both those that deal primarily with Israel issues and those that don’t, take those cues and reflect what is taking place in Israel itself?

This is not, incidentally, applicable only when a rightwing government is in power in Israel. When Rabin began the Oslo process, AIPAC did in fact support it, even if begrudgingly. The major American Jewish organizations that now seemingly fall in lockstep behind the Netanyahu government were not out front challenging the Rabin government on its priorities, even though he represented a major break from the previous fifteen years of Israeli government policy. It would be fascinating to see what American Jewish organizations would look like with regard to Israel policy were Israel to spend an uninterrupted decade under the control of left of center governments; my instinct is that American Jewish organizations are shaped by the structural environment of Israeli politics in a significant way and would presumably change with the times.

There is no question that the priorities of the bulk of American Jews appear out of sync with the priorities of many American Jewish groups. I think that Goldberg is definitely onto something in looking back at historical trends and moments that shape today’s environment, but I would point to a different set than the ones that he has identified.

The Bilious Bond Between Bibi, Barack, and Boehner

January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments

Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.

This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.

In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.

While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.

Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.

Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

Israel Lobby Truthers And The Truth About The Israel Lobby

October 31, 2013 § 11 Comments

The all-powerful and nefarious Israel lobby is in the news again. On Tuesday, the White House briefed officials from the Israel lobby Legion of Doom – AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – on efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, with the real aim being to get pro-Israel groups on board with the effort not to impose new sanctions on Iran. In the administration’s view, the tough sanctions that have been imposed accomplished the task of getting Iran to the negotiating table, and now that Iran appears ready to talk, even more sanctions will be counterproductive by spurring Iran to make a reinforced push to go nuclear. On the other side is Congress, where the overwhelming view is that biting sanctions are the only reason that Iran agreed to negotiate at all, and now is the time to ramp up pressure in order to force Iran into a deal rather than allowing the Iranian government to use negotiations as a mechanism for running out the clock. So far, pro-Israel groups appear to be leaning toward Congress’s view of things, and Tuesday’s meeting was part of the White House’s strategy for getting Congress to hold off.

Naturally, the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel groups received a private NSC briefing on Iran has a bunch of people up in arms about the Israel lobby wielding inappropriately outsized power, and a bunch of more unreasonable people raging about Jews controlling U.S. foreign policy. For Mondoweiss, the meeting is the latest datapoint for the proposition that Jews and the Israel lobby are the groups that count the most in foreign policy and that pro-Israel rightwing hawks drive U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is little question that pro-Israel groups are influential and that AIPAC is extremely successful, but where the argument breaks down is when it gets taken to Walt and Mearsheimer proportions, i.e. that pro-Israel groups are able to push the U.S. government into doing things it would not otherwise do or that pro-Israel groups are able to control outcomes in Congress. Max Fisher yesterday compared the lobbying efforts to strike Syria and the lobbying efforts to capture African warlord Joseph Kony and noted that the “all-powerful lobby narrative” does not stand up to the evidence at hand. I’ll quote Fisher directly on the section on AIPAC:

If the conventional wisdom about lobbying and U.S. foreign policy were true, we would expect Obama to have received wide support for his Syria plan and basically zero support for the Central African hunt for Kony. But that’s the opposite of how it turned out.

In mid-September, as President Obama pushed to get Congress’s support for Syria strikes, his administration turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If you’ve spent any time at all working on Israeli issues, Palestinian issues or MidEast issues generally, you’ve heard people on all ideological ends of the spectrum speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of AIPAC. Critics of the right-leaning, pro-Israel group often refer to it simply as “The Lobby,” as if it were so powerful that other lobbyist organizations hardly even mattered. It’s not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

AIPAC’s influence is thought to be strongest in Congress, where support for pro-Israeli policies is indeed bipartisan and passionately held. Its membership is thought to include lots of Washington power-brokers and heavy-hitters, the types who, in the common telling, pull all the hidden levers of American governance and foreign policy. So when AIPAC began lobbying on behalf of Obama’s Syria strike plan, many assumed it was a done deal, particularly since the administration most needed help in Congress, turf AIPAC knows well.

There is every indication that AIPAC threw its full weight into generating support for Obama’s Syria plan, both in Congress and among its own constituency. But the group failed utterly to even move the needle on the policy: Congress only strengthened its opposition to Obama’s Syria strikes. It was a rare public test of AIPAC’s ability to shape U.S. foreign policy and it flunked.

As Fisher then goes on to explain, the lobbying campaign to go after Kony was carried out by underfunded, inexperienced, not well connected lobbyists who targeted high school and college students, a group not exactly known for its power and influence. Yet the Kony campaign succeeded to the point where the U.S. military is currently engaged in what has been a fruitless search to locate Kony, backed by Congressional support that has not wavered. How to explain this conundrum? Fisher suggests that public opinion may be the answer, but I’ll take it one step further: public opinion is absolutely the answer, particularly when it comes to AIPAC. Pro-Israel groups succeed when the cause they are championing is already popular, and they fail when it isn’t. Yes, AIPAC is very-well connected, pro-Israel groups get courted, and even get benefits – such as private briefings – that other groups do not get. But let’s take a look at why support for increased sanctions are running so high in Congress and why the White House campaign to keep them steady is going to fail (hint: it has nothing to do with what AIPAC does or does not want).

In mid-September, Gallup did a poll asking whether Americans consider Iran to be an ally, friendly, unfriendly, or an enemy. 45% of respondents categorized Iran as an enemy and 38% said Iran is unfriendly. In early June, a CBS/NYT poll found that 58% of respondents favored military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon while 37% opposed it. In March, Pew asked people which was more important: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action, or avoiding military conflict with Iran even if it means that Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and 64% favored military action vs. 25% who wanted to avoid military conflict. Finally, in the most recent poll that asked about sanctions, which was from March 2012 (after the first round of sanctions had already been put in place), 74% were in favor of increasing sanctions against Iran while 21% were not. (All of the polls can be found here). Given Iran’s recent outreach efforts following Rouhani’s election, it is very possible that a poll taken today would find that support for increasing sanctions is below that 74% number, but I doubt it’s down in a significant way given the current numbers viewing Iran as hostile. The point here is that AIPAC does not need to do much lobbying of Congress to get it to support increased sanctions, because this is a policy that is overwhelmingly popular. The idea that Congress would be marching in lockstep with the White House’s foreign policy preferences on this issue were it not for the covert whisperings of Howard Kohr and Abe Foxman is simply nonsense and intellectual laziness. When AIPAC’s preferences align with public opinion, it is successful; when its preferences go against public opinion, it’s not. It is really that simple, and if you want a lot more on this, go read my (unfortunately paywalled) peer-reviewed article in Security Studies on this very subject, complete with case studies and everything (link is here).

The irony of this is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and the loud insistence of Israel lobby truthers that AIPAC controls U.S. policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the ADL and AJC invited to a private briefing at the White House out of a belief that these groups have far more power than they actually do. The bottom line is that Congress in this instance is going to do what public opinion tells it to do, and the Israel lobby’s preference that Iran sanctions be increased is not what is driving policy here in any real way.

Rethinking The Idea Of Pro-Israel

April 16, 2013 § 8 Comments

Back when I was a college senior majoring in history with a concentration in medieval Europe, I decided to write my honors thesis on William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England. My argument was that contrary to the universally accepted view among historians of that era, William did not actually have a legitimate legal claim to the throne and that Norman historiography was concocted ex-post facto to make it seem as if he did in order to justify the Norman invasion in 1066. Given that the House of Windsor and all of their forebears trace their lineage back to William, in making this argument I was casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the English royal house, and yet nobody ever asked or cared to know whether or not I was pro-England. Such a question would have seemed ridiculous and would have carried no resonance, as nobody thinks of themselves in such binary Manichean terms when it comes to our former colonial overlords. Whether one enjoys vacationing in historic Albion or detests England for its damp weather and the English insistence on referring to potato chips as crisps, people simply do not divide themselves into pro-England and anti-England camps, and neither do they feel the need to loudly declare their proclivities as a way of staking out political and ideological territory. Despite the close connections between the U.S. and Britain at all levels of state and society, whether or not someone supports Britain is not a political issue.

I now spend much of my time writing and thinking about Turkey. Sometimes I write things about Turkey that are complimentary and sometimes I write things about Turkey that take its government to task, and yet not once has anyone queried whether I am pro-Turkey or anti-Turkey, nor have I ever felt pressured to mark myself as one or the other. I am vociferous about my love of the country, its people, its culture, its food, but I can’t imagine ever describing myself as “pro-Turkey” only because it would seem like a ridiculous category in which to place oneself. If I walked around proudly tying my identity to this notion of being pro-Turkey, what would it even signify? Would it mean that I approve of everything the Turkish government does? That there is something about the metaphysical properties of Anatolia that I favor? That I just happen to like baklava and su boreği? I can tell you which academics and policy folks are hawkish on China and which ones are not, or which prominent DC thinktankers believe that the U.S. has been too tough on Russia since the end of the Cold War and which advocate for an even tougher approach, but I have never heard them labeled as pro-China and anti-China, or pro-Russia and anti-Russia. There is a reason when it comes to states, we generally do not define ourselves in relation to them as pro or anti.

That is, of course, unless we are talking about Israel. Everyone by now is familiar with the way that anyone with an opinion about anything having to do with Israel is immediately placed into one of two categories out of which it is increasingly difficult to escape. You are either pro-Israel or anti-Israel, and rarely is there room for a gray area. This relentless push to categorize comes from both sides, but in many ways it is actually driven by the pro-Israel camp. The stridently anti-Israel camp plays its role in this – and a quick perusal of the comments section of any foreign policy magazine article on Israel will quickly reveal the way the terms “pro-Israel” and “Zionist” are hurled as epithets – but it is the pro-Israel side that does a more thorough job of drawing boundaries. Politicians, pundits, journalists, and others are dubbed with the pro-Israel seal of approval, and those who are critical are dismissed as anti-Israel. While this is generally seen as a winning strategy, in many ways it actually does Israel more harm than good. As someone who firmly and unabashedly identifies with the pro-Israel camp, this 65th Yom Ha’atzmaut provides an occasion to reassess whether this marking of territory is actually productive.

The rush to proudly declare people and groups as pro-Israel harms Israel in two ways. The first is that it perpetuates a view of Israel as somehow different and as a country apart, and not in the sense of being a shining city on the hill but as a constant outsider. Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support, whether it be through large displays of strength in numbers like the annual AIPAC Policy Conference or through the omnipresent and explicit pro-Israel branding of Jewish groups and organizations. It reinforces a notion of Israel as an oddity and conveys a sense of insecurity among its supporters, as if without these constant reminders Israel would wither away. This is in no way to minimize the enormous security challenges that Israel faces, as the challenges facing Israelis are both real and constant. Nevertheless, as long as the world is forcefully divided into supporters and detractors, the normalcy that Israel craves will forever be elusive. Israel is not viewed as a normal state because its supporters do not allow it to be viewed as such. It is one thing to personally identify with Israel, and another to work to bring as many people into that same fold who have no real reason to identify with Israel any more than they would other Western democracies. The grassroots effort to get politicians to declare their undying love and support for Israel strikes an odd note to my ears, as I am unaware of any similar move by supporters of other countries. It creates a certain mystique surrounding the Jewish state that has some benefits but also some significant negative externalities. As someone who first visited Israel as a two year old, has been back nearly twenty times, and has spent a year living there, I know why I strongly identify with Israel and feel a deep personal connection to the country. Less clear to me is why it makes sense to encourage politicians with no real personal connection to Israel to express the same sentiment. The perception of strength that it creates is a false one that actually ends up backfiring.

Second, the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated. For instance, if someone supports a strong relationship between the U.S. and Portugal, believes that the two should have tight military and diplomatic ties, would like to see visits by each country’s leader to the other’s country, but does not think that the U.S. should use its Security Council veto on Portugal’s behalf every time there is a resolution that unfavorably targets Portugal, we would say that this is a person who is favorably disposed toward Portugal. But because being “pro-Israel” implies a certain set of stances, including that the U.S. wield its veto in the Security Council to protect Israel from unfair treatment, someone who argues that Israel should have to fend for itself in the United Nations would find it difficult to gain the pro-Israel label. Similarly, someone who supports every public position advanced by AIPAC but also thinks that the U.S. should press Israel to return to the 1967 borders is guaranteed to be viewed as squishy when it comes to being pro-Israel because this position is seen as being outside the mainstream boundaries of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” The problem with this is that it consigns people who are sympathetic to Israel in most, but not all, situations to the outside of the club looking in, and in doing so alienates plenty of people who are inclined to give Israel more leeway than your average person. Marking boundaries strengthens in-group cohesion, but also makes your group smaller than it needs to be. It reminds me of the debate over whether having enumerated rights in the Constitution ends up being a good thing by clearly laying out lines that the government cannot cross, or actually unnecessarily limits the rights that citizens enjoy by implying that any rights not explicitly laid out do not exist.

If Israel is to ever be seen as just another country – and this would unmistakably be a good thing – the pro-Israel label needs to be left behind. When people no longer feel the need to shout their pro-Israel bonafides from the rooftops, it will be the proof that Israel has finally achieved normalcy, and that will do more for Israel’s security than a host of policy conferences will ever do. Let’s take the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day to rethink whether the term “pro-Israel” makes sense, and let people who are inclined to support Israel do it however they see fit.

Hagel And The Israel Lobby

December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments

I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.

I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.

The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding,  and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.

Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.

None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least –  is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.

Why Jonathan Pollard Is Going to Die in Prison

April 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

In the latest Israeli attempt to get the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard clemency which he does not deserve, Israeli president Shimon Peres has appealed to the White House to release Pollard because Pollard’s health is deteriorating and Pollard’s wife, whom he married after being convicted, does not want to become a widow while he is in prison. As expected, the Obama administration turned down Peres’s request to release Pollard. I wholeheartedly support this decision – Pollard is an unrepentant spy who stole massive amounts of classified intelligence, disgustingly attempted to drag the American Jewish community into his case by turning himself into a cause celebre, and has done an incalculable amount of damage to American Jews by raising concerns about dual loyalty, particularly for those who have deep connections to Israel and want to work for the government in a position that requires security clearance. The entire U.S. security and intelligence establishment is unanimous in its position that Pollard should remain where he is, so much so that George Tenet threatened to resign as CIA director if Pollard was released, and no matter what Pollard’s supporters may claim, this universal hardline position is not motivated by anti-Semitism but by the fact that what Pollard did was unforgivable.

The point of this post is not to go on a rant about Pollard, which I have been known to do at the drop of a hat. Rather, it is to explain why it is that despite the mythical power attributed by some to the pro-Israel lobby, which has made Pollard’s release a priority, there has been and will be no change in Pollard’s status. It is a curious problem for the John Mearsheimers of the world, since if Israel and groups such as AIPAC are able to push the U.S. to take all sorts of actions contrary to its own interests in the Middle East, securing clemency for Pollard should be a relative breeze. Pollard’s cause is not by any means a fringe issue. A list of groups and individuals calling at some point for Pollard’s release includes the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International, the World Zionist Congress, the state assemblies of New York and New Jersey, Arlen Spector, Rudy Giuliani, numerous congressmen and local officials, and both Jewish and Christian religious leaders. It is also notable that despite the high priority assigned by pro-Israel groups to the Pollard case, Congress has never passed a resolution calling for his release, or even calling for his case to be reexamined. Given the conventional wisdom in some quarters that Congress in particular is owned by the pro-Israel lobby, one would at least expect to see Congress pressing for Pollard’s release while successive administrations stand firm on keeping him behind bars.

As I have pointed out in a different venue, the failure of pro-Israel groups to sway politicians in this case is because support for Israel is highly dependent on public opinion rather than on the Israel lobby, and the American public takes a strong position against Pollard and his release. In January 1986, in the aftermath of the Pollard case and a number of other cases involving foreign spies, 75 percent of Americans favored mandatory polygraph tests for government employees handling secret information, 63 percent supported firing any managers who turned out to have spies working under them, and 62 percent were in favor of a mandatory death penalty for anyone caught passing secrets to a foreign government. Clearly, the public was not in a forgiving mood when it came to leniency or clemency for spies, making no distinction between spies for hostile governments or spies for allies.

In addition, the Pollard case affected the way the public viewed Israel in particular. A Harris poll in March 1987 found that while 68 percent of the American people viewed Israel as either a close ally or a friendly nation, versus only 18 percent that considered it to be hostile, it was the second lowest positive score for Israel in the history of the Harris poll to date, and it had dropped 13 points from 1984. There is no public polling data available on the Pollard issue specifically, which is unfortunate because it would make this argument even stronger. It can be assumed though that the general views of the public on how to treat spies are unlikely to have changed, and the sharp dip in positive views of Israel in the aftermath of Pollard’s exposure as a foreign agent is a good indicator that even today Pollard is unlikely to be viewed as a sympathetic figure deserving of clemency. This is a clear case where the weight of pro-Israel groups’ lobbying efforts has run into the wall of public opinion, and politicians have demonstrated that their desire to please voters and guard American national security interests trumps the wishes of the pro-Israel community, no matter how well-organized and well-funded it is.

Keep this in mind the next time you come across the argument that AIPAC controls American foreign policy in the Middle East, or that Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers are able to get whatever they want from whichever president occupies the White House at any given point in time. Pollard is a high priority issue, yet there has literally been zero movement on the part of the U.S. to release him despite official requests from respected Israeli leaders such as Peres and Yitzchak Rabin and efforts on Netanyahu’s part to tie peace agreements with the Palestinians to Pollard’s release. Yes, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have a lot of sway, but it is because they are pushing on an open door. When public opinion goes the other way on issues of national security, no amount of lobbying, public haranguing, or campaign donations is going to make a difference. What this means is that Jonathan Pollard is going to die in prison, despite the best efforts of many influential and well-connected organizations and individuals to change that basic reality.

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