With the Israeli government’s latest (and in my view, misguided) decision to start construction on housing in East Jerusalem, the struggle over the future of the peace process has grown more intense. Meanwhile, as Middle East diplomacy heats up, J Street–an organization primarily representing American Jews who disagree with the hardline policies of the current Israeli government and look for alternative negotiating strategies–has been engulfed in a scandal. It turns out that despite some repeated weaselly and disingenuous statements by the organization’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami extending over a long period of time and made to many different people –statements which at least one journalist has characterized as ‘a lie‘– J Street has received funding from George Soros and family to the tune of more than $700,000. Additional questions are being raised about the organization’s other funders; some of the money seems to come from mysterious foreign donors whose identity, so far, has been difficult to establish.
I can’t speak to the unknown foreign donors issue. The problem of wealthy individuals transferring large amounts of money around the world under a murky veil of cut outs and bank secrecy is a serious one; there is no indication, however, that either the donor or J Street has done anything wrong. Still, it is always a bad idea for the presidents of public policy institutions to repeatedly attempt to mislead the public about the sources of their funding, and that is particularly true when they are working on hot button issues like the Middle East. Resignations are normally the correct response to screw ups this big and this ugly, and the organization’s failure so far to demonstrate that it considers this breach of the public trust to be a deeply serious matter is not a good sign.
Israeli President Dr. Chaim Weizmann (right) and President Harry S. Truman, who holds a gift from Israel given in appreciation of American support for the nascent nation (Credit: Truman Library).
That said, I fail to see why anybody, especially a liberal and predominantly Jewish organization, would find it necessary to conceal a financial relationship with George Soros. While some of Soros’ political stands are controversial, his is a well-known and well-respected name in liberal philanthropy. You don’t have to agree with him about many things to recognize that his work in promoting the emergence of civil society in the ex-socialist world has been extremely successful. Some of Washington’s most visible think tanks have benefited from his generosity and political commitments. Given that Soros and J Street have many ideas in common, it is hard to see why the organization should act as if the relationship is a dark and dirty secret. If J Street thought for whatever reason that a political association with Mr. Soros was inexpedient, the group should not have taken his money.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I have known George Soros for many years and consider him a friend. We spend much of our time together arguing about politics and have quite different views about many issues. George’s intellectual curiosity and his desire to understand points of view different from his own are among the qualities I admire in him. I have never asked for or received any support from George for my work — and given our political differences I doubt he would give me any money if I asked. Although institutions at which I have worked have sometimes benefited from his support, the money never went to me or my work — and so far as I know my employment there had nothing to do with George’s decision to support those institutions. I have not discussed this post with George or anybody on his staff.)
Getting back to J Street, its real problem isn’t the money. It isn’t the policy positions (which range from reasonable to blockheaded in my view, but that is true of most policy institutes). It isn’t even the dubious quality of its ethical judgment as revealed by its deliberately misleading statements about the sources of its support. The problem with J Street is its core theory of the case, and the business model the organization bought into.
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.
Many Americans think that both AIPAC and the NRA sometimes go too far, but they tolerate that (within limits) because they think that in general, these organizations are on the right side of the issue. If either of these organizations went too far ahead of public sentiment too often, the lobby would lose influence. They can push the envelope of public sentiment, but they can’t lead the public where it fundamentally does not want to go.
J Street wants to challenge AIPAC as the voice of American Jews on Middle Eastern issues. J Street argues that AIPAC and other highly visible heads of Jewish organizations (are you listening, Abe Foxman?) are taking views that are not representative of the larger Jewish community. To make the point, J Street has commissioned some impressive surveys of American Jewish public opinion. The organization’s March 10, 2010 report summarizes the result of this polling:
Despite the public statements of numerous Jewish organizational leaders who have offered sharp criticism of President Obama’s Middle East approach, it is important to recognize that Jews remain a highly progressive constituency and view the Obama Administration as a refreshing change from the previous Administration. Confidence in the country’s direction under President Obama is dramatically higher than before he took office, as 41 percent of American Jews now believe the country is headed in the right direction (compared to just 10 percent under President Bush in July 2008). Moreover, as the President’s job approval has fallen with the overall U.S. population (from 54 percent in October 2009 to 47 percent when the March 2010 J Street survey fielded), Jewish assessments of the President are unchanged during this same period and remain 15 points higher than the rest of the country. And after a little more than a year in office which included a highly visible battle over Israeli settlements and the most recent flap over the Israeli announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem, Jews have a considerably higher favorable opinion of President Obama (59 percent favorable) than Prime Minister Netanyahu (44 percent favorable).
J Street is right about this, I think. American Jews mostly track well to the left of general American public opinion on Israel, just as American Jews by and large are more liberal than their fellow citizens on many other public policy questions.
But if J Street is right, it is also irrelevant. 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.
Quite often, America’s most pro-Israel politicians are people who don’t get much Jewish money or many Jewish votes. Sarah Palin had an Israeli flag in her office when she was Governor of Alaska; this didn’t help her much with Joe Klein, and it didn’t make her the toast of the Upper West Side. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the most consistent supporter of a hard-line pro-Israel position among the top presidential contenders in 2008; somehow, the Jewish vote didn’t come through for him.
The problem with J Street is not that it is ashamed of its donors and that its Hong Kong offshore donor, in particular, is a mysterious and shadowy figure. The problem is that it is wasting its donors’ money — and its staff’s time. Demonstrating that AIPAC does not represent the views of many American Jews is both easy and, from the standpoint of practical politics, pointless. Changing America’s mind about the Middle East is hard — and based on events to date, it doesn’t look as if J Street is up to the job.