Right after 9/11, I made a bold prediction: that the small number of players who determine American policy in the Middle East would soon be joined by a broadly based peace faction which recognizes that the Arab-Israeli conflict threatens American security. I was wrong. The number of players remains small. If they’ve made room at the table for anyone, it hasn’t been peaceniks, but hawkish Christians.
The reason I was wrong is that I didn’t reckon on the strength of the Zionist lobby. As it demonstrated by helping to bankroll successful challengers to two incumbent Congressmen who had spoken out for Palestinian rights-Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama-the Zionist lobby is powerful and focused.
“The score is now Jewish activists 2, anti-Israel members of Congress 0,” the Jewish Press crowed in its coverage of those primaries.
But who else said it so bluntly? One of the difficulties about discussing this question is that the mainstream media refuse to address it directly; it’s considered too sensitive. The New York Times ‘ front-page story on Ms. McKinney’s defeat purposely muddled the issue. Its headline read, “For Black Politicians, 2 Races Suggest a Rise of New Tactics.” The Jewish lobby did not make an appearance until the fifth paragraph, and then in a backhanded fashion.
You don’t see The Times pussyfooting when it comes to the anti-Castro lobby or the National Rifle Association, two other powerful special-interest groups. When they muscle the system, we read faintly sinister accounts of the Arlington, Va., headquarters for the gun lobby and the bland, alien Wayne LaPierre, or hysterical interviews with nutso Castro-haters on Eighth Street in Miami.
Even the words “Jewish lobby” stick in the throat. Earlier this year, Chris Matthews devoted a segment on Hardball to the question of why European nations have such a different position on the Middle East than the United States does. The segment was moronic. It ignored a social and political reality that Mr. Matthews, a political veteran, knows damn well: Jews are empowered in American society in a way that they are not in Europe. Indeed, Jewish money may be the most important segment of Democrat Party fund-raising.
Last year, on a trip to the Middle East, Times columnist Thomas Friedman also dismissed the issue. He said that an Arab journalist approached him at a conference and quietly asked him about all the Jews in the media in the United States. Mr. Friedman stepped away, shaking his head. “Wow,” he wrote, before commenting somewhat along the lines of Can you believe the conspiracy theories that have taken root in the Arab world?
It’s only understandable that these theories have taken root. Jews represent an American elite. They have money, they have power, and Ariel Sharon has explicitly called upon them to use their influence over the American political process.
You’re just not allowed to say so in mixed company. Talking about “Jewish influence” reminds people of the Nazis. Abe Foxman is ready at a moment’s notice to insist on the Jewish identity as victim. Any acknowledgment of the large Jewish presence in the American establishment would start up anti-Semitism in this country, it is thought. (The same concerns probably caused Seinfeld to prevaricate about its Jewishness by unconvincingly labeling George, Kramer and Elaine as goyim.)
The problem is that the Zionist lobby is too important not to talk about. It’s a significant institution, and its moods and tone affect all of our interests. But the best reporting on the lobby happens at the periphery. For instance, the writer Michael Massing did a searching piece on the Zionist lobby in The American Prospect earlier this year, in which he showed that the lobby’s goal is to make sure there is “no daylight” between the American government and the Israeli government.
And as the Israeli government has gotten tougher, so has the lobby.
“The Jewish lobby has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. It is no longer a Jewish lobby per se, but a pro-Israeli lobby,” explains Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab-American Institute. “The Kristols, Krauthammers and Safires have brought in their crowd-neoconservatives and Christian evangelicals.”
What about the natural proclivity of Jews to be liberals? Liberals have yielded authority in the debate, Mr. Abinader says, due to feelings of fear and guilt over the horrors of the latest intifada: “Who knows the security situation in Israel better, us or them?” And, Mr. Abinader adds, American liberals have gotten no signals of moderation from the Palestinians. He’s right: I heard many of those sentiments expressed by the rabbi at a Kol Nidre service at a conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side.
The refusal of liberal American Jews to make an independent stand has left the American left helpless. American liberalism has always drawn strength from Jews. They are among the largest contributors to the Democratic Party; they have brought a special perspective to any number of social-justice questions, from the advancement of blacks and women to free speech. They fostered multiculturalism.
Those Jewish values would, you’d think, honor the Palestinians’ suffering and demand more evenhandedness of American policy. Or as the great Anthony Lewis writes in his introduction to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (The New Press): “[T]he issue is unambiguous: occupation. There can be peace only when Israel withdraws from the territories it conquered in 1967, leaving an uninterrupted West Bank as part of a viable Palestine.”
But Mr. Lewis is retired from The Times , and there’s no political cover for his point of view. When Congress considered a bill on solidarity with Israel last spring, nearly 100 Congressmen argued against putting the legislation on the floor because it was so one-sided. But the bill did come to the floor, and only 21 of the 100 stuck their necks out to vote against it. Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard were among them, and they’re now out of work.
Joined across the aisle by right-wing Republicans, Democratic Representative Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, led the floor debate on that measure. The Holocaust continues to be the baseline reference for Jews when thinking about their relationship to the world, and the Palestinians. A couple of months ago, I got an e-mail from a friend of a friend in Israel about the latest bus-bombing. “They’re going to kill us all,” was the headline. (No matter that Israel has one of largest armies in the world, and that many more Palestinians have died than Israelis). Once, when I suggested to a liberal journalist friend that Americans had a right to discuss issues involving Jewish success in the American power structure-just as we examined the WASP culture of the establishment a generation ago-he said, “Well, we know where that conversation ends up: in the ovens of Auschwitz.”
So while liberal Jews often have private conversations about the Middle East in which they acknowledge the absence of leadership in the Israeli government and the desperation of the Palestinians, they generally do not wish this to become a public conversation with other American citizens. Even liberal Jews are afraid to test America’s dedication to fairness.
The effect of their silence is that the discussion of these issues is steered by the right, and the most intolerant views are bandied about in respectable circles without objection.
Last spring, Dick Armey-a leading conservative Zionist on national television-called for all Palestinians to leave the West Bank. This is a hateful position; it amounts to ethnic cleansing. But no one in Mr. Armey’s Zionist alliance condemned him for saying as much. The only criticism came from Arab-American quarters.
To judge from the rhetoric on the Web sites of supporters of Denise Majette, the candidate who defeated Ms. McKinney in the Democratic primary in Georgia, some of her backers also favor “transfer”-the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank. No one tells them to take their money back.
It goes without saying that there is a vicious, anti-Semitic extremism on the Muslim side. The media are very sensitive to that. But with the collapse of any kind of liberal presence in this discussion, the American discourse has become tough and, at times, racist.
“‘Discourse’ is the wrong word,” says Mr. Abinader of the Arab-American Institute. “Pro-Arab voices have no political power. There is not a dialogue. It’s like one hand clapping.”
I’ve heard even Democratic Jews argue that Palestine is a fictional entity, that the people who lived in the area for generations have no true homeland, that they should be absorbed by Arab states. On campuses around the country, Zionists have succeeded in blocking Palestinians or their supporters from even speaking. Lately, following expressions of outrage from Zionists, the Queens Museum of Art removed a pamphlet from an art exhibit that asked viewers to “hear a word on Palestine and perhaps to help us right a wrong.” This spasm of intolerance was reported in the latest issue of the Jewish Press , which also included an insert attacking “The Plague of Jewish-Arab Marriages.” Racism, unremarked.
Where is the openness of the Jewish liberal tradition? Where is the respect?
It is a commonplace among peaceniks that the occupation has hurt Israel spiritually and practically. Well, it has hurt American Jews spiritually as well. The refusal to condemn the occupation on the basis of our hard-earned American values represents an abdication of moral authority.
Lately, The Forward reported an exceptional stand: Rabbi Paul Menitoff, a leader of the American Reform movement, called on the White House to send American troops to the Middle East and threaten both Israel and the Palestinians with sanctions if they don’t take positive steps toward peace.
Other Reform rabbis promptly attacked Mr. Menitoff for even suggesting that America has an independent power to bring to bear on the situation. Still, it would be nice to see the rabbi’s break as a sign of slippage. Jimmy Carter has lately made a forceful statement opposing the American government’s disdain for the Palestinians. An evangelical Christian group has distanced itself from right-wing evangelicals and called on George W. Bush to vigorously oppose “the continued unlawful and degrading Israeli settlement movement.”
Americans have had their own long struggle with human-rights questions, which can provide a helpful perspective on the Middle East. We have the right to see the region’s troubles as a cycle of violence in which both sides are inflamed and acting crazy-a cycle that we, as a superpower, have the ability to affect, that we do not have to be caught up in. And one day, before too long (a humble prediction), American peaceniks will take their seat at the policy table.