What Is the Role of ‘Jewish Money’ in Politics?

The Observer did what I wanted a newspaper to do: reporter Jason Horowitz stuck Israel into the Connecticut Senate race. He asked Lieberman how Israel played out in the politics of the primary, and Lieberman said (in a lovely allusion to Rabbi Hillel’s famous trope on the Torah), “That’s too big a question to answer on one foot.” Then Lamont ran away as though his hair was on fire. He told Horowitz that since 9/11 he’s come to admire that “feisty” democracy, Israel.

Of course many observers of the race regard the Lamont groundswell as drawing life from subterranean criticism of Israel. Some supporters of Lieberman are angered by this, and point to what they see as antisemitic comments on Kos. The one statement Horowitz quotes is inflammatory—all about Lieberman’s Israel “graft”—but it does touches on what is central to understanding the Israel issue in American politics: money. This issue should not be dismissed as antisemitic; it should be dealt with head-on, because it is so important. Here, for instance, is Harvard Professor Steven Walt, till lately a dean at the Kennedy School of Government, talking about money in his 2005 book, Taming American Power:

Israel is able to obtain U.S. support and influence U.S. policy because it receives sustained political support from the comparatively wealthy, well-educated, well-connected, and politically mobilized community of Jewish Americans, and from other social groups allied with them.

That comparatively-wealthy group has sometimes addressed the money issue directly itself:

1. In his 1991 book Chutzpah, Alan M. Dershowitz says of friends of Israel, “We became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.”

2. Lately in The New Republic, Martin Peretz, sore over the “anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish animus” that he thinks helped to exile Larry Summers, baldly describes money as a way of punishing Harvard: “…[M]y own impression of wealthy alumni who were once my students is that Summers made them more generous… I know of at least three gifts in the $100 million range that were very likely to materialize and now are dicey.”

3. Bernard Steinberg, director of Harvard’s Hillel center, brought up the money issue to me, unprompted, when I interviewed him for an article in the Nation
on the Walt-Mearsheimer paper on the Israel lobby, a paper whose association with the Kennedy School at Harvard made Steinberg livid. He said, “I talked to someone in Harvard development and asked what the fallout had been, and he said, ‘It’s been seismic.'”

These men were all talking openly about a real force in American politics. Here are two statements from the Walt-Mearsheimer paper (written by two leading professors) that underscore that point.

1. “The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates ‘depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 per cent of the money.'”
2. “Over the past 25 years, pro-Israel forces have established a commanding presence at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Security Policy, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). These think tanks employ few, if any, critics of US support for Israel.

“Take the Brookings Institution. For many years, its senior expert on the Middle East was William Quandt, a former NSC official with a well-deserved reputation for even-handedness. Today, Brookings’s coverage is conducted through the Saban Center for Middle East Studies, which is financed by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American businessman and ardent Zionist. The center’s director is the ubiquitous Martin Indyk. What was once a non-partisan policy institute is now part of the pro-Israel chorus.”

I know a little about the thinktanks from having reported on them. They stocked the Bush Administration with neocons, who jumped out of their cubicles after 9/11 and put on their capes. Thinktanks depend on generous gifts; and the climate is very pro-Israel. For instance, I was told that scholars who had criticized Israel at the Cato Institute, a libertarian nest, were last year told to pull in their horns. They found this ominous. Even as American Enterprise Institute was paying Dore Gold, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., $96,000 a year for three years as a fellow when the guy was living in Israel and the association was nowhere on AEI’s website (the figure was collected in federal filings by Guidestar.org).

Or here is the brilliant young Anatol Lieven, formerly of the Carnegie Institute, talking to me again for the Nation: “I did not wite a line about [Israel] until 9/11… I knew bloody well it would bring horrible unpopularity.” Then 9/11 happened and Carnegie asked him to look into the Mideast. Lieven had been a regular at the Aspen Institute. “I got kicked out… In early 2002 they held a conference on relations with the Muslim world. For two days nobody mentioned Israel. Finally, I said, ‘Look, this is a Soviet-style debate. Whatever you think about this issue, the entire Muslim world is shouting about it.’ I have never been asked back.”

In 2004 Lieven published a book, America Right or Wrong, in which he argued that the United States had subordinated its interests to Israel. “I became a pariah at the Carnegie with many colleagues. Nor have I enjoyed being told by a number of people with respect to various jobs, to forget it… ”

Last year Lieven left the Carnegie for the New America Foundation. He is rather amusing on the issue of intellectual independence among the tankers:

“When you spend your whole professional life bent over double, you can’t stand up straight again, much less have a spine. People at the thinktanks have courage somewhere between a seaslug and sheep-guts… People have spoken out before [on the Mideast] and the surface has closed over them with hardly a ripple. People as serious as Fulbright…. Life is very difficult if you can’t get published in the New York Times or Washington Post.”

It’s worth considering the career of a man who has repeatedly been published in the Times, Kenneth M. Pollack, the most important liberal hawk in the runup to the Iraq war. Pollack published his war manifesto, The Threatening Storm, in 2002, just as he joined the Saban Center at Brookings. Every time Pollack refers to the Israel/Palestine situation as a source of anger in the Arab world in that book, he uses phrases like “violence between Arabs and Israelis.” Or “upheaval.” Or: “trouble in the Arab-Israeli arena taps into the huge pool of Arab anger and resentment…” All this, mind you, when he is trying to look at it from the Arab perspective: but he never uses the word occupation. I just searched the book on Amazon: it uses the word occupation seven times, almost always to refer to the upcoming U.S. occupation of Iraq. Not once about the West Bank. This is, quite simply, circumlocution. Even fellow-war-drum-banger Chris Hitchens says on Slate, “Almost everybody… concedes that the Israeli occupation has been a moral and political catastrophe.” Well not everybody Chris; Pollack can’t even say the word occupation. I have to wonder whether Pollack’s signing up with a center funded by an Israeli turned his mind into sheepguts.

One answer to all that I’ve said is, This is not Jewish money; this is the subset of rightwing, pro-Israel money. There is, after all, George Soros. Or the brave Israel Policy Forum(though even here I would note that IPF’s National Scholar, Steven Spiegel, said fatuously on the Diane Rehm show that the lobby doesn’t have to push Israel to policymakers because the same way “kids like ice cream cones, Americans like Israel”).

Fair enough: but these are exceptions to the rule, and that rule is that big Jewish money is hawkish because it is concerned with Israel’s security. Even the Jewish Ledger agrees in its coverage of Lamont-Lieberman: “Jewish fund-raisers canvassed by JTA said they favored Lieberman — even those who profoundly disagree with him on Iraq. Democrats in general are missing the bigger picture, said Alan Solomont, a Boston-based Jewish fund-raiser who headed funding for John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the presidency.
and who supported the Geneva Accord.
“The left in our party who favor a different approach to Iraq are turning their fury on Joe in a way that I don’t think is particularly helpful,” Solomont said. “I differ with Lieberman on Iraq but I don’t think Democrats can afford to break ranks right now in the face of extreme right-wing control of the entire federal government.” And Solomon is on the executive committee of what is close to the left of the Israel supporters in this country, the

There is sadness and tragedy here. The tragedy is the effect on American independence. As Lieven says, had there been such a lobby during the 70s with respect to China, could Nixon have made his creative leap? No way. Look at the Israeli occupation and settlement program. As Hitchens says, everyone (but Ken Pollack) understands what a horror this has proved to be. Even unabashed supporters of Israel understand that. Well, several American presidents actually tried to put on the brakes. In 1992, George H.W. Bush held up loan guarantees aimed at helping Soviet emigres move to Israel because he didn’t want Israel to build another settlement. The lobby went crazy. Bush backed down.

In a forthcoming paper on Israel policy by the realist scholar Michael Desch, the former President Bush says at Texas A&M U that he believes he lost the ’92 presidential race to Clinton because of his stand on the settlements.

Is that the sort of power we want anyone to have in this country? Did that serve America or Israel? Recent events in the Mideast demonstrate, the U.S. must play an independent role.

What is the sadness? It is that Jews are so taken up in a narrative of their own powerlessness that I don’t think they are aware of how much power their tremendous advances in the last generation have granted them.