The Two Narratives About the Israel Lobby: Will They Ever Meet?

The idea that there are two narratives about Israel/Palestine in this country, and never the twain shall meet, was reinforced last week by the Times’ two-parter on the special relationship of Israel and the U.S., titled “Anatomy of an Alliance.” The first part dismissed the claim of an “Israel lobby,” arguing in essence that there have been paranoid theories of Jewish influence going back to Truman’s day. The next day, part 2 was devoted to the old standby bugaboo: Christian right support for Israel. As if evangelical support for the right of the chosen people to the holy land is why Dem bosses Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean say that we will be by Israel’s side now and forever.

Oh, those evangelical Christian Democrats—I guess Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer raise tons of money at private parties in Dallas and Boise!

I’m of course an advocate for the other narrative: that American Jewish support for Israel is a major factor in our foreign policy in that region, and that this support needs to be critically examined (especially by progressives who are appalled by Iraq and trying to undo the damage).

And I’d counter the Times’ dismissal of Jewish influence as a canard that goes back to the 40s with the work of a former Timesman, Peter Grose. A gentile, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Times, later associated with the Council on Foreign Relations, Grose in 1983 published a book called Israel in the Mind of America (Knopf) that dissected the political support in the U.S. for the Jewish state, and described the birth of the lobby, which he terms the “Jewish lobby,” in the mid-1940s.

Grose completely contradicts the Times’ claim of last week. He shows that in 1945-1947, when the Democratic administrations of the White House were taking a “go-slow” policy with respect to a Jewish state in Palestine out of concern for the effects in the Arab world, and when some moderate Zionists were going along with the presidents, militant Jews around the country organized to fast-track the idea.

One part of that movement was grassroots activism, spearheaded by the Zionist Emergency Council, led by Abba Hillel Silver. “Local emergency committees were to be formed wherever Jews lived, but most particularly in the hometowns—no matter how small—of influential members of Congress,” Grose writes. “The instructions from headquarters [were to]… get someone respectable to pull him aside and brief him privately on the Palestine situation—[the committee said,] ‘Your local Congressman or Senator may be the man who will make a decisive speech on this subject on the floor of Congress—THIS POSSIBILITY MUST NOT BE OVERLOOKED.'” The Zionist Emergency Council also secretly gave money to “Protestant notables” so that they would issue statements calling for a Jewish state, Grose says. The Zionist Emergency Council said, “Strong Christian pressure for a Jewish Commonwealth [state] is needed to spur Federal action on behalf of a Jewish Palestine.” These dummy Christian organizations sometimes issued statements “signed” by clergymen who hadn’t been shown them ahead of time!

The other part of the lobby was the wielding of influence in D.C. by a group organized by Israel M. Sieff, a British magnate living in Washington—in a tradition going back 30 years to Justice Brandeis’s idea of secret gatherings, or parushim, of Jews who cared deeply about Palestine during the time of the Balfour Declaration.

Writes Grose:

“The little nucleus possessed the entrée and the clout to carry the message of Jewish Palestine into the highest policymaking circles—through casual suggestion, indirection, chance remarks among well-placed colleagues in the corridors of power and the salons of social Washington…a sophisticated version of Brandeis’ Parushim; it would grow into the Zionists’ back channel through official Washington in the last years of the Roosevelt administration and the crucial opening years of Harry S Truman’s presidency. Its existence was never openly acknowledged—just friends having dinner together—yet the members and their diverse contacts well knew who their colleagues were…[A]mong the anti-Zionists of the State Department this amorphous little club aroused all the old fears of an international Zionist conspiracy. Even after Sieff’s return to England after the war, the informal group he founded repeatedly demonstrated its influence.”

Grose is highly favorable to Israel; yet he is able to speak of the importance of Jewish influence. It’s too bad that the Times couldn’t have at least acknowledged some of this Timesman’s work in its anatomizing last week.

Yes, the context for the birth of the Israel lobby is: Jews are a persecuted minority and the Holocaust wiped out European Jewry; many American Jews saw a Jewish homeland as a vital need, and they used whatever power they had to get a state—thereby rolling my crowd, the cultural Zionists and other Jewish anti-staters, including the Times itself. Alas, similar concerns, about persecution and anti-Semitism and Boratism in the U.S., are the reason that the Times feels so uncomfortable today, and cannot look head-on at an issue that is so central to repairing our approach to the Middle East.

As an optimist, I’d argue that my side is managing to mainstream the issue. After all, other outlets are feeling less anxiety than the Times does. Simon & Schuster ran a full-page ad for Jimmy Carter’s book last week, and in that book the former President speaks of the power of the lobby. The men who blew the issue open last March, Walt and Mearsheimer, were on the cover of Foreign Policy in the summer; and the Naval War College invited the profs to speak; not long after West Point toasted Noam Chomsky. In September, Mearsheimer was the main event at a debate of the Israel lobby at Cooper Union. It was SRO, with scores turned away in the streets of New York. When Brian Lamb managed to interview Walt and Mearsheimer on C-Span, he said that he had been trying to get the authors on “for months.”

Still, CSpan is the periphery, and Jimmy Carter is getting flayed by the Democratic leadership. So we still have two narratives; and this is a danger sign: it reflects a deep fissure in our public culture. (Remember the OJ verdict?).

Earlier this year I had dinner at a restaurant in Damascus with a Muslim woman from Tunisia. I asked her about women’s rights in Syria. We had talked about everything else openly; now she raised her hand and said, “We should have this conversation in private.” Yes, the Arab world is impaled on modernity; in many quarters, you cannot discuss the issues of free speech or women’s rights without looking over your shoulder. And in the clash of cultures, we also have our black holes.