How the Jewish Lobby Helped Save My Family

My people came to this country in the ten years either side of 1900. They were afraid of the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, they came from Poland, Bukovina, Bialystok, to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.

Some day someone should make a Schindler’s List-like movie of the guy who helped bring us out. It was Jacob Henry Schiff (1847-1920). Schiff was a great Jewish hero, there should be statues to this guy. He was the head of Kuhn, Loeb, and rivaled J.P. Morgan, and Lord Rothschild, and Bleichroder, as the most powerful banker in the world.

I’m reading a great book, To Free a People (1982), by Gary Dean Best, a professor of history emeritus at University of Hawai’i. It’s about the efforts by American Jewish leaders to stop the pogroms in Europe and to ease the situation of Jews there. It’s about the birth of the Jewish lobby. “In the quarter century between 1890 and 1914 the American Jewish leaders forged the foundation for a strong American Jewish lobby which significantly influenced American foreign policy toward eastern Europe…and served as the basis for the powerful present-day American Jewish lobby,” Best writes.

The lobby then comprised Schiff and a few other bankers, who gained access to the president whenever they wanted it, and also Simon Wolf, of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. These bankers were warned early on that it was better to operate “diplomatically,” i.e. behind closed doors, than for Jews to have mass meetings—rallies, which would piss off the Russians and Roumanians who were persecuting my ancestors. So that’s what they did generally, they had private meetings. (Though rallies would play a role over the years.)

Best shows that while American Jews were able to influence American policy, American statements, they were only moderately successful in actually influencing Russia. Though, yes, they kept up the flow of emigration. At one point, Simon Wolf made the following boast, to a Russian diplomat:

Russia at this juncture needs two important elements to inspire its future prosperity and happiness: money and friends. The Jews of the world, as citizens of their respective countries, control much of the first and would make a magnificent army of the latter. There is no use disguising the fact that in the United States especially the Jews form an important factor in the formation of public opinion and in the control of finances… By virtue of their mercantile and financial standing in this country they are exercising an all potent and powerful influence…

This was not an idle boast. Best says that in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-05, Schiff played a powerful role in defeating the Russian forces by acting to block their access to capital in Europe and America, and meantime floating bond after bond, into the hundreds of millions, for the Japanese.

All because of Russian persecution of Jews. I love this guy.

Obviously I am bringing this up to talk about the present day. Schiff waffled on Zionism, as so many German Jews did. Ultimately he helped out. Today the Israel lobby is devoted not to stopping the persecution of the Jews but to the militarization of the Jewish state and defense of the occupation. Toughdove and other Peace Now Jews are against that lobby, and good for them. They know better than I do the horrors of the occupation, and are trying to end it. Where we differ is that I think the Israel lobby has profoundly influenced American foreign policy, and hurt it. They say that’s preposterous, Jews don’t have that kind of power. Gary Dean Best, a scholar, says that we do.

Antisemites have scorched the earth for any intellectual discussion of this—that is the belief of the toughdoves. I take their point. I don’t want more Jewish persecution to emerge from what Albert Lindemann, another fine scholar, calls the “rise of the Jews.” But I’m betting that we can have that conversation in America without persecution, and we need to. Undeceiving ourselves about our rise, undeceiving ourselves about our influence on policy seem to me essential elements of an essential conversation: Why Are We In Iraq?