Playing Ethnic Politics At
MARCH 2003 "Progressive Review" -- One of the reasons Rep.
Jim Moran thinks Jewish leaders are powerful is because the ones he sees
are. Jews outside of Washington - like gun-owners, doctors, and Chamber
of Commerce members outside of Washington - don't have a strong sense
of just how precisely their "community" is being defined daily by their
There is no doubt - if one considers the 'Jewish community' as
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and various large Jewish
campaign contributors - that Rep. Moran was quite correct in saying that
they could have had a significant effect on the course of our policy in
the Middle East. For example, it took only three days for them to have a
significant effect on the course of Rep. Moran's career, getting his
cowardly colleagues to force him out of his House leadership position.
Earlier, they helped to have a similar effect on Rep Cynthia McKinney,
who went down to defeat thanks in part to an influx of pro-Israel money.
AIPAC, after all, is a lobby powerful enough that at its most recent
conference, one half of the Senate and one-third of the House showed up.
The fact that the Washington leadership may not accurately
reflect the diversity of its national constituency is not uniquely a
Jewish problem; it is part of the displacement of democracy from the
consensus of the many to the will of a select few that is speeding the
decline of the Republic. And never have the selected been fewer than
under the present Bush.
In talking about the Jewish manifestation of this, politicians
and the media use two different approaches. One is the sanitized patois
of ethnic sensitivity as when the perpetually clichéd Eleanor Clift
wrote: "Moran apologized, but the historical echoes that he awakened are
so antithetical to what Democrats claim to stand for that he might as
well bid goodbye to his political career."
But in the same article in which he quotes Clift, Greg Pierce of
the Washington Times also writes, "One political analyst said he
counseled two Democratic presidential campaigns to call for Moran's
resignation. 'It would be a cheap way to reassure Jewish voters,' he
said. 'I don't understand why they haven't done it yet.'"
In other words, what is considered anti-Semitic when stated at a
town meeting, becomes in another context just your standard keen
When you look at the facts rather than the Washington rhetoric,
you find that Moran was even more right than it appeared at first. A
study by Belief Net found that only the Southern Baptist Convention and
some Jewish groups supported the military approach and every other
listed major denomination opposed it. True, the Southern Baptists were
unequivocally in favor of war while the Jewish groups - Orthodox Union,
Union Of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform), and United Synagogue Of
Conservative Judaism - wanted to exhaust other alternatives first, but
every other religion Belief Net checked opposed the war including the
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Episcopal Church, Greek Orthodox
Church in America, Mormons - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, Presbyterian Church (USA), Quakers - American Friends Service
Committee, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Council on American-Islamic
Relations and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Catholics
weren't included but the Pope took a clear stand against the war.
So why go to such efforts to deliberately conceal and
prevaricate concerning the role of key Jewish organizations in
supporting the Iraq invasion?
Part of the answer can be found in none other than the
hypocritically outraged Washington Post, in an article written by its
White House correspondent, Dana Milbank, last November:
A group of U.S. political consultants has sent pro-Israel
leaders a memo urging them to keep quiet while the Bush administration
pursues a possible war with Iraq. The six-page memo was sent by the
Israel Project, a group funded by American Jewish organizations and
individual donors. Its authors said the main audience was American
Jewish leaders, but much of the memo's language is directed toward
Israelis. The memo reflects a concern that involvement by Israel in a
U.S.-Iraq confrontation could hurt Israel's standing in American public
opinion and undermine international support for a hard line against
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. . .
The Iraq memo was issued in the past few weeks and labeled
'confidential property of the Israel Project,' which is led by
Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi with help from Democratic
pollster Stan Greenberg and Republican pollsters Neil Newhouse and Frank
Luntz. Several of the consultants have advised Israeli politicians, and
the group aired a pro-Israel ad earlier this year. 'If your goal is
regime change, you must be much more careful with your language because
of the potential backlash,' said the memo, titled 'Talking About Iraq.'
"It added: 'You do not want Americans to believe that the war on
Iraq is being waged to protect Israel rather than to protect America.'
In particular, the memo urged Israelis to pipe down about the
possibility of Israel responding to an Iraqi attack. 'Such certainty may
be Israeli policy, but asserting it publicly and so overtly will not
sit well with a majority of Americans because it suggests a
pre-determined outcome rather than a measured approach,' it said."
This is not the first time this strategy has been tried. For
example, in January 1991, David Rogers of the Wall Street Journal wrote:
When Congress debated going to war with Iraq, the pro-Israel
lobby stayed in the background - but not out of the fight. Leaders of
the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee now acknowledge it worked
in tandem with the Bush administration to win passage of a resolution
authorizing the president to commit U.S. troops to combat. The
behind-the-scenes campaign avoided AIPAC's customary high profile in the
Capitol and relied instead on activists-calling sometimes from Israel
itself-to contact lawmakers and build on public endorsements by major
Jewish organizations. "Yes, we were active." says AIPAC director Thomas
Dine. "These are the great issues of our time, If you sit on the
sidelines, you have no voice. . . "
The debate revealed a deep ambivalence among Jewish lawmakers
over what course to follow, pitting their generally liberal instincts
against their support of Israel. Friends and families were divided. And
even as some pro-Israel advocates urged a more aggressive stance, there
was concern that the lobby risked damaging Israel's longer term
interests if the issue became too identified with Jewish or pro-Israel
. . . AIPAC took pains to disguise its role, and there was quiet
relief that the vote showed no solid Jewish bloc in favor of a war so
relevant to Israel. "It isn't such a bad idea that we were split," says
one Jewish lawmaker. . .
Pro-Israel PACs have poured money into campaigns for Southern
Democrats not immediately identified with their cause. For example, the
Alabama delegation voted in a bloc with Mr. Bush in both the House and
Senate. At first glance, this can be ascribed to the conservative, pro
military character of the state. But pro-Israel PACs have also
cultivated Democrats there in recent years."
It is hard to imagine such a frank description of ethnic
politics today. Thus it is not surprising that few know that the
aforementioned Thomas Dines - then executive director of AIPAC and now
head of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty - is a member of the
advisory committee of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
The Post, which didn't mentioned Dines' involvement in plotting
the seizure of Iraq, described the new organization as "modeled on a
successful lobbying campaign to expand the NATO alliance."
In fact, the last time prior to the war itself that the Post
even mentioned AIPAC was back in August before the Iraq invasion plot
took full shape. So you had to look elsewhere to find out what the
Jewish leadership was up to. For example, the Jerusalem Post reported
After weeks of debate and consideration, the Conference of
Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 52
Jewish national groups, announced its support for US military action
against Iraq "as a last resort." In a statement released Saturday, the
Conference of Presidents announced that all of its member groups
"support President [George W.] Bush and the Congress in their efforts to
gain unequivocal Iraqi compliance with the obligation to divest itself
of weapons of mass destruction and the means to develop such weapons."
The statement also endorsed the Bush administration's "efforts to enlist
the United Nations and international cooperation to secure Iraqi
compliance, including the use of force as a last resort.
The chairman of the group, Mortimer Zuckerman went a bit
further, declaring that the failure to attack Iraq would "ruin American
credibility in the Muslim world."
Now let us imagine that the 52 Jewish organizations had instead
reached a consensus that invading Iraq was illegal, unwise,
unconstitutional, and an act of reckless endangerment against the whole
world. Would that have influenced American policy? Of course it would.
Here's what happened instead, as described by Nathan Guttmann of
the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
An unusual visitor was invited to address the annual conference
held last week in Washington by AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobby in the
United States: the head of the Washington office of the Iraqi National
Congress, Intifad Qanbar. The INC is one of the main opposition groups
outside Iraq, and its leaders consider themselves natural candidates for
leadership positions in the post-Saddam Hussein era. Qanbar's
invitation to the conference reflects a first attempt to disclose the
links between the American Jewish community and the Iraqi opposition,
after years in which the two sides have taken pains to conceal them.
The considerations against openly disclosing the extent of
cooperation are obvious - revelation of overly close links with Jews
will not serve the interests of the organizations aspiring to lead the
Iraqi people. Currently, at the height of rivalry over future leadership
of the country among opposition groups abroad, the domestic opposition
and Iraqi citizens, it is most certainly undesirable for the Jewish
lobby to forge - or flaunt - especially close links with any one of the
groups, in a way that would cause its alienation from the others.
"At the current stage, we don't want to be involved in this
argument," says a major activist in one of the larger Jewish
organizations. In the end, Intifad Qanbar did not attend the AIPAC
conference. . .
The Jewish groups maintain quiet contacts with nearly every
Iraqi opposition group, and in the past have even met with the most
prominent opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi. The main objective was an
exchange of information, but there was also an attempt to persuade the
Iraqis of the need for good relations with Israel and with world Jewry. .
Aside from the annual AIPAC conference, two other major events
in the United States last week underscored the gamut of opinions and
perspectives in the American Jewish community on the war. The
positioning of the AIPAC people behind the coalition forces and behind
those who sent them is not surprising. AIPAC is wont to support whatever
is good for Israel, and so long as Israel supports the war, so too do
the thousands of the AIPAC lobbyists who convened in the American
There is no such uniformity among the various religious Jewish
movements, and indecisiveness is still very much the case. In Los
Angeles, members of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly
gathered and tried to clarify their position on the . . . In the end,
the issue was submitted to an executive council, which issued a draft
resolution that offered support for the war, albeit with reservations. .
The dilemma is more pronounced among Reform Jews. They also
convened last week to formulate a joint position, and they too were
careful not to launch any strident criticism of the war itself. . . The
only decision relevant to the war was agreement on a prayer for the
welfare of the soldiers at the front, and recognition of the fact that
there are a variety of opinions on the war. The resolution that was
adopted is very far from constituting an expression of support of any
kind for the war, but is also far from constituting criticism of it.
The situation is simpler among the Orthodox. Immediately upon
the outbreak of the war, the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization
of the community, released a statement that expressed unequivocal
support for President Bush and his decision to launch the war on Iraq,
which was described as having "noble aims."
Despite the ambivalence within the various religious segments of
Judaism, not to mention the split among Jews themselves, AIPAC carried
on its aggressive pro-war activity with impunity.
Of course they had some help, as Michael Lind pointed out in the
Most neo-conservative defense intellectuals have their roots on
the left, not the right. They are products of the largely
Jewish-American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which
morphed into anti-communist liberalism between the 1950s and 1970s and
finally into a kind of militaristic and imperial right with no
precedents in American culture or political history. Their admiration
for the Israeli Likud party's tactics, including preventive warfare such
Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, is mixed with odd
bursts of ideological enthusiasm for "democracy." They call their
revolutionary ideology "Wilsonianism" (after President Woodrow Wilson),
but it is really Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution mingled
with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism. Genuine American Wilsonians
believe in self-determination for people such as the Palestinians.
The neo-con defense intellectuals, as well as being in or around
the actual Pentagon, are at the center of a metaphorical "pentagon" of
the Israel lobby and the religious right, plus conservative think-tanks,
foundations and media empires. . .
The major link between the conservative think-tanks and the
Israel lobby is the Washington-based and Likud-supporting Jewish
Institute for National Security Affairs, which co-opts many non-Jewish
defense experts by sending them on trips to Israel. It flew out the
retired General Jay Garner, now slated by Bush to be proconsul of
occupied Iraq. In October 2000, he co-signed a JINSA letter that began:
"We . . . believe that during the current upheavals in Israel, the
Israel Defense Forces have exercised remarkable restraint in the face of
lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of [the] Palestinian
The Israel lobby itself is divided into Jewish and Christian
wings. [Pentagon officials Paul] Wolfowitz and [Douglas] Feith have
close ties to the Jewish-American Israel lobby. Wolfowitz, who has
relatives in Israel, has served as the Bush administration's liaison to
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Feith was given an award
by the Zionist Organisation of America, citing him as a "pro-Israel
activist". While out of power in the Clinton years, Feith collaborating
with Perle, co-authored for Likud a policy paper that advised the
Israeli government to end the Oslo peace process, reoccupy the
territories and crush Yasser Arafat's government.
Such experts are not typical of Jewish-Americans, who mostly
voted for Gore in 2000. The most fervent supporters of Likud in the
Republican electorate are southern Protestant fundamentalists. The
religious right believes that God gave all of Palestine to the Jews, and
fundamentalist congregations spend millions to subsidize Jewish
settlements in the occupied territories.
Then, of course, there is Israel itself which has been a huge
beneficiary of American aid only to have repeatedly thwarted the better
efforts of American presidents and other leaders - including those in
Israel - seeking a bit of rationality in the Middle East. Much of this
subversion of sanity has been masochistic; de facto, right wing Israelis
have been among the world's most effective anti-Semites.
In a recent Counterpunch article, Kathleen and Bill Christison
offer an explication of this phenomenon;
[Jeff Halper] is an Israeli anthropologist, until his retirement
a year ago a professor at Ben Gurion University, a transplant 30 years
ago from Minnesota, a harsh critic of Israel's occupation of the West
Bank and Gaza, and, as founder of the Israeli Committee Against House
Demolitions, one of the leading peace and anti-occupation activists in
Israel. . .
Zionism, he says, "is a very compelling narrative, but it is
totally self-contained, a bubble in which Israelis separate themselves
from all others." Israelis regard everyone else as irrelevant. When it
is suggested that fear motivates this self-absorption, Halper disagrees.
"It's not so much fear," he says; Israelis "just don't give a damn.
They make everyone else a non-issue. They see themselves as the victim,
and if you're the victim, you're not responsible for anything you do."
Anything goes if you are the victim, he explains: you don't care
about the consequences of your actions for other people, you need not
take any responsibility for the effect of your policies on others, you
don't care about how others feel. Israelis always think they're right,
he says. They believe everything they do is right because the Jewish
nation is "right," because they are only responding to what others do to
them, only retaliating. "If you combine three elements: the idea that
we are right, with the notion that we're the victim, and with our great
military power," he says, you have a lethal combination. . . . Israel
can act with brutality, but the responsibility, the fault, lies
To define good Jewishness - or conversely, anti-Semitism - by
one's reaction to the Sharon government makes no more sense than to
define good Americanism by one's reaction to Bush. Sharon not only
blasphemously mocks the lessons supposedly learned from the Holocaust,
his policies represent a huge departure from the humanistic and
progressive politics that long characterized American Judaism. This
tradition, born in European socialism and blended with American
populism, helped mightily to form the social democracy our country
increasingly enjoyed during the 20th century.
I, in fact, grew up alnost believing that there were three
branches of Judiasm: Orthodox, Reform, and Liberal Democratic. And it
often seemed that the last was the most powerful. In fact, you couldn't
be an urban progressive of my age without becoming part Jewish.
But history doesn't stop, and just as greater America moved
sharply right after 1980s, so did this country's Jewish politics. It
wasn't alone. Feminism forgot lower class women, labor forgot its own
members, the biggest thing the Congressional Black Caucus did anymore
was an annual dinner, the environmental movement became embedded in the
Washington bureaucracy, and white liberals in general looked the other
way as our civil liberties disintegrated.
To sweep this problem under the bed, to fail to discuss the
disaster that pro-Israeli politics have become for fear of being called
anti-Semitic is both cowardly and dangerous. At a time when the
Washington Post is urging its readers to stock up on several days' food
and buy gas masks because of the possible consequences of the
internationally criminal policies it so vigorously supports, we no
longer have time or tolerance for such cynical games. If you want to die
for your own faith, fine, but you have no right to take the rest of the
world with you.
The danger of the dishonest debate about the Middle East was
well described by Joan Didion in a recent New York Review of Books:
[We need to] demystify the question of why we have become unable
to discuss our relationship with the current government of Israel.
Whether the actions taken by that government constitute self-defense or a
particularly inclusive form of self-immolation remains an open
question. The question of course has a history.
This open question, and its history, are discussed rationally
and with considerable intellectual subtlety in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Where the question is not discussed rationally, where in fact the
question is rarely discussed at all, since so few of us are willing to
see our evenings turn toxic, is in New York and Washington and in those
academic venues where the attitudes and apprehensions of New York and
Washington have taken hold. The president of Harvard recently warned
that criticisms of the current government of Israel could be construed
as 'anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.'
The very question of the US relationship with Israel, in other
words, has come to be seen as unraisable, potentially lethal, the
conversational equivalent of an unclaimed bag on a bus. We take cover.
We wait for the entire subject to be defused, safely insulated behind
baffles of invective and counter-invective. Many opinions are expressed.
Few are allowed to develop. Even fewer change."
We are entangled, in major part, in a religious war in which bin
Laden, Bush and Sharon comprise a triptych of theological terror that
is putting everyone at great risk. They are each involved in a vicious
heresy, falsely defining their own myopic, immoral, and sadistic
ambitions as their religion's moral faith. This is no time for
politeness, politics, or silence. And while Jews are far from alone in
needing to call their leadership back to sanity, neither are they
Copyright: Progressive Review
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