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Breaking the Taboo: Why We Took On the Israel Lobby
Posted on Oct 4, 2007
Why do you focus on Israel and not on other U.S. allies?
We focus on Israel’s policies in this book not because we have any animus toward Israel or because we regard its behavior as worse than other states’. Rather, we focus on it because the United States has long focused so much of its financial, diplomatic, and military attention on Israel. Israel is often said to deserve this support because it supposedly acts better than other states do, but we show that this is not the case. It has not acted worse than other states, but neither has it acted significantly better. Regrettably, uncritical U.S. support has led to policies that are harmful to the United States and Israel alike.
If the strategic and moral rationales don’t account for the exceptional backing of Israel, what does?
The pro-Israel lobby. The lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and groups that actively works to push American policy in ways that will benefit Israel. It is not a cabal or conspiracy, or a single, hierarchical organization with a central leadership and total unanimity of views. Rather, it is a set of groups and individuals who all favor steadfast U.S. support for Israel but sometimes disagree on certain policy issues. Prominent groups in the lobby include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and pro-Israel think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Leading individuals in the lobby include the heads of these various organizations, as well as neoconservatives who served in the Bush administration like Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Wurmser, some of whom are closely associated with hard-line pro-Israel think tanks and conservative politicians in Israel, or Christian Zionists like John Hagee of CUFI and ... Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Religious and ethnic identity does not define who is part of the lobby, as it includes gentiles as well as Jewish-Americans. It is the political agenda of an individual or a group, not ethnicity or religion, that determines whether they are part of the lobby. Thus, the Israel lobby is not synonymous with American Jewry, and “Jewish lobby” is not an appropriate term for describing the various groups and individuals that work to foster U.S. support for Israel. These groups and individuals sometimes disagree on particular issues but they are united in their belief that the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel should not be substantively questioned. They are not all-powerful and they do not “control” U.S. foreign policy. Rather, they form a powerful special interest group, which over time has acquired considerable influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East.
What are the strategies the lobby uses to influence the policymaking process and public discourse about Israel and its relationship with the United States?
The Israel lobby uses the same basic strategies that other interest groups employ. It pushes its agenda in Congress by supporting friendly candidates and legislators with votes and campaign money and by helping to frame legislation; by getting sympathetic individuals appointed to key policy positions in the executive branch; by monitoring the media and pressuring news organizations to offer favorable coverage; and by writing articles, books, and op-eds designed to move public opinion in directions they favor. These various strategies are as American as apple pie, and there is nothing illegitimate about them. Yet it ought to be equally legitimate to examine and discuss how the Israel lobby works to push its agenda in government, and to debate whether its influence is beneficial, the same way that one might examine other interest groups like the gun lobby, the farm lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the energy lobby, and other ethnic lobbies (e.g., Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, Armenian-Americans, etc.).
Do you think the Israel lobby’s tactics sometimes go beyond acceptable interest-group politics?
Unfortunately, yes. Although most of the lobby’s tactics are legitimate forms of political participation, some groups and individuals in the lobby also try to silence or marginalize opponents and critics by smearing them as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. This sort of response was evident in the personal attacks directed at Jimmy Carter for writing a controversial book about Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and in the efforts of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League to prevent the historian Tony Judt from giving a lecture on the Israel lobby to a group in New York City. True anti-Semitism is loathsome and should be firmly opposed, but using this sort of accusation to silence or marginalize critics is antithetical to the principles of free speech and open debate on which democracy depends.
Why is it so difficult to talk about the role of the Israel lobby?
Primarily because of the many centuries of anti-Semitism in the Christian West, which culminated in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Given this long history of sometimes violent persecution, Jewish Americans (and many gentiles) are understandably sensitive to any argument that is critical of Israel or of the political influence of groups in which Jews are central participants. This sensitivity is compounded by the memory of bizarre conspiracy theories of the sort laid out in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious anti-Semitic tract that was discredited long ago. Such paranoid views remain a staple of neo-Nazis and other fringe groups, however, which reinforces Jewish sensitivities even more. Given this history, some people are likely to suspect that anyone who criticizes Israel is in fact questioning its right to exist, or that anyone who examines the political influence of the Israel lobby is questioning the loyalty of pro-Israel individuals or accusing them of some sort of illegitimate activity. We explicitly reject these anti-Semitic notions, but given past experience, we understand why it is easier to talk about the influence of other special interest groups than it is to talk about the Israel lobby.
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