The AIPAC Story
by Sam Smith
Progressive Review, March 2003
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 capital lobbyists.
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 political analysis.
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,
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 polities.
. . . 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 last October:
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
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 capital.
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
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
Of course they had some help, as Michael
Lind pointed out in the New Statesman:
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
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 elsewhere.
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
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
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 exempt.
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