Mondoweiss / August 5, 2022
U.N. human rights investigator Miloon Kothari has now apologized for criticizing the “Jewish lobby,” but Israel advocates have long celebrated the power of the Israel lobby in forming U.S. policy.
Last week we published an interview that caused an international outcry from pro-Israel groups. Miloon Kothari, a member of the UN Human Rights Council’s commission investigating the 2021 Israeli assault on Gaza, described the role of the “Jewish lobby” to David Kattenburg:
Whether it’s the Jewish lobby or specific NGOs, a lot of money is being thrown into trying to discredit us. But the important thing is that our mandate is based on international human rights and humanitarian standards.
Kothari was widely denounced as a supposed antisemite for talking about the “Jewish lobby” throwing money at the issue; and immediately there followed demands, including from Israeli leaders, to shut down the commission investigating the Gaza attack. And Kothari has now apologized for the remarks.
This is an old pattern. Israel has opposed any efforts to apply international law to its brutal actions. Kothari is on a commission that is likely to accuse Israel of war crimes for the onslaught that killed dozens of children in addition to many other civilians. Its friends were trying to end this investigation before Kothari gave the interview, and they seized on his supposed antisemitism to try to maintain Israeli impunity.
I agree with Kothari about the power of the Jewish pro-Israel lobby. I think the lobby is crucial in maintaining political support for Israel in high places, if not “social media” (one context of Kothari’s comment).
And it’s an open secret. The power of the Zionist lobby is now widely understood, and political professionals often mention it. I thought it would be a service to cite the long history of similar observations about the power of the Jewish pro-Israel lobby, including from advocates for Israel. And while Kothari may have erred in calling it the “Jewish lobby,” you will see that Israel advocates do the same thing, conflating the Jewish community with Zionism.
None of those people got in any trouble for those comments. But that’s because they’re praising the lobby and Jewish power, not calling it out. That’s the crime, being critical of Zionist influence.
In 1991, Alan Dershowitz bragged in “Chutzpah” about the power of the lobby American Jews built for Israael:
My generation of Jews was too young to fight against Nazism or for Israeli independence, too American to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel), too comfortable to put our bodies on the line for anything Jewish. Instead, we observed, contributed… We became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.
In 2017, Dershowitz went further, telling a synagogue audience that Jews deserve to influence foreign policy because we have done more for America than others.
People write a book called the Israel lobby and complain that AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. My response to that is, that’s not good enough. We should be the most powerful lobby in Washington….
We are entitled to use our power. We have contributed disproportionately to the success of this country. We have done so much for this country. When you think of how much better this country has become since our grandparents and great grandparents took the risk of coming, here, we have not only the right we have the obligation to speak out, and use every piece, every bit of power available in support of Israel.
Using our power means writing big checks. Jews are far and away the wealthiest religious group in the U.S., according to Pew. One leading backer of Israel causes has linked unprecedented Jewish “influence” in American society to that wealth, saying that one out of four U.S. billionaires is Jewish.
In 2019, Nathan Thrall wrote in The New York Times that the Democratic Party is wed to supporting Israel because of the influence of “Jewish donors,” who are considered to be pro-Israel:
[T]here is little willingness among Democrats to argue publicly for substantially changing longstanding policy toward Israel. In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of mega-donors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors. This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, explained how this influence works at a J Street conference in 2016. She said Congressional candidates go to the “Jewish community” for contributions, carrying a pro-Israel position from the Israel lobby group AIPAC:
I worked for candidates in the 90’s as their finance director. And I would come on a congressional race, I am a twenty-something kid who also knows nothing beyond the state borders, let alone overseas, and you thought about where you are going to go to raise the money that you needed to raise to win a race. And you went to labor, you went to the choice community, and you went to the Jewish community. But before you went to the Jewish community, you had a conversation with the lead AIPAC person in your state and they made it clear that you needed a paper on Israel. And so you called all of your friends who already had a paper on Israel – that was designed by AIPAC – and we made that your paper.
This was before there was a campaign manager, or a policy director or a field director because you got to raise money before you do all of that. I have written more Israel papers that you can imagine…. The poor campaign manager would come in, or the policy director, and I’d be like, ‘Here is your paper on Israel. This is our policy.’ We’ve sent it all over the country because this is how we raise money. … This means that these candidates who were farmers, school teachers, or businesswomen, ended up having an Israel position without having any significant conversations with anybody.
That pressure affects the White House too. Former Obama aide Ben Rhodes described the power of both the lobby and “Jewish donors” over foreign policy in a 2018 book and in interviews. For instance, Rhodes said that after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu lectured Obama in the White House in 2011, saying Israel could not accept the ’67 lines as a border, Rhodes had to get on the phone to “a list of leading Jewish donors … to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides.”
The fear was that these Jewish donors would abandon Obama’s reelection campaign. “Netanyahu had mastered a kind of leverage: using political pressure within the United States to demoralize any meaningful push for peace…”
That leverage involved Jewish groups. On national security issues, Rhodes said he met with 10 to 20 leaders of pro-Israel Jewish organizations (surely including the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) as much as all other groups combined. And if the White House got out of line, Congressmen would call and talk about donations.
“If there’s any daylight between the US and the Israeli government, even Democratic members are going to be upset, concerned about that…. We’re never supposed to name the issue of money. But like when it became very acute and AIPAC is spending money and threatening people that they’re going to cancel fundraisers, suddenly you’re having that conversation in a way where you’re not even allowed to allude to it in normal circumstances.”
Chuck Hagel almost didn’t get the job as Defense Secretary under Obama because he’d dared to speak of the “Jewish lobby” trying to intimidate him when he was a senator (as quoted by Aaron David Miller):
Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” but as he put it, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
Such critical comments are verboten because they tie into ancient “tropes” about Jewish influence that spurred the rise of antisemitic violence and Nazism in Europe. The pro-Israel writer Yehuda Kurtzer lately beseeched activists and journalists not to describe AIPAC’s millions spent to defeat progressive Democratic candidates as “dark money” connected to “Israel lobbies.”
I am begging now the members of my community to stop promoting this narrative that dark ((Jewish)) money is responsible for winning contested elections between qualified candidates or for “crushing progressives,” or for whatever political narrative is expedient when you are on the losing side and need a boogeyman to explain it. I am begging you to notice how this normalizes an antisemitic narrative that is rising in American politics, which is antisemitic even if some Jews support it or benefit from it… There is no version of this that doesn’t end badly, for all of us.
The difficulty with Kurtzer’s appeal is that AIPAC’s pac, buying ads that weren’t even about Israel, was “the biggest spender in Democratic primaries this cycle.” It would be irresponsible not to cover that. As Lara Friedman responded, “So AIPAC can do it… & AIPAC can brag about doing it… But talking about what AIPAC did (at least in a critical way) is antisemitic. See how that works?”
This money has been a lead factor in our policymaking for 50 years. In his book on the Carter years, former Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat described a very similar dynamic to what Rhodes experienced under Obama: pro-Israel policy was generated by “lobbying” by the “Jewish leadership.”
[There is a] special triangular relationship among Israel, the America Jewish leadership and the Congress… effectively applying pressure on the presidency to modify U.S. policy to Israel’s benefit. This is unique in the annals of diplomacy. There are other countries, such as Britain, that have a favored relationship with the United States but exert their influence through traditional diplomacy rather than relying heavily on a domestic American constituency and lobbying Congress. For a vulnerable, small country like Israel, surrounded by enemies, perfecting this unusual brand of political diplomacy was essential. While it existed to a limited degree before the Carter administration, it was honed to much greater use during our term in office. Since then it has only grown in dimension and intensity to be one of Washington’s most effective lobbies …
Eizenstat should know: He was Hillary Clinton’s liaison to the Jewish community in 2016, helping craft her position against BDS so as to please donors. At that time, J.J. Goldberg, the columnist for the Forward, described the “weight” of Jewish donors in affecting foreign policy in a panel at J Street:
You ask a Democratic fundraiser, where do you get the money from? “Well from trial lawyers, from toys, from generic drugs, from Hollywood. From Jews.” Those are all essentially Jewish industries… When you are raising money, you need to find rich people who are not right wing, and there are not– pardon me for saying this, there are not many rich goyim who are not right wing.
Goldberg said that 13 of the top 14 donors to the Democratic Party were Jewish (as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics). “That’s gigantic in the terms of American politics”.
Obviously, there is a need to distinguish between Zionists and Jews. Not all Jews are Zionists. I’m a Jewish anti-Zionist and very critical of the Israel lobby.
But I’m an outlier. Eizenstat relates that being pro-Israel became a “litmus test” for what it means to be Jewish in the 1970s, and remains so today:
What Carter and [national security adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski did not fully understand was that support for any incumbent Israeli government was the ultimate litmus test of Jewish identity for mainstream Jewish leaders. It remains so, even when sorely tried by Israeli politicians. Many leading American Jews fear that publicly undercutting Israel’s leaders would weaken Israel itself and impair their own ties to the Jewish homeland and the Israeli leadership, which is a symbol of their clout.
A leading Jewish historian even published a book in that era, titled “We Are One! American Jewry and Israel”.
Today, Jewish anti-Zionism is a growing presence in Jewish life. We don’t want Jewish religion/culture associated with an apartheid state that maims Palestinians on a daily basis.
For millions of secular minded American Jews, Israel was the glue, Israel was the cause, Zionism was an effective and powerful and emotionally satisfying substitute for religious observance that many people found themselves leaving behind.
Journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon has made the same affirmation, To publicly represent Jewish life, you must be a Zionist:
97 percent of Jews worldwide are Zionists. 97 percent! … Why do think that is? There are the same number of antizionist Jews as there are black women who voted for Trump.
The pro-Israel author Bari Weiss has written that anti-Zionist Jews are “as deeply opposed to Jewish interests as many of our community’s enemies.”
These writers are all trying to protect Israel by rallying its American support team and invoking the “Jewish interest”. They know how critical the lobby has been to Israel’s immunity from international law. That is Miloon Kothari’s real crime, his belief that Israel is not above the law.
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-06