At the Daily Beast, Beinart tries to get to the bottom of the Democratic Party’s rush to insert Jerusalem back into its platform in Charlotte and exposes the panic that consumes politicians who fear they’re going to be called not pro-Israel enough and be attacked from the right on the Israel question. As my friend Yakov Hirsch says, There is no better example of the power of the lobby.
Beinart captures the panic inside the White House: “Massachusetts state treasurer (and former AIPAC chair) Steve Grossman [who is a big donor] screamed at Obama campaign Jewish outreach director Ira Forman over the issue. But by that time, top campaign strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe had already informed Obama about the controversy.”
Why does the lobby have such rightwing power over liberal Democrats? Beinart says AIPAC has polluted our political culture the same way McCarthy did:
More than any other single organization, AIPAC has helped create a climate in which being deemed insufficiently “pro-Israel” is almost as dangerous to a politicians’ career as being deemed insufficiently “anti-communist” was in the early 1950s. But this very climate gives politicians and activists an incentive to keep raising the “pro-Israel” bar higher and higher so as to gain an advantage over their political foes. As the definition of “pro-Israel” becomes more extreme, it becomes harder and harder to reconcile with a commitment to Palestinian statehood, America’s standing in the Arab and Muslim world or even the simple realities of the foreign policy-making process. The people least fettered by those concerns—those least concerned about international opinion and Palestinian dignity—thus wield power over everyone else since they can keep establishing new “pro-Israel” litmus tests that their political foes find difficult to meet. …
In the early 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy made going to war for Chiang Kai-Shek the litmus test of being anti-communist, Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t defend George Marshall against the charge. Last week, when the Republican Jewish Coalition made breaking with more than 60 years of U.S. policy on Jerusalem the test of being pro-Israel, AIPAC wouldn’t defend the Democratic Party.
This analysis is insufficient. The lobby is certainly McCarthyite. But the McCarthy battle was a fight for public opinion. McCarthy’s anti-Communism was broadly shared by a conservative American polity; and the White House that McCarthy manipulated was a Republican one. Many Democrats opposed McCarthy– and liberal public opinion ultimately brought McCarthy down.
In this case the broad public really doesn’t care one way or another about Jerusalem, and the deals are going down in back rooms, led by a political elite, the rightwing Jewish establishment inside political life. AIPAC draws its power from Jewish community consensus: American Jews are afraid to criticize Israel publicly, and that’s why AIPAC is able to panic a Democratic White House; Obama and the Democratic Party are damned if they do anything to alienate American Jews. They know that even the center-left of that community– Haim Saban – speaks in favor of settlements when endorsing the president. J Street and Obama learned this lesson in 2009, when they couldn’t build Jewish community support to drive a political wedge against settlements. For the same reason, Beinart got little traction with his liberal Zionist manifesto earlier this year; few in the Establishment or Jewish organizations came out to support him; even Paul Krugman was afraid to raise his voice above a whisper. The bottom line is that the Jewish community is actually very conservative on Israel/Palestine, and it’s empowered, and people are afraid to take it on. Barney Frank refused to come out against settlements unless an anti-settlement activist could produce the names of 5000 Jews in his district who would support him, because Frank was afraid of bucking the Jewish community. That same community consensus is evident in my favorite tidbit in Peter Beinart’s book: liberal Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz led the cheering section for Benjamin Netanyahu when he came to Congress and got umpteen standing ovations for devouring the West Bank; she jumped to her feet and did big clap motions with her hands to get the rest of the Congress to jump to their feet.
If a mainstream politician actually sought to politicize Israel’s devouring of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and came out against the settlements as damaging to the US and Israel and Palestinians, and called Netanyahu a Joseph McCarthy, he or she would galvanize and lead public opposition to settlements. We can see that political opportunity in the Democratic convention rank and file’s uprising when the Jerusalem plank was railroaded on them, and in Ron Paul’s following. There is widespread popular opposition to the occupation that hasn’t found a voice.
But Jews against the occupation (who now include Beinart and Remnick and Klein) will waste their time if they do this work inside the Jewish community. They have to build a broad coalition against the lobby, of Jews and non-Jews. The risk, of course, is that such a coalition will actually reflect liberal public opinion of the sort that ended Jim Crow and pioneered gay rights; and that coalition will see no benefit in supporting a Jewish state, as opposed to a multicultural democracy, in Israel; that it will be a liberal coalition that will scoff at what even the leftwing component of the Jewish community, Americans for Peace Now, is compelled to profess– God gave the land to the Jews. But that’s a risk well worth taking.