Last Friday President Obama spent a lot of time with leading American Jewish supporters of Israel assuring them the Iran Deal won’t undermine Israel’s security. He said the U.S. and Israel are “family” and are never going to come apart. He told Stephen Greenberg and Michael Siegal, the leaders respectively of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations, that everyone in the U.S. is “pro-Israel,” we “love” Israel, the two nations are “intertwined” forever; and you fight with your family, but he’d soon be playing golf with his Jewish supporters again.
Siegal told the president that Jews get “unsettled and anxious” whenever there’s “daylight” between the American government and Israel, and Greenberg reminded the president of the Holocaust and Jewish victimization. Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward, expressed the same anxiety in her interview with the president Friday. She repeatedly pressed the president on how he would repair the relationship between Israel and the United States.
The president told both audiences that he wouldn’t be president if not for Jewish Americans.
I probably wouldn’t be sitting in this Oval Office were it not for the incredible support that I received from the Jewish community throughout my political career — from my very first race in the state Senate coming out of Hyde Park in Chicago, to my Senate run, to my presidential run.
The Friday meetings at the White House were remarkable because we could see the transactions of the Israel lobby before our eyes: The president attested that the U.S. and Israel are joined forever, and the big American Israel supporters expressed only one concern vis-a-vis US policy, Israel’s security.
They said not a word about the American interest in having a deal, about the Middle East region’s interest in having a deal, let alone a word about Palestinian human rights under Israeli occupation. Eisner is a liberal Zionist, but she didn’t mention the settlements, and she described the U.S. Jewish community as utterly aligned with the Israeli government.
At one point Eisner even seemed to recommend an attack on Iran now:
won’t it be much more difficult — won’t Iran be more formidable to attack 10 or 15 years from now when it’s stronger than the way it’s been the last few years, so isolated and so weak?
While Siegal described the “bad neighborhood” Israel lives in and says that the “noose” of that neighborhood is tightening. As if the interests of all the Arabs in that neighborhood must be subordinated to Israeli concerns. It reminded me of the news that that the American Jewish Committee, which is also working against the Iran Deal, has met with the Egyptian tyrant to advance this goal:
In the weeks before Senator Chuck Schumer’s decision to oppose the Iran nuclear accord, John Shapiro, a New York financier and a leader of the American Jewish Committee, had his ear, plying him with reasons to oppose it.
Mr. Shapiro, a longtime benefactor of the New York senator and other Democrats.. said he spoke with Mr. Schumer about his meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, including the leader’s warning that the agreement would increase regional terrorism.
The Friday meetings are one of the achievements of the Iran Deal: President Obama has exposed the Israel lobby’s activities for everyone to see. The president has always relied on the lobby for political support, but he has also quietly worked to undermine its power; and by pressing the Iran Deal, he has showed us who he is up against. Even as the president protests that he loves Israel and will do nothing to damage the special relationship between the countries, the average American is getting to see a disturbing spectacle, the political access granted to groups that only care about Israel’s security.
Eisner, Greenberg, and Siegal were all upset that President Obama has suggested that supporters of Israel are “warmongerers.” This feeds into “deep anti-semitic undertones,” Siegal said. Here the president stiffened. He said he’s never used that word; but he emphasized that if the deal is killed the greatest likelihood is war. Then he mentioned the attacks from the hardliners in the Jewish community on Rep. Jerrold Nadler for supporting the deal and noted that Nadler had braved the same forces to vote against the Iraq War– a decision vindicated by events.
Back in 2002, the Conference of Presidents chairman and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had also pushed for war, out of concern for Israel’s security. Back then former (and future) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu testified in Congress that war would be a “good choice.”
Back then few called out the Israel lobby over its role in a disastrous war. But this time around the Israel lobby is exposed in its opposition to the deal, and that exposure is creating a crisis for Israel supporters.
Siegal worries about antisemitic “undertones” in the debate; Eisner deplores the “incendiary” tone of the debate and seems to blame the president in part; Jeffrey Goldberg is angered that so many news organizations are talking openly about the Jews in Congress who support the deal or don’t. But it’s too late to worry about that. The New York Times says frankly that Senator Ron Wyden is torn between “his Jewish roots” and his support for the deal; J Street and Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen regularly tally the number of Jews in Congress who are supporting the deal; the Washington Post says that the chair of the Democratic National Committee is blocking support of the deal because she is worried about all the Jews in her district, and President Obama points out that Nadler’s sense of “Jewish history” is unrivalled by any of the deal’s opponents.
They are all saying that Jewishness, the legacy of the Holocaust, and the Israel lobby have a prominent place in this debate.
You can’t have such influence without accountability. In the months and years to come we are going to see a more and more open discussion of two huge issues surrounding the Zionist presence in U.S. foreign policymaking: 1, What is the price of the U.S. being “family” with the Jewish state? 2, Do Jews need a Jewish state in order to be safe?
First, what does it cost the United States to maintain that special relationship with Israel? How long must our entire policy in the Middle East be driven by one concern, Israel’s security?
Siegal’s statement about the ever-tightening noose reminded me of a quotation from Franklin Roosevelt. In 1944, the president chided the two leading Zionist lobbyists, Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Silver, for pushing for a catastrophe, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Roosevelt reflected: “To think of it, two men, two holy men, coming here to ask me to let millions of people be killed in a jihad.”
The State Department warned Roosevelt and Truman that setting up a Jewish state would lead to endless unrest in the Middle East; and as we look back on that warning 70 years later we need to consider how prescient it was. How much of the turmoil in the Middle East is a result of Israel’s presence? Surely some modest portion is; and surely some large portion of the turmoil in which the United States is involved. From the assassination of Bobby Kennedy to the killing of Rachel Corrie in 2003 to the 9/11 attacks to the Iraq War — our support for Israel has had a large toll. I’m not excusing the perpetrators of violence; people are responsible for their actions. But imagine that the Jewish state had been set up in Argentina, as it was once imagined by Herzl, or in Uganda, as it was also imagined; and can’t we imagine vigorous opposition in those regions to a project of a colonial-religious character, involving great numbers of people? Of course.
The president’s squeamish interactions with Israel supporters allow us to look back on that history. I believe he wants us to do that. For all his declarations of love for Israel, he cannot think this close a relationship with a distant country is good for the United States. I believe Obama has wanted us to have this conversation since he first came into office, and gave the Cairo speech and talked about the humiliations of occupation, words he was forced to withdraw in the years that followed. The occupation that liberal Jane Eisner couldn’t even mention when she was urging the president to “repair” the U.S. relationship with the Netanyahu government.
The exposure and waning of the Israel lobby is going to be a convulsive project — after all, the entire American establishment is intertwined with the lobby — but it is not and should not be an anti-Semitic one. That is because of the second question above: Do Jews need a Jewish state to be safe? Answering that question is a necessary part of this discussion.
We must all recognize that the American Jewish marriage to Zionism took place in the 1940s and again in the 1960s and 70s, and it was trauma-borne. The Holocaust annihilated Jewish communities across eastern Europe and endangered the Jewish position in western society; and in turn upended FDR and Truman’s calculations of risks in the Middle East. The U.N. Partition vote in 1947 wouldn’t have been possible without the Holocaust; and American Jews were surely right in the 1970s to declare the Holocaust a sacred chapter of Jewish history, even if Zionists exploited that sacralization.
The issue now is whether the Holocaust is reflective of the Jewish experience today or in its entirety. Last Friday Stephen Greenberg cast Jews as a vulnerable people always dependent on great powers. That view seems anachronistic to me, and steeped in victimization. And that view has produced the orgy of selfish concerns that we saw in Obama’s Friday talks. I see Jews as empowered actors on the American stage. Our identity ought to reflect that reality; and our politics ought to reflect that identity. End Zionism now.
P.S. I’m glad to see that Mairav Zonszein echoed my anger over Eisner’s absence of concern for Palestinians.