Liberals like to deceive themselves about Jewish power

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Bernard Avishai (author of a fine book called The Hebrew Republic) is coming to D.C. for the J Street conference and has a great post attacking Jeffrey Goldberg’s typically-snaky stance on the conference (Goldberg seems to be re-migrating right). Avishai also said this lately about how the Israel lobby works, and I need to take him on:

the key to AIPAC’s emergence was a Manichean view from America; the fight against the Evil Empire, or since 9/11, the clash of civilizations. In this drama, Israel became cast as America’s biggest regional aircraft carrier. AIPAC has succeeded by staying close to American hardliners, arguing against pressuring Israel (to give up territory, to stop settlements, etc.) for the same reason a basketball coach will not foolishly demoralize his slightly brazen power-forward. At the center of the argument was a way of thinking about American hegemony in a dangerous world.

YOU CAN SAY that AIPAC was misguided, that it’s even become a pernicious force, but you can’t deny that it got its strategic premises ordered properly. One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want. One has to start with America’s foreign policy strategy and then apply its logic to the Middle East.

The error here is an important one. It is that American power is American power, and Jews are just bit players. The heart of the argument is that American support for Israel arises from American superpower interests as understood by "hardliners." Thus the statement, "One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want."

The reason it is important to take this argument on is that it is the now-traditional deception that liberals practice on themselves about American power politics: Jews are outsiders in American society. Liberals perform this self-deception because they do not want to be guilty of echoing "anti-Semitic tropes," as the saying goes, and they do not want to foster pogroms. I understand the concern.

The problem is that Avishai is flat wrong. And until liberals wrestle with the real phenomenon of Jewish power, their analysis of foreign policy will be limited and their action ineffective.

Avishai’s claims that American hardliners want the settlement program to continue, and  "One cannot just assume that the Congress will care what Jews want" are absurd. Over and over, American presidents have said they oppose the colonization program; over and over these instincts have been nullified politically because of the Jewish presence in the power structure. The Senate is dominated by Democrats, and 1/5 of them are Jews, even though Jews are just 2 percent of the population. The Washington Post has said that over half the money given to the Democratic Party comes from Jews. Obama’s top two political advisers are Jewish, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. The news lately has been dominated by Obama aides Kenneth Feinberg and Larry Summers. And what does it mean that the Treasury Sec’y gets off the phone with Obama to confer immediately with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman and Jamie Dimon of Morgan (Dimon’s Jewish; Blankfein would seem to be)? As I have frequently said, the biggest money game in town on the Republican side is Sheldon Adelson, a Zionist Jew, who got engaged in 2000 with the specific aim of nullifying the "peace process." Today is Obama frustrated by "hardliners"? No: he’s frustrated by the likes of Chuck Schumer, who refuses to go to J Street.

More on Jews in the Establishment: In the last week or so I typically found myself counting Jewish names in media broadcasts. Everyone from Ezra Klein commenting on Charlie Rose about the Congress to Andrew Ross Sorkin on Terry Gross yesterday, talking financial policy, to Brian Lehrer having on three different Jewish journalists today, and one of them, Nina Totenberg, kvelling about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Last week on Charlie Ross, the political theorist Michael Sandel, who I believe is Jewish, said that the chief criterion of a society’s view of justice is not how it deals with killers but how it confers honors and recognition. Well our society confers honors and recognition on Jews way out of proportion to other groups. I don’t see this imbalance as a political issue, except as it touches on questions of Jewish identity and support for Israel. Because support for Israel is today a tenet of American Jewish identity construction– Ezra Klein’s criticism of the Gaza war being a heretical one inside Jewish life, Daniel Schorr’s Zionism being far more representative. And to think that that the Jewish presence in the media is not also a factor in the disastrous American foreign policy re the Middle East is not to think at all. Avishai’s analysis evades this issue.

The Israel lobby is powerful for a lot of reasons. Because it’s a special interest, and because it cares more than anyone else. But also because of the Jewish presence in the Establishment. It is a piece of heartwarming liberal nostalgia to put the blame for the settlements on big bad American hardliners. Like Chomsky talking about corporations–that’s how the world works. 

But just consider America’s "foreign policy strategy," as Avishai puts it. In Iraq, that strategy has called for negotiations with terrorist groups who killed Americans so as to make a political solution, it has called for an end to the occupation of Iraq, and investigating atrocities by American troops. We suspend all those standards when it comes to Israel/Palestine. Why? In a word, because of American Jewish engagement on these issues. Failing to acknowledge this reality does not serve readers, not does it serve the necessary process of soul-searching inside the Jewish community over our responsibility for the denial of Palestinian freedom.

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