NY Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pro-Israel speech to a secret AIPAC meeting on Thursday night in NY has occasioned a lot of commentary on the power of the Israel lobby. Jerry Slater posted about the speech here, reprised below. And he and Alex Kane have a dialogue.
Jerome Slater: Understandably, Andrew Sullivan, Phil Weiss and M.J. Rosenberg, and others have seized on NY Mayor Bill de Blasio’s unbelievably fawning speech before AIPAC as still further proof of the power of the Israel Lobby, or at least of its central institution. My own view is that this is an oversimplification, because it essentially dismisses two other additional or perhaps even more important possible explanations.
The first is that de Blasio—and, by extension, other uncritical public figures (Obama comes to mind)—may genuinely believe what they say. This doesn’t make them right, of course: in fact their love and unconditional support of Israel, to the extent that it is genuine, can only be explained by their ignorance of the Israeli realities.
The second explanation is a bit more complicated. Even if there were no AIPAC, even if there were no larger organized lobby, there would still be a Jewish vote that in some places could be decisive, elections in New York being the obvious but by no means the only example. And it remains very much the case that the Jewish vote is overwhelmingly “pro-Israel.” For that matter, even if there were no Israel lobby, it is reasonable to assume that there would still be large Jewish financial contributions to favored politicians, who would be quite aware of why their bread was being buttered.
This is by no means to deny the obvious: there certainly is an organized Israel Lobby, and it has a lot of political power. At the same time, its power should not be exaggerated—not only does it sometimes lose big battles (on Iran, let us hope), but even when it appears to either influence or cow politicians—in de Blasio’s case, one is tempted to say, effectively own them—there are additional factors that work in the same direction. And in some cases these additional factors would be likely to produce the same political outcomes, even if there were no AIPAC.
All good points. But allow me to inject some skepticism of them.
First, I don’t believe for a second that de Blasio actually believes in what he is saying. He has spent far too much time in the midst of committed, left-wing activists who have a global critique of American power, a critique that includes its client state, Israel. As David Wilson, an activist who worked with de Blasio, told me, “He’s a smart guy and he’s well-informed. And I can’t believe that he believes the things he says about the Middle East. It’s perfectly obvious that he’s saying the things New York City politicians say. I don’t know what he actually thinks, but he can’t think that. There is a striking disparity between what he says now about Israel and what he thought about Nicaragua.”
Yes, there is a Jewish vote, and Jews are politically engaged in New York. In total, there are about 1.1 million Jews, though not all of them vote, of course. Still, how many of those 1.1 million are pro-Israel? There is no reliable polling on this, but there’s a significant split in the Jewish community here, and that includes anti-Zionist Satmars. Perhaps a slight majority back Israel, but de Blasio is fully aware of the progressive Jewish community that exists here, where criticism of Israel is the norm. Secondly, how many other constituencies does he alienate with this type of rhetoric? He surely alienates a good chunk of the city’s Muslim and Arab population, which is not insignificant. 600,000, if not more, Muslims. 350,000 plus Arabs. (Caveat: of course these communities are not monolithic on Israel, but I think it’s fair to say many are sympathetic to Palestinians, as the massive rallies in New York in the wake of Cast Lead showed.)
But your point on donations is spot on. De Blasio’s rise has been fueled by pro-Israel donors, as I showed here.
I admit to surmising about what De Blasio actually believes–but if he can say all that over-the-top stuff without believing in it, or at least half-believing, then he’s simply shameless and morally corrupt, which seems unlikely, given his history, or at least what I’ve read about his history. I don’t know how the NYC Jewish vote breaks down on Israeli-related issues, I’m simply assuming that even in New York it helps more than it hurts to be seen as “pro-Israel”–even taking into account the Muslim and Arab population. But I admit, that’s just my assumption; I don’t have the evidence–does anyone?
I also meant my comment to apply to the general question of the relative weight of the Israel Lobby as opposed to other factors in explaining national policies. And outside of liberal NYC–I’m surmising again–the Jewish vote surely must be more “pro-Israel” than not, and so far as I know there hasn’t been a significant electoral backlash, even in areas with significant Muslim/Arab populations, against pro-Israeli politicians.
You’re right that it helps more than it hurts to be pro-Israel in the city. I don’t think it comes down to a vote calculation, though, for why that is. One big reason is the media and the role of the dailies in New York. Sure, the Internet has broken up some of their power, but the New York Post and New York Daily News–both run by Zionists–still play a significant role in drumming up controversy when they want to. And if de Blasio made any sort of criticism that borders on harsh, the anti-Semitism smear would come up. And then, of course, there’s donors.
It’s an open question, even nationally, about Jews voting on the basis of whether a pol is more pro-Israel or not. I don’t think it ranks up there with many run-of-the-mill Jews’ priorities. But, the media and donors also play a role nationally and in other cities.
Whether or not Jewish voters routinely punish politicians they perceive as anti-Israel, the more important point is that politicians clearly believe that they do. Anyway, there have been some famous cases in which popular politicians have said or done something perceived as anti-Israel, and then lost in the next election. These cases are well-known to politicians in constituencies with a substantial Jewish population, and has a big impact on what positions they take–even if there is no proof that the Israeli issue is what caused them to lose. In other words, they see nothing to be gained by bucking what they perceive–correctly or not–to be “the Jewish vote.” And it will continue that way, unless and until the time comes that some kind of countervailing power develops. Hasn’t happened yet, and no sign that it will in the foreseeable future.