This election has seen a franker discussion of the power of Jewish donors inside the Democratic Party than ever before. Jeffrey Goldberg said in October “what I would delicately call the donor class” of the party is disproportionately Jewish and rightwing on Israel, J.J. Goldberg said in April that 13 of the top 14 Democratic donors are Jewish, and sociologist Steven Cohen said on Sunday that Clinton’s top five donors are all Jewish.
Granted, these observations were all made in synagogues. But I believe that the discussion will soon break out in the wider world, and it should. Because it will be good for America, and good for the Jews too. In fact, a discussion of the power of Jewish donors will foster a process we are already seeing inside the Jewish community: open disagreement about Israel.
I make this argument based on the Clinton campaign emails released by Wikileaks. These emails reveal often craven pandering to Jewish donors over Clinton’s foreign policy positioning– as I have conveyed in post after post based on the leaked emails. But they also show something else: Some American Jews really don’t care that much about Israel. A few big Jewish donors give lip service to Israel or ignore the issue entirely. They care about other issues a lot more. And the more this is brought to light, and we get Jews disagreeing publicly over this very question, the sooner we can end the stranglehold of the Israel lobby over US foreign policy.
I will divide my argument into two parts: 1, Rightwing Jewish donors have a lot of influence over the Clinton campaign. 2, Some Jewish donors don’t care about Israel. And then my hopeful conclusion.
- Rightwing Jewish donors have a lot of influence over the campaign.
The Clinton emails teem with demands and pressures from big Jewish donors re Israel, and the campaign’s responsiveness to these pressures. Megadonor Haim Saban pesters the campaign to distance itself from the Obama administration’s criticism of Israel and is constantly networking for the campaign to hire pro-Israel voices, such as Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine (link here). Stu Eizenstat acting as a channel to the Jewish community and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushes the campaign to come out against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel in July 2015.
In a typical nudge, Eizenstat wields money to push pro-Israel issues with top foreign policy aide Jake Sullivan, in advance of Clinton’s endorsement of the Iran deal last summer:
Jake, After co-hosting a fundraiser today organized by Dave Marchick [former State Department official, now an insider lawyer] I had a good opportunity to talk with her on Iran, while escorting her to her limo. She seems comfortable with her poisiton, although I told her it would be very unpopular with the Jewish community’s mainstream leaders. Do you have a new draft on Iran? Stu
The emails also show that– duh– the campaign leadership is incredibly sensitive about Israel when it comes to donors. For instance, campaign chair John Podesta says of an invitation to Hillary Clinton to go to the Union for Reform Judaism‘s candidate forum in November 2015 that it’s most important for Dennis Cheng to go, the campaign’s chief fundraiser:
Just to be clear, we don’t have to do this, just putting on the screen because it’s a super friendly Jewish audience. I would only think about it if Dennis could use time there. But not a priority.
Cheng later writes:
have we regretted this invitation? Another one of our donors, Arthur Schechter, brought this up to HRC last night.
Schechter, a former ambassador, is a supporter of Israel.
Campaign chair Podesta does a lot of coddling of pro-Israel donors. Podesta meets Haim Saban for meals in New York, and takes his urgent phone calls too. “Thanks for the lift on the fundraiser,” he writes to Michael Bronfein, a donor who is a pain in the neck about Iran, Israel, AIPAC and Lanny Davis too, and a promoter of neoconservative hack journalists. Podesta has a private meeting with Bernard Schwartz to try and get him to give more to Hillary’s campaign. Schwartz is on the Council on Foreign Relations, and a supporter of an Israeli university.
Then there was Clinton aide Neera Tanden’s fawning to Netanyahu a year ago, in an adoring Q-and-A with the prime minister at Tanden’s thinktank, the Center for American Progress, months after he tried to blow up the president’s Iran deal. The emails now reveal what that fawning was all about. Tanden divided the thinktank in rancor, but a month later she landed Israel donor Jonathan Lavine, a leader of the Boston Jewish community, on the CAP board. “So Netanyahu was worth it :)” she crows to John Podesta.
Tanden’s deference to Lavine/Netanyahu is even more distressing when you consider how she announced Lavine’s coming on board to everyone else at CAP:
“Based on his distinguished career, philanthropy, and work on behalf of progressive causes, I believe he would be an excellent addition to our Board.”
So, diddlysquat about the core reason for Lavine coming on board: Israel and Netanyahu. Nope; he’s just a progressive.
Which touches on the last point I’d make about the power of the pro-Israel Jewish donors: Everyone knows about it inside the campaign, but no one would dare say a word about it publicly. That’s a real problem for our discourse: when something that is so important can’t be mentioned in front of civilians.
Here for instance, is a very-wired and important individual — Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department director/former Woodrow Wilson school dean/CEO of the New America thinktank– being really blunt about the power of Jewish donors in an email to Hillary and the braintrust in May 2015:
Don’t let New York donors push you into doing an Al Gore…
I’m worried that the hostility toward Obama among donors who buy Bibi’s line about his commitment to Israel could cause you to run away from his (and your) overall foreign policy record, which would be a big mistake in the same way that it will squeeze you into a corner that you do not need to be in and prevents you from making a bold case for your success as Secretary of State…
Finally, the entire “Obama doesn’t care about Israel” narrative shifts attention from the real issue with Israel, which is that this government is missing one of the greatest opportunities in Israel’s history to move from pariah state to political broker and economic anchor of the Middle East.
This email is a good segue into Part 2, the donors who don’t give a flip about Israel. You can see that in Slaughter’s note. She knows that some donors don’t buy “Bibi’s line.” Also, Slaughter is married to a Jew; she knows that the rightwing Jews are putting their thumb on the scale here.
2. Some Jewish donors don’t care about Israel, or not that much anyway.
One of the pleasures of grazing through the emails for me was finding Jewish members-in-good-standing of the establishment who really don’t care about Israel and are pushing other issues.
Robert Wolf, for instance, is a Jewish financier who is President Obama’s golfing buddy, whom Obama courted on Israel back when the fat was in the fire. The Clinton team is desperate to cultivate Wolf too, because he can bring a lot of money, and he might be going to Joe Biden at one point. But what’s plain from the email traffic between Wolf and Podesta and Hillary Clinton is that Wolf cares about economic issues and hardly mentions Israel.
Here’s the one hat-tip Wolf does to Israel, in an email to Clinton bashing Bernie Sanders:
When Sanders hits you on your $15 million from wall street to your super pac, I believe he is wrong and your response can be much better (assuming you want to take the bait). When I look at your contributor list https://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/contrib.php?cycle=2016&id=N00000019&type=f a. the main target/ contributor is Soros and he is not giving to you because he wants anything – he is a staunch Democrat, supporter of Israel, supporter of human rights and well respected philanthropist. Using his wealth to give back
Wolf sees Israel as a good cause, but it’s clear from his many notes on economic issues that it’s not front and center to him. Here’s Wolf talking up his resume, to Clinton:
Recall, I was the one that called then Senator Obama in August ’08 and force him to change his course/voice from the war to the economy and unfortunately, this feels like it could be going that way again.
And here he is boasting about his access to Clinton to writer Gail Sheehy:
-I hosted a lunch for the Secretary on June 25th at 21 Club. – I attended the Marthas Vineyard event on August 16th – I had a 1-1 meeting with the Secretary on Sept 30th for almost 2 hours where we mainly shared economic policy ideas. – I have been having exchanges with the Secretary and her staff continuously on her economic agenda so haven’t felt it too necessary to attend events.
And by the way, Wolf’s wife Carol is a gun control advocate/fundraiser.
Then there’s New Hampshire yogurt entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg, who held a fundraiser for Clinton. Hirshberg is a dedicated environmentalist, whose core issues are chemicals in agriculture, and labeling Genetically Modified Organisms. He bugs the Clinton campaign about the issue earnestly and eloquently as only a sincere advocate can. Hirshberg once said this much about Israel several years ago:
I was raised in a secular Jewish family, but came of age and was bar mitvahed in the year of the Six Day War. As a result, I see my Jewish identity as being more rooted in politics than in religion per se.
He went on to talk about the clash of civilizations and intolerant Arab societies; but if Israel means anything to him, he’s not talking about it in his communications with the campaign.
Lastly, there’s Wendy Abrams. Abrams is a Chicago donor and environmental activist who has pushed for divestment from fossil fuels. Her Huff Po resume shows her concern about the planet: “Ms. Abrams serves on the National Council of Environmental Defense, NRDC’s Action Fund Board, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ National Advisory Board. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Waterkeeper Alliance; and is a trustee of The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.”
I’d bet the farm that Wendy Abrams has relatives who care about Israel but she doesn’t. Her son goes to Israel in the summer of 2014, and a number of emails between her and Podesta involve the fact that she is worried about him as the Gaza war begins, and Israel pounds Gaza. She frets to Podesta in July:
My son is in Tel Aviv and doesn’t feel the need to leave (he assures me the 90 second warning is plenty of time to get to the bomb shelter, which they did yesterday). His mother doesn’t have quite the same assessment of risk/reward. Am I being an overly anxious Jewish mother or a more rational mind than a 21 year old who feels invincible?
If he were my kid, I’d tell him to stay.
Wendy Abrams then gets off a good joke:
if it were your kid, he’d be in the IDF! [Israeli Defense Forces]
i am going to stop trying to convince him that he’d have more fun at a topless beach in Mykonos
I won’t try to argue here that any of these people care deeply about Palestinians. But like the liberal Zionists Herb and Marion Sandler, who are also in touch with Podesta, they seem to care about a lot of issues more than Israel. Wendy Abrams’s IDF joke shows her sophistication, and her resume shows her sense of noblesse oblige: she’s watching out for the planet.
The impression I get from these worldly donors is what Steven Cohen said the other night in suburban New York: Secular American Jews list Israeli eighth among the issues they are voting on (Orthodox put it third), and some “serious” donors are turning against Israel because they are “deeply offended” or “annoyed” by Israel. I’d go further: I believe that many Jews are embarrassed by Israel. I read embarrassment in Wendy Abrams’s IDF joke. The IDF killed 500 Gazan children that summer, in the name of the Jewish state.
One way the Israel lobby has worked is by portraying the Jewish community as a, empowered and b, monolithic. The emails show that the Jewish community is empowered but not monolithic. But the problem is that the politicians don’t see it that way. As Anne-Marie Slaughter warns Clinton, “I’m worried that the hostility toward Obama among donors who buy Bibi’s line about his commitment to Israel could cause you to run away from his (and your) overall foreign policy record.” And then it happened: Clinton threw Obama under the bus, to please those donors.
And liberal Jews have let the rightwingers get away with it, just as they let the neocons push the Iraq war as a good thing for Israel.
The campaign emails, and Jeffrey Goldberg’s frankness (ten years after Walt and Mearsheimer broke the story), indicate that before long the mainstream media are going to start a conversation about the Jewish role in Democratic politics. When that power is openly acknowledged, there will be more and more pressure on secular rational worldly Jews to demonstrate that they don’t wield their influence for ethnocentric/nationalist ends. We know you’re out there. It’s time to raise your voice.