Do American Jews still support the influential pro-Israeli lobby groups?

Jewish and Christian religious groups demonstrate in support of Israel near the United Nations headquarters September 21, 2011 in New York as the annual UN General Assembly continues. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Jewish and Christian religious groups demonstrate in support of Israel near the United Nations headquarters September 21, 2011 in New York as the annual UN General Assembly continues. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

News stories that concern the Middle East are a regular occurrence with many news organisations reporting the Arab-Israeli conflict on a daily basis.   But not all news concerning the conflict between Israel and Palestine happens in those countries; one important story that could show a sign of change comes from America.   The article that was released in late October 2014 by the International Business Times is headlined: ‘US Jewish Groups Reject Israel’s Palestinian Bus Separation Plans’.  This explains how some Jewish groups in the US are against having segregated buses between the Israelis and Palestinians.   The article goes into detail explaining how Israeli settlers in the West Bank believe that sharing public transport with Palestinians poses a security risk for themselves.  However, Israeli lobby groups in America have criticised the plan, calling it “racial segregation”.  We see the story come at a time where the conflict between Israel and Palestine is high, with Palestinians killing Israeli worshipers in Jerusalem in mid-November (BBC, 2014).  This type of story is a regular occurrence between the two lands and the opinion of the Western World is a mixed one.

The bus segregation proposal was introduced by Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.  In the article (Mezzofiore, 2014) we find that America’s largest Jewish community president Rabbi Rick Jacob called Yaalon’s proposal “a threat to Israel’s democracy”.  This could be an indication that the Jewish Lobbyists in America have some cause for concern to how Israeli settlers are ruling Israel.  The Western World is constantly changing its opinion on the Middle East.  Many European countries are now in the process of recognising Palestine as a state, most recently Spain (Madrid  2014), has been putting pressure on other countries to follow suit.  The Middle East is being closely observed by the west and any conflict between Israel and Palestine can send shockwaves across the world.   The Jewish community in America is hugely affected by the actions in the Middle East; lobby groups play a vital role in how America reacts to the Middle East and how American Jews connect with Israel.

The American Jewish community is approximately 6.1 million, 2 per cent of the US population (Medoff, 2002, p. 1). While only being the minority in the US, the Jewish pro-Israeli groups are able to wield some form of influence over Washington.  Rafael Medoff describes the power of the American Jewish community:

“Since the late 1880s, lobbyists have sought to influence U.S. government policy on specific issues of Jewish concern, most often pattering to the treatment of the Jews in other countries. The perception that there exists a cohesive and sizeable bloc of Jewish voters with common views provides the political back-drop that gives politicians incentive to accede to requests by Jewish lobbying groups.” (Medoff, 2002, p. 211)

Rafael Medoff seems to suggest that the American government wants the votes of Jewish voters; despite only being 2 per cent of the population they all share similar goals and beliefs.  If the US government was to appease with the pro-Israeli Jewish lobbyists then they will have secured a sizable bloc of the votes.  According to Medoff it would appear that the Jewish lobbying groups are a well organised and powerful community.

Pro-Israeli lobby groups stand as one of the most influential rights groups in the United States.   They have a deep history with the American government and stand by the decisions made by the Israeli state.  Stephen Schwartz goes into depth about the deep historical bond between the pro-Israel Jewish Americans and the US government:

“Bush 41 esteemed the Arabs and resented the Jewish/Israeli pressure.  Nevertheless the same Republican president reaffirmed American readiness to stand by Israel as an ally.  Recognition of and support for the Jewish state were so embedded in American policy that to really break with these habits would have been an extremely radical act. In sum, the American Jews and Israel could be criticised but could not be ignored.” (Schwartz, 2006, p. 146)

There is history between the pro-Israel Jews and the US government that is hard to break.  It would seem that the US government will always stick by Israel despite whatever happens.  Evidently the lobby groups have a main part to play in American foreign policy, despite only being 2 per cent of the population they play a huge role in the way America attributes to the Israeli and Palestine conflict. A key part to the close relationship of the US government and the pro-Israeli lobby groups is because of the way the pro-Israeli Jewish community is organised.   It is evidently a popular group amongst the American Jews and because of this it is influential. Pierre Guerlain describes how the community obtains such a close relationship with the US government:

“Congressmen and women receive thousands of letters of protest every time the President does or is about to do something that might be construed as unfriendly to Israel. Opponents of Israeli policies are targeted during election campaigns, and these opponents receive much funding; media outlets are subjected to pressures and usually adopt a more pro‐Israeli stance than in European countries.” (‘The Israel lobby, American democracy and foreign perceptions of the USA’, 2011, p. 375)

The pro-Israel Jewish community is well structured and they know how to manipulate the US government to support a pro-Israel ideology.  Pro-Israeli lobby groups are much stronger and much wealthier than any other groups concerning the Middle East; this might suggest that it is favoured by the majority of the American Jewish community.

According to Stephen Walt the pro-Israeli groups dwarf the deprived pro-Arab lobby groups immensely.  In his research he states:

“Over the last 15 years, pro-Israel political action committees have given about $55,000,000 to people running for office in the United States.  By comparison Arab-American groups, of which there is a handful, have given about $800,000 in that same period.”  (‘Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics & Culture’, 2008, p. 144)

According to these statistics it would be hard to disagree that pro-Israeli groups put extensive effort in trying to push their beliefs into government.  In relations to money, people running for office are unquestionably going to side with the pro-Israelis than the pro-Arabs.   Pro-Israeli groups clearly have a lot of support from the Jewish community as shown by how wealthy they are.

Although some groups can argue on minor issues all groups can agree on maintaining the special relationship they hold with the US Government.  According to Watt it’s this belief that keeps the pro -Israeli groups together and keeps the lobby groups strong:

“The common position that all these groups share, is a commitment to preserve that “special relationship.” Thus, even left-wing groups like Americans for Peace Now do not call for the United States to reduce its support for Israel, even when Israel does things that are inimical to peace, such as building settlements in the West Bank.” (‘Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics & Culture’, 2008, p. 143)

Watt believes that most Jewish American groups are all pro-Israel despite how left-wing they are.  He argues that there is clearly a big drive for pro–Israeli policy despite the cruelty of the Israeli government.  He makes it seem that all Jewish Lobby groups support the Israeli government no matter how forceful they are towards Palestine.

According to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt no account of US-Israel relations can ignore the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and their contribution to leading pro-Israeli ideology in the US.  The power of AIPAC is identified by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt:

“Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known.” (Mearsheimer and Walt, 2012, p. 95)

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue that the US-Israel relationship is down to the efforts of AIPAC and its allies pushing the US to act to its own interests (Mearsheimer and Walt, 2012). They argue that Israel, which was a geopolitical advantage of the USA during the Cold War, has now become a liability. However, AIPAC do their best to obscure this reality.  They have a strong belief that lobbying must be the reason for a pro-Israel policy.  Walt and Mearsheimer write as if the Israeli lobby groups have unmatched power and the lobby is far superior to the Arab lobby groups.  They believe it is the explanation for America’s continued strong support for Israel.

One main criticism from Mearsheimer and Walt’s work however is that it shows little evidence where AIPAC has had an effect on specific votes and there are no clear events where AIPAC made a difference to policy.  However, it is clear that AIPAC is a highly influential lobby group in the Jewish community and it is one of the biggest lobby groups in America.

AIPAC describes itself as ‘America’s Pro-Israel Lobby’ (2014); it has more than 100,000 members (2014) making it one of the biggest lobby groups in America.  According to an article by Yair Rosenberg on Tablet Mag:

“AIPAC never misses an opportunity to take credit for fostering pro-Israel sentiment in Congress and across America—from Iran sanctions legislation to U.S. aid to Israel.” (Rosenberg, 2014)

At first glance it would seem rare to have any Jewish lobby group that opposes the AIPAC on the basis of how popular and powerful it is.  It would appear that there is a strong backing for pro-Israeli lobby groups in the American Jewish community.  However, the tension between Israel and Palestine has slowly been increasing in the past 10 years.  The installation of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank has started direct conflict between the two nations with protests and violence being reported by the western media (Pizzey, 2014).  The imagery and reports are shocking to many in the west and have a damaging effect on public opinion on the area.  According to Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss the actions of the Israeli government in recent years has even caused many Jewish Americans to turn their back on the Israeli state.   In an article for The Nation they write:

“This year has seen a dramatic shift in American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel.  In January many liberal Jews were shocked by the Gaza War, in which Israel used overwhelming force against a mostly defenceless civilian population unable to flee. Then came the rise to power of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose explicitly anti-Arab platform was at odds with an American Jewish electorate that had just voted 4 to 1 for a minority president.” (Horowitz and Weiss, 2009)

According to the article they state that it’s no wonder American Jews feel indifferent about a country that has been at the centre of Jewish identity for four decades.  Horowitz and Weiss give a perception that it is the young Jewish Americans who are taking a stance against Israel.   This perception is felt throughout then Jewish community and is even affecting the popularity and power of AIPAC.  According to Shimon Perers who served as Prime Minister of Israel, and most recently as President:

“My impression is that AIPAC is weaker among the younger people. It has a solid majority of people of a certain age, but it’s not the same among younger people.”  (Bruck, 2014)

There is a divide between the younger Jewish generation and the older traditional Israeli and AIPAC supporters.  Events like the Gaza conflict and the fighting in the West Bank have made the younger Jewish Americans reluctant to support lobby groups like AIPAC.  Instead they have formed splinter groups opposing the Israeli government and the occupation of the West Bank, for example the American based Jewish Voice for Peace organisation which has a following of around 200,000 people on Facebook. (Jewish Voice for Peace, 2014)

These younger grassroots Jewish organisations have experienced a surge of interest since the events of the Gaza War which according to M.J. Rosenburg , a long time Washington analyst were “the worst public relations disaster in Israel’s history” (Horowitz and Weiss, 2009).  American based Jewish Voice for Peace origination has also seen its mailing list double, to 90,000, with up to 6,000 signing on each month (Horowitz and Weiss, 2009). The Jewish youth are clearly playing a key role in opposing the ideas of AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobby groups.  The internet has allowed the American Jewish youth to spread their feelings and ideology online.  Young bloggers including Ezra Klein (Klein, 2014), Matt Yglesias (Yglesias, 2010) and Dana Goldstein (Goldstein, 2011) have criticised Israel to the point that the pro-Israeli editor of ‘The Republic’, Martin Peretz has slurred the young bloggers saying: “I pity them and their hatred of their inheritance, they are pip-squeaks.” (Finkelstein, 2010, p. 126).  Martin Peretz sees this new surge of ‘youth blogging’ as a huge threat to the stability of predominant pro-Israel support from the American Jewish community.

At 25 years old, Dana Goldstein is part of the younger Jewish generation; she is the editor for The American Prospect and is a frequent criticiser of the Israeli government.  She claims that she lost faith in Israel following the Gaza invasion:  “The Israeli government is doing little more than devastating an already impoverished society and planting seeds of hatred in a new generation of Palestinians.” (Horowitz and Weiss, 2009)

It would appear that the Gaza War had some effect on the opinion of the American Jewish youth.  The views from Jewish bloggers and the strength in numbers of the Jewish Voice for Peace organisation suggest there is a change of view towards Israel.

A study conducted by Michelle Shain,  Shahar Hecht and Leonard Saxe at the University of Brandeis researched ‘U.S. Jewish Young Adults Reactions to the Gaza Conflict’ (Shain, Hecht and Saxe, 2014). It also researched into the ways ‘Taglit’ (heritage trips to Israel) had an effect on opinion towards the conflict in the Middle East.  The results concluded that those who have applied to Taglit are hugely supportive of the Israeli state; they are highly engaged and are hugely sympathetic.  According to the study:

”The degree to which they (Taglit participants) follow the news and the passion expressed in their comments suggests that Jewish young adults have a thirst for more information and more involvement.” (Shain, Hecht and Saxe, 2014, p.9)

This study disagrees with the view of Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss who believed that Jewish Americans were turning their back to the Israel state.  The study would suggest that there is still a strong support for Israel even amongst the younger generations. The study showed that 80% of the Jewish American participants who went on Taglit supported Israel either somewhat (20%) or very much (60%) (Shain, Hecht and Saxe, 2014, p.7). This evidence strongly suggests that the vast majority of American Jews still support Israel and are very sympathetic towards them. Despite the events of the Gaza War which had changed Dana Goldstein’s opinion of Israel, it would seem the majority of the American Jewish community seemed unfazed by the war.  However, the study shows that the majority of non-participants of Taglit believed Israel had gone too far in terms of its reaction to conflict (Shain, Hecht and Saxe, 2014, p.5). With 38% saying they had gone too far and 33% stating they were about right.  As Michelle Shain,  Shahar Hecht and Leonard Saxe state in the conclusion of the study:

“Furthermore, Taglit participants—who recently experienced an educational, peer trip to Israel—were significantly more supportive of Israel than nonparticipants. Their attitudes more closely resemble those of Jewish Israelis, 90% of whom felt that Israel’s military actions in Gaza were justified.” (Shain, Hecht and Saxe, 2014, p.9)

Most Jews who have been on Taglit have a strong relationship with Israel.  This would explain why there is still a strong support for pro-Israel lobby groups despite the events in Gaza.  Taglit has 40,000 participants a year (Maltz, 2013) with 80% coming from North America (Birthright bar mitzvah, 2012). The study would suggest that if American Jews take part in Taglit they will become more sympathetic towards the actions of the Israel’s government.

Lobbies like AIPAC are still popular groups amongst the American Jewish population despite what the blogger community and several Israeli critics say.    The solid following they have keeps them as one of the biggest lobbying power houses.  This is shown by the firm relationship they have with the US government.   A key to this is the wealth and expenses groups like AIPAC have.  With pro-Israeli lobby groups giving $55,000,000 deciding on what people they want running for office in the United States,  it’s hard to deny that they are no longer getting the backing from the Jewish population.  AIPAC has a close relationship with the American government and this could be why most American Jews support them.  As Watt mentioned previously the vast majority of the Jewish community wants to preserve the ‘special relationship’ with the US no matter their individual political views.

There’s a strong sense that there is a bond between American Jews and Israel, as the study by the University of Brandeis proved.  This strong bond comes from the deep personal connection with Israel, be it on trips with Taglit or having an orthodox Jewish background.  However, you cannot deny that the more American Jews that turn away from the orthodox Jewish life style the less connected and the more critical they are to Israel.  As an article from the Associated Press stated:

“The strictly traditional Orthodox population grew, but so did the number of Jews who left organized religious life. Jews were marrying outside the faith at a high rate, and their families were generally less involved in the Jewish community and less tied to Israel.” (Press, 2014)

Pro-Israeli groups are undoubtedly popular with the majority of the American Jewish population; they are too wealthy and too powerful to deny that they don’t hold the beliefs of the majority of the American Jewish community.  However, there are splinters and cracks forming in the pro-Israel lobbies; as younger Jews become less involved with Israel they become more critical of its governments.   The Gaza invasion, the effects of social media and the distaste of AIPAC’s aims all contribute to this slow uprising of younger Jews opposing the Israel government.  But they are still the clear minority of the Jewish population, the strength and popularity of AIPAC means that it’s still the pro-Israelis that influence the population and have the close relationship with the US government.  They are without a doubt losing supporters but it’s not enough to make any significant difference.

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