The neoconservatives’ battle to sink the potential nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel has again raised the issue of the power of the Israel lobby. And it should. Hagel, as a respected former senator would be sailing to an easy confirmation, if not for the power of the Israel lobby which considers him insufficiently loyal to the policies of the Israeli government.
The assault on Hagel is truly ugly and opposing a highly respected ex-senator and decorated war hero out of fear he won’t defer to Netanyahu is also stupid. Unlike John McCain whose war record is ambiguous, Hagel’s record was indisputably heroic. He and his brother Tom served side by side in Vietnam as infantry squad leaders and earned military decorations and honors, including two Purple Hearts. To put it bluntly, how does it look to be opposing this American war hero for being insufficiently devoted to a foreign country?
The most maddening thing is that the lobby does not speak for most Jews, not even close. The best proof of that was this year’s election results in which 70% of Jews voted for President Obama although Netanyahu and his cutouts here made clear that they preferred Romney. And, as the definitive American Jewish Committee survey demonstrated, not even the Jewish Republican vote had much, if anything, to do with Israel. Only 5% of Jews consider Israel their most important issue. Republican Jews are Republican for the same reasons other Republicans are (the economy, and other domestic issues). Overwhelmingly, Jews choose domestic issues as most important to them. Additionally the Jews who do care about Israel (a strong majority at least) support neither Netanyahu nor the occupation. The last Israeli prime minister they admired was Yitzhak Rabin.
So who and what is the lobby?
The first thing to know about it is that it is about delivering money not votes. It is irrelevant that most Jews are liberals and not Netanyahu devotees. The people with the money (i.e., the lobby) are right-wing on Israel. And it is those people (think Democrat Haim Saban and Republican Sheldon Adelson and the like) who have the clout. Not the dentist or lawyer down the street or the local Hadassah chapter.
I worked on Capitol Hill for 20 years, for five Members of Congress, and had hundreds of dealings with the lobby. Despite claims that the lobby includes Christians, that is simply not true — at least not in terms of influencing U.S. policies.
First, so-called “Christian Zionists” do not give heavily to campaigns so their support for Likud policies is both amorphous and insignificant. Second, “Christian Zionists” are Republicans who will never support the party of GLBT rights, choice, regulations and higher taxes. Unlike the AIPAC-directed donors, they are not in play. They are just Republicans. (Even when “Christian Zionists” do contribute to campaigns, their issues are the social issues like blocking marriage equality, not supporting Israel).
Bottom line: the Israel Lobby is the Jewish Lobby. One would be hard-pressed to find a single legislator who kisses up to Netanyahu and AIPAC to please Christians. Not a single constituent organization that composes the lobby is anything but Jewish, starting with AIPAC. The others all have the word “Jewish” in their names. Who are they kidding?
That makes it critical that the overwhelming majority of Jews get the message across that the lobby does not speak for us. And that the lobby isn’t us. AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the multi-millionaires associated with all of them constitute a lobby of a few thousand people. They are the Jewish (less than) One Percent. And that is all they speak for.
But, like the other, more famous one-percent, their voices drown the rest of us out. That is because our political system is not about votes, it is about money. Until we have public financing of campaigns (which is probably never), politicians will do what the lobby tells them to do. But, remember, it’s not the Jews, it is a few unrepresentative millionaires and billionaires who enjoy making the United States government quake both for Netanyahu’s sake and to feel all-powerful. Don’t blame the Jews.
And, Mr. President, do us all a favor and choose Chuck Hagel. The complaints of those whose first, and usually only, concern is ensuring that the U.S. never says no to Netanyahu should be ignored. As someone once said, or should have: the power of campaign contributions must stop at the water’s edge.