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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Onward Christian Zionists

Who is the Israel lobby? It’s religious fanatics, to be sure, but maybe not the ones you think.

By Jeffrey Cavanaugh | April 28, 2014
US Evangelist John Hagee, center, leads a march of Christians in support of Israel in Jerusalem, Monday April 7, 2008. (AP/Peter Dejong)
US Evangelist John Hagee, center, leads a march of Christians in support of Israel in Jerusalem, Monday April 7, 2008. (AP/Peter Dejong)

The HBO series “Vice” hit it out of the park again recently with its examination of how the rabid support of Israel by Christian fundamentalists here in the United States is undermining prospects for peace in the Middle East. For those rationalists here in America and abroad, this religious connection between America and Israel is an unfortunate, terrifying reality of the modern world.

The truth here in the States is that unqualified, maximalist support for the state of Israel is the sine non qua of domestic politics at the national level. 

The force behind this reality is, in turn, often referred to as the Israel lobby — a powerful group that can seemingly derail the election of anyone remotely interested in higher office if they do not toe the line on Israel and our aggressive policy in the Middle East.

The lobby does this in a number of ways — much as other lobbies do — typically via the channeling of money and influence toward those that support Israel and away from those who don’t. So far, that’s par for the course in American politics — there is nothing unusual about that and it is reflective of the tactics used by every other organized lobby in the country. 

This lobby, in particular, is very good at what it does and if you oppose it, then the proper response is to counter-organize, contribute, lobby, and vote — just as the Israel lobby does. That’s how democracy works.

A bit more nefariously, however, is the degree to which the lobby also often resorts to ad hominem charges of anti-Semitism against critics with little, if anything, to substantiate those allegations. Indeed, the most recent example of this was the not-so-subtle campaign to smear Chuck Hagel as an anti-Semite prior to his appointment to head the Pentagon as President Obama’s defense secretary. Since being considered an anti-Semite is akin to being called a Nazi — who everyone hates — the mere threat of being so smeared can be a powerful deterrent to criticizing Israel.

Thus, not only is the lobby rich and sophisticated — as its political contributions and activity both attest — it also often uses spurious charges of racism that conveniently shut down any and all discussions of U.S. attitudes toward and support for Israel. Ironically, this is a tactic that many American conservatives who rank themselves as some of Israel’s biggest supporters accuse blacks of using when they call out conservatives on their own latent racism. So, to put it simply, the Israel lobby is like a combination of a big ethnic lobby and a big corporate lobby rolled into one — no wonder they win so often.

American Jews and the Israel lobby

Taken as a whole, money, influence and the risk of being smeared as an anti-Semite are usually enough to deter almost anyone from challenging U.S. support for Israel, which is why so few of our elected officials do so. The problem with this thesis of the overwhelming power of the lobby, however, is the strange way it works, even in areas where there are few, if any, American Jews around to propel it. It turns out the Israel lobby as a whole is not exactly who you think it might be.

This is because American Jews, who many of the uninformed take as the driving force behind the Israel lobby, are actually a rather small part of the American population, while the money pro-Israel American Jews funnel to politicians is a trivial amount compared to the vast sums spent elsewhere in our politics. True, the odd Sheldon Adelson may be able to wield undue influence among Republicans due to his money, but this does not explain why the likes of Jeb Bush — already wealthy and able to tap vast amounts of conservative cash — needs to kowtow to this extremist casino magnate who wants America to use atom bombs against Iran.

American Jews themselves are also increasingly not of one mind when it comes to Israel, and a growing portion of them do not see Israel through the Holocaust-blinkered eyes of their elders. This new trend among Jewish-American youth, which has been documented at length by Peter Beinart in his excellent book The Crisis of Zionism, is a much more skeptical take on Israel that calls out the Jewish state on its 60-year occupation of the West Bank, its strangling of Palestinian life, its growing tendency toward a theocratic, fundamentalist form of Judaism and its blatant racism toward Arabs — even those counted as Israeli citizens.

While this new, more critical group of American Jews does not yet have the power or influence of American Israel Public Affairs Committee right-wingers like Adelson, they are nonetheless challenging the unquestioned pro-Israel position our politicians so often take by questioning the narrative proffered by the Jewish-American far right. Moreover, they are doing so from an unassailable ethnic position that is deeply in tune with the values of the larger, more secular American society they are part of. It is, after all, easy to paint outsiders as bigots, but similar criticisms are much more difficult to brush off when it’s coming from one’s own side.

The weight of Biblical prophecy