American Foreign Policy and The Jewish Lobby


J. J. Goldberg

Editor-in-Chief, The Forward


March 22, 2004



After that introduction, I’d probably be better off just sitting down letting the good waves of praise hang in the air. 


There has been an awful lot of talk in the last few years about the rise of the Jewish lobby and the influence of the Jewish lobby.  It used to be that you couldn’t talk about this sort of thing.  When I wrote Jewish Power in 1996 I had radio interviewers tell me they couldn’t read the book on the subway to work because the title was so embarrassing and I was accused by various Jewish lobbyists of inflating and buying into the old myths of international Jewish conspiracies simply by the use of the title.  I also had the experience of reading white supremacist chat groups on the Internet where people would warn each other not to bother with my book because I’m a rank apologist for the Jewish lobby.  So, my argument is that there is such a thing as a Jewish lobby, that the network of organizations that works together to put across what might be called the Jewish community’s view on world affairs is not insignificant, it’s not an invention, but it is not some sort of all-powerful octopus that it’s sometimes portrayed as these days.  It’s a middleweight—maybe a light heavyweight. 


There was a period—actually it’s happened a number of times—that the Black Caucus in the House of Representatives has come under pressure from its constituents, from black community organizations, complaining that Israel got so much more foreign aid than Africa.  It’s a fraction of the population and multiples of the aid that Africa gets and the response from the African-American representatives is usually something along the lines of why argue?  If it weren’t for the aid to Israel there wouldn’t be foreign aid. 


There is no significant constituency on a popular level around America that is seriously mobilized for foreign aid compared to the Jewish community.  It’s not popular.  Most congressmen don’t like it, most Americans don’t like it, but the Jewish lobby pushes it through and with the cooperation of the Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus and other groups, including the defense industry, it has been a linchpin in keeping America engaged at various periods of time, not just in the Middle East and not just for Israel but in general.  The image that it gets is this aggressive right-wing neoconservative bloc that pushes America into foreign adventures it doesn’t belong in.  That it manipulates American foreign policy to be unilateral, confrontational, and aggressive.  It’s become a major topic of public discussion now because of the war in Iraq, especially, and the larger issue of America’s confrontation with the Muslim and Arab worlds.  The general assumption is we wouldn’t be in this fight if it weren’t for Israel.  We’ve been dragged into protecting this tiny nation that was invented a half century ago because of a tiny fraction of the American population that manipulates our government.  And the worse things get in the Middle East the more upset opponents of Israel and the Jewish lobby get.


The last few years of the Bush administration have been a lesson, because the sorts of things I’m saying now used to be whispered in back channels, exchanged on Internet chat groups of extremists organizations, white supremacists, black nationalists, various Arab groups, but it wasn’t in the mainstream press.  Now you read it in op-ed pieces in the major newspapers.  It’s become standard fare in Britain and France and across the Continent.  Michael Lind, who is a very respected commentator on American public policy, a former New York conservative who has become a liberal in effect, has been one of the major proponents of it and he’s a very respectable guy and many, if not most, Jewish listeners hear this and they hear conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic.  They hear the Cossack horse riding across the plains to murder and rape their ancestors.


But, in fact, as I say, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  There is a Jewish lobby.  There’s also, by the way, a Baptist lobby in Washington.  There are a number of Baptist churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is only one of them. They maintain something called the “Baptist Joint Committee,” which lobbies on various matters of interest to the Baptist community and it gets its way as often as not.  There is a Catholic lobby registered with the Justice Department as a lobbyist that lobbies Congress on various issues.  There’s a black lobby; there is an oil lobby; there’s a chemical lobby.  The Jewish lobby is not more powerful than the oil lobby.  It is probably about equal with the Catholic lobby.  The Jewish lobby lobbies on Israel, on aid to Israel, on support for Israel.  It lobbies on abortion rights, it lobbies on church-state separation, religious freedom, aid to parochial schools, aid to public schools, on health care, on a great many issues either of self-interest to American Jews or that are seen by American Jews as expressions of Jewish values.  And those are two different things and they don’t always go together.  Sometimes they’re in conflict.


The Jewish lobby consists in effect of probably a dozen major organizations and a few dozen smaller ones that work together on some issues and fight like cats and dogs on other issues.  You’re talking about a staff, combined, of a few hundred.  The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has about 150 people; the Anti-Defamation League has about 300 and the various other organizations have smaller staffs.  Not all of them are lobbyists.  Some of them are fundraisers; some of them work in regional offices organizing chapters that meet to have chat groups and book discussions.  They work together on more issues than they fight about.  On some issues there are nearly unbridgeable gaps, [for example] aid to parochial schools.  The Orthodox Jewish community, which is about ten percent of all American Jews but a larger percentage of the mobilized active American Jews because they’re more likely to show up, are in favor of aid to parochial schools.  The rest of the Jewish community is against it. 


The Orthodox organizations, because of their views on a muscular hawkish foreign policy and close cooperation between church and state, tend to be more closely allied with the Republicans.  Other major Jewish organizations tend to be more closely allied with the Democrats.  There are about six million American Jews – Jewish Americans.  Out of a population of about 280 – 290 million it’s something like 2.2 or 2.3 percent of the population, and there’s a huge debate about how many Jews there really are. Who do you count?  How do you count them?  They’re scattered all over the country.  People tend not to answer surveys.  The New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies ran a survey about ten years ago trying to find out where do its constituents live, where should they be building clinics, where should they be building counseling centers, where are the old people, where are the young people.  A day after the survey they started getting calls from local police precincts in the New York metropolitan area – “Are you guys running a survey? Because we’re getting calls from civilians in the suburbs complaining that the PLO is trying to collect Jewish names pretending it’s for United Jewish Appeal.”  So, your count is not going to be accurate because when somebody gets a phone call saying “Are you Jewish?” many are going to say, “No, I’m not.  Goodbye.”  Especially nowadays.


As I say, Jews are about two and one half percent of the population and everybody is accustomed to thinking reflectively that that’s tiny.  Jews are two and one half percent of the population, Christians are 90 something percent.  Let’s break it down for a minute because there’s about 60 million Catholics, there’s about 20 or 25 million Baptists, there’s about 15 million Methodists, about 6 million Jews, about two million Episcopalians and, in declining numbers, Congregationalists, Unitarians, United Church of Christ.  So if you look at American churches Jews are the fourth or fifth in size.  Not that small. 


Jews are a little more affluent than the population at large, but not nearly as rich as people tend to think.  The medium income household in America is somewhere around $40,000 and among American Jews it’s somewhere around $50,000.  Look, Jews are about 90 percent college-educated and the college-educated white American population has an income similar to Jews.  Jews look like other Americans of their social class. 


They do differ in one very important characteristic.  For reasons that nobody has adequately explained Jews are Democrats, and some people say it’s loyalty to Franklin Roosevelt for winning World War II.  Some people say it is the socialist heritage that was brought over from Russia where they hated the Czar so much that they were willing to support anything that would get rid of him.  In fact, the first time that there was an effort to pry the Jews as a voting bloc away from the Democrats was in 1800.  The Federalists accused Thomas Jefferson of all sorts of things to try to get [according to] the local Jewish press there were 2,000 Jews in America and they were all voting for Jefferson because he advocated religious freedom and, separation of church and state, [while] and the Federalists wanted a Christian nation.  Of course, the Jews wound up behind Jefferson and they’ve been doing it ever since with very few exceptions.  Lincoln tried to get the Jewish vote away from the Democrats.  There was every reason to think he would succeed that year because there were a number of clashes between Democratic administrations in the 1850s and the early Jewish lobby, but it didn’t work.  He actually organized a campaign.  He had a lawyer from Chicago named Abe Jonas who was mobilizing the Jewish vote for the Republicans.  The Republicans in 1860, before the presidential election, invited the first rabbi who gave an invocation to the House of Representatives.  They thought that would wring Jewish hearts.  It did a little bit, but Jews are Democrats. 


Americans call themselves Democrats, Republicans, Independents—about one-third each.  Jews are about four to one Democrat – four to one.  Americans – 20 percent say they are liberals, 40 percent say they’re conservatives and about 40 percent say they’re moderates.  Jews are flipped – 40 percent say they’re liberals, 20 percent say they’re conservatives.  There is some indication that younger Jews are more likely to vote Republican.  Jews under 30, I forget the exact number it’s either under 30 or under 35, in 2000 were twice as likely to vote for George Bush as over 50.  It was still a strong majority for Al Gore.  My newspaper actually published a survey a year ago demonstrating the trend among younger Jews.  Younger Jews are two to one identified Republican as opposed to four to one, and it could be that in another century, if this pace keeps up, Jews will begin to look like Republicans, but it hasn’t happened yet.


The Jewish lobby, as I say, is actually more than just a dozen organizations.  The anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Haddasah, of course, AIPAC, but it is also the impact of the Jewish role.  My kids go to Jewish parochial school, and starting in kindergarten they were required to bring in a nickel every Friday for charity.  They have mock elections in first grade.  So for all of these reasons Jewish turnout at the polls is about 85 percent compared to something under 50 percent for the population as a whole.  The result is that Jews are about 4 percent of the vote.  Now, four percent means that if most Jews are going to vote Democratic but you can move ten, 15 or 20 percent of them you have another million votes.  Nixon in 1968 got 17 percent of the Jewish vote, Goldwater forty years earlier got 10 percent of the Jewish vote.  That means seven percent of the Jews moved from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1968 -- that was about 250,000 people, I think, and Nixon won by half a million and appointed the first Jewish Secretary of State.  These things count. 


So, the Jewish influence is a lot of things.  It is the organizations, it’s the vote, it’s fundraising. 


As I say, my kids were giving a nickel every Friday for charity.  Jews dig deep.  There is an enormous disproportion in giving in the percentage of American charity.  The Democrats get about – my estimate is about somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of their money overall in every campaign cycle.  The Clinton campaign did a calculation in 1992 after the election that between Jewish donors and Jewish fundraisers, raising money from anybody but then giving it in, something over 50 percent of their money came from Jews.  Now, figure it out.  If Americans tend to be more conservative as they get more wealthy and Jews don’t, who are the wealthy liberals?  Where are the Democrats going to go?  The toy industry, the garment industry, the entertainment industry.  In 1996 CNN did a big story just before the election about why Hollywood tends to give so heavily to the Democrats, and they’re standing on their heads and turning inside out to avoid stating the obvious.  Where there is a heavy concentration of Jews in a particular industry you’re going to see strong giving to the Democrats. 


The Republicans, by the way, are not far behind.  They’ve figured this out and that brings us to the controversial part, which is the growing influence of Jewish conservatives.  When you hear about the neo-conservative Jewish conspiracy to lead America into a war it shouldn’t have been in Iraq you keep hearing the names Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Elliot Abrams, Wolfowitz, Abrams, Feith, and did I mention Wolfowitz?  Perle, Wolfowitz.  They seem to run America.  Was it Wolfowitz who got elected President in 2000?  It’s almost silly.  The argument is that Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Abrams and perhaps a handful of others, there are a few other Jewish officials in this administration—none in the Cabinet by the way, Clinton had four in his first Cabinet, there are none in this Cabinet—Concocted this plan to get America to go to war against Iraq because it would be good for Israel. 


Now, I personally don’t think the war in Iraq was a good idea.  I think terrorism has gotten worse in the last year and it’s fairly clear to me, and I wrote editorials about it at the time a year ago, that the weapons of mass destruction aren’t turning up.  There is no clear link, if any, between Iraq which is secular and Al Qaeda which is religious-fundamentalist.  There is a long record of hostility between the two, and we were going after the wrong guy for a great many reasons.  It was the Bush-father, Bush-son grudge match.  It was oil, it was a theory of intimidating the militants of the world by starting with somebody that you can pick off easily.  There are all kinds of reasons.  One of them may have been to strengthen in Israel.  The theory was, the conspiracy theory goes, that it was in order to give Israel a free hand.  If the military pressure is gone on them, then they can do whatever they want and they don’t have to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and negotiate with the Palestinians because they’re not under pressure.  You see all these things about a position paper that Feith and Perle were signed onto in 1996, that they handed to Netanyahu.  Feith has been involved actively in Jewish communal and organizational life for many years.  His father was very active in the Philadelphia Jewish community, he’s in the Holocaust survivor activist community, an active Zionist – that is in pro-Israel organizations.  Perle, not particularly, his interests have coincided more than once with Jewish organizations and the Israel lobby and [he and Feith] have cooperated.  For many years they ignored each other.  Wolfowitz is an open and outspoken advocate of Israeli compromise. He’s what’s known on the Jewish political scene as a dove.  He actually spoke at a pro-Israel rally a year ago on the Washington mall and he got booed because he spoke out in favor of Palestinian rights.  He speaks privately about the importance of Israel getting the heck out of the territories and dismantling settlements.  He’s not interested in the Likud agenda and he is the architect, if anyone, the theorist of our Iraq policy. 


I had some renovations done on my house and the architect is not the guy who owns the house.  He’s the guy who drew up the plans.  I renovated my house and I paid for it, I hired an architect to draw a blueprint and that’s what America did.  That’s what the Bush administration did.  So the whole argument is a little silly.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ha’aretz, it’s an Israeli daily newspaper.  Its fans call it the New York Times of  Israel, its opponents call it a leftist rag; it is certainly the most liberal newspaper in Israel consistently supportive of the dovish wing according to Sharon.  In an editorial last Friday, on the anniversary of the Iraq war, celebrating the invasion of Iraq, the expulsion of Saddam Hussein and its great benefits for Israel and the Middle East and the world.  And those are the doves, that’s the anti-war wing, because it has been good for Israel because the most powerful military force on Israel’s eastern flank is gone.  Syria and Jordan now have the Israeli army on one side and the American army on the other.  So, if I were to tell you that Israel had nothing to do with this that would be silly, too. 


Israel was certainly interested in getting rid of Saddam Hussein.  A consequence is that now Israel is under more pressure than ever to get out of the Territories.  It’s only in the last year that Ariel Sharon has finally become an advocate of the traditional dovish view of separating from the Territories and allowing the Palestinians to govern themselves and to stay when the Israeli army is gone.  That’s his plan.  He was opposed to dismantling settlements.  No Israeli Prime Minister has ever advocated dismantling settlements and begun to draw concrete plans.  He’s working on it because if there was a plan, and I believe there was, certainly the thinking of the Israelis, certainly the thinking of the Jewish organizational officials in New York who were lobbying in Congress to support the Bush administration, was the plan to take the pressure off Israel.  Leave them alone and then they won’t have to do anything and suddenly they have to do more than ever.  In a way, they’re now naked before their own reality.  There are no more excuses.  That combined with the fact that again, unintended terrorism is worse than ever.  It’s more sophisticated, it’s more frequent, and it’s better organized.  Madrid was an incredibly sophisticated attack.  The attack on the Ashdod port a week ago was an incredibly sophisticated attack.  Their ability to plan has advanced.  I don’t know what this war on terrorism consists of, but it doesn’t consist of stopping terrorism.  So Israel is now closer than it was a year ago to a situation where it willingly or unwillingly has to withdraw from the territories, dismantle settlements and hand land over in a real way to the Palestinians. 


Now, I’ve just told you that the Jewish organizations were lobbying for the war – not all of them by the way, that’s a gross exaggeration, but enough of them so that the weight was felt.  When I say the Jewish organizations, the Jewish vote, Jewish donors, Jewish influentials calling up their congressmen, AIPAC, for example, has a network of lawyers, car salesmen, physicians, people of local influence in pretty much every congressional district in the country that they can call on to call up the congressmen.  They donate and therefore get their calls taken.  It’s just smart politics, and they do that so that they can lift up their phones and say, “Call up your congressmen and press for this” and, by the way, enormous pressure on a congressman is ten phone calls.  You have no idea how easy it is to get these guys to fold.  So, they are lobbying and they have lobbied over the years for the Likud.  The Jewish lobby’s position, AIPAC, the anti-Defamation League, the major organizations, there are fringe organizations on the right and on the left that lobby for a particular ideology, build settlements, dismantle settlements, stay in the Territories, get out of the Territories.  The main Jewish organizations lobby for the right of the Israeli government to make its own decisions. 


Since 1977 most Israeli governments have been Likud so they’ve been lobbying, in effect, for the Likud.  They haven’t been saying “support the Likud,” they haven’t been saying “build settlements.”  They’ve been saying, “Let Israel make its own decisions.”  Now, if the Jews were overwhelmingly Democrats and liberals, here’s a weird one for you; last week’s New York Times CBS survey showed Americans 49 to 43 supporting Bush’s policy in Iraq.  It’s the first time the support had fallen below 50 percent.  The American-Jewish Committee, in its annual survey of Jewish opinion in December, found Jews—and this is before the weapons of mass destruction, before Blix and everything started collapsing for Bush, this is December—54 to 41 were opposed to the war in Iraq – American Jews.  The New York Times calls Jewish-Americans 63 to 28 supporting Bush’s war on terrorism, but American Jews 54 to 41 opposed [the war in Iraq]. 


Jews really are more liberal.  The organizations that they support to lobby for them are more conservative than they are.  Why?  In part it’s because Jews who don’t agree with Israel by and large don’t want to get involved.  They don’t want to argue.  They know that their cousins are fighting for their lives.  It’s a strange psychology, by the way.  It means that you can protest the policies of France, of Russia, of China, of Iraq, but the one country whose policies you don’t allow yourself to protest is the country you care about the most outside America.  The psychology is, “They’re fighting for their lives.  I’m not.”  I understand that that’s the policy of the major organizations.  It means that the organizations are going to be lobbying for a position many Jews will not agree with—and yet they will donate. 


It is also a fact that the more observant you are, the more religious you are, the more conservative you will be.  The more alarmed you will be about pornography, the more hawkish you will be, the more supportive of the settlement movement, of God’s promise to keep the Holy Land, every inch of it.  You can walk across a range of political positions except for economics and taxes, where a literal reading of the Bible tells you you have to tax the rich to feed the poor.  Other than economics, Jews tend to be more conservative as they get more observant.  By the way, the more observant you are the more likely you are to show up, which means that meetings of Jewish organizations where they adopt their policies are weighted toward more politically conservative people.


As Jews become less observant over the generations, the visible weight of Jewish opinion and lobbying becomes more conservative even though Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal.  It’s an odd psychology.  I think one of these days it is going to rise up and bite the organizations in the bud because if you get too out of step with your constituency, it’s a basic rule of politics that your supply lines are overstretched.


I didn’t talk about what happened in the Middle East today because I figured that would come up in the questions and answers.  I wanted to lay a groundwork for how this whole thing operates and also, frankly, I prepared the speech figuring nothing much was happening in the Middle East as I was sitting making my notes last night.  Bear in mind this war between America, or the West, and Islamic extremism may seen distant, especially here in Los Angeles where you didn’t have your buildings collapsing.  It’s much more real in New York and it’s much more real for Jews than for Christians because it’s our cousins getting shot.  They’re bombing synagogues in France.  In fact, they’re bombing synagogues in New York – they just haven’t had any successful operations yet.  It’s taken very personally, so even though there’s skepticism about how Bush is running this war, I think the native instinct among most American Jews is to feel intensely alarmed at the state of the world.


And so when you see something like what happened in Israel today, the assassination of an aging spiritual leader, even from a flaming leftist like myself you’re not going to get a whole lot of sympathy.  I don’t know if it was smart, I don’t know.  I heard Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, on TV today saying Israel has a right to defend itself.  I agree.  I think Israel should do whatever it needs to do to defend itself.  The last time I checked the dictionary, defending yourself means preventing harm from happening.  If terrorism now increases because of the rage over this assassination, that’s not defending yourself.  Is it immoral?  I think it’s moral.  The guy was responsible for about 376 murders in the last three years.  It was his direct responsibility and he brags about it. 


I read recently and I can’t confirm it, but it makes sense to me, there isn’t another national movement in the world that has adopted the mass murder of civilians as a political tactic.  The IRA?  They shoot British soldiers.  The Tupac Amara in South America?  The go after economic or military targets.  The Palestinians pioneered the assassination of bystanders en masse.  They blow up pizza places at lunchtime when they’re filled with toddlers and they brag about it.  So I don’t weep for this guy.  I wonder what’s going to happen now and I wonder if they were smart.  I think you could debate about Israel.  One of the reasons for the silence of the Jewish silent majority is because so much of the debate is “Was it moral or not.”  Is Israel always right, brave and smart?  Or is it an imperialist fascist murdering occupier?  Somewhere in the middle is the truth that you just don’t hear because of the moralism of American public discourse.


There’s an old Jewish saying which kind of captures my feeling and I think the feeling of a lot of every-day Jews around America which they bring into the Democratic party.  I think you’re sort of hearing it when Kerry gets to speak above the noise about his waffling and so on.  [There is a] re-assertion of a mainstream centrist, economically progressive, muscular-on-the-overseas-front, Democratic Party.  By the way, James Carville told me when I was writing my book, he said “You can’t run the Democratic campaign in this country without Catholics and Jews.”  Protestants are overwhelmingly Republican.  Catholics and Jews tend to be Democrats.  So, it’s just an essential part of our two-party system.  It’s not a tiny minority manipulating this system.


The story is that the British Secret Service had received word that the polar ice cap was melting and they reported it to 10 Downing Street.  It looked like within six months the seas would rise 20 feet and civilization, as we know it, would be at an end.  So the Queen called in the clergy and said, “You have to prepare the population for the end of days.  Get them ready spiritually to meet their maker.”  So the Archbishop of Canterbury goes on television and he says, “Beloved flock. It is the end.  I urge everyone to return to the Church and receive the sacraments, for surely salvation is only through works.”  And the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland gets on his knees and says, “No, brothers and sisters.  Salvation is through faith.  Open your hearts to Jesus and receive the Holy Ghost, for surely the end is near.”  Then the chief rabbi gets on and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have six months to learn how to live under water.”


Thank you for inviting me.