Bret Stephens’ burner of a column published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal is sure to make the rounds. He is also right to largely dismiss the political importance of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Still, it’s worth considering why the perpetually boiling Jewish communal conversation on Israel never seems to have much practical political import.
The central fallacy and problem with the discussion is the idea that American Jewish attitudes are the primary influence on American policy toward Israel. If you look at the thing without much nuance, it’s easy to see why. The recently closed AIPAC policy conference attracted no less than 13,000 delegates, the largest in its history, a healthy jump from 10,000 a year ago, and probably a doubling in five years. AIPAC also claims 100,000 members and has an annual budget of around $70 million, making it the biggest American Jewish advocacy organization (although it’s worth noting it was only relatively recently that it passed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League in this regard).
In short, the central Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying address is no cupcake, and it is getting dramatically stronger every year. It deserves extraordinary credit for its successes and growth.
But AIPAC and the Jews are not the reason America supports Israel. Like any successful lobby, AIPAC can ensure and push the margins on specific Israel-related legislation enacted by Congress. In the same way the NRA can make gun-control legislation very tough to pass, other successful grassroots lobbies are successful because they speak for policies that have the general backing of the American people.
The most influential Jewish organizations weren’t always with them. In 1922, the United States Congress may have unanimously endorsed the Balfour Declaration, but there was no organized pro-Israel lobby of any significance that made it so. The biggest and most important Jewish advocacy organizations of the day, as well as many of their leaders (as exemplified by the life of Cyrus Adler, who served as a head and founder of both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee, among many other important leadership roles) were non-Zionist, and far more concerned with unsuccessful attempts to loosen eventual restrictions to Jewish immigration to the United States than to restrictions placed on entry to Palestine.
Zionist organizations and leaders eventually became more prominent, both because they reflected the feelings of the Jewish street and because the Jewish state was a far more effective opener of the doors of power than other concerns.
It’s an argument that has been made often and much better than I can by Walter Russell Mead. It nevertheless seems to need perpetual repeating in light of the strange views that seem to dominate so much of the public debate about American Jews and Israel.
There is much that would be spiritually and culturally disconcerting about an American Jewry that really had decided it had no special affection for the Jews of Israel. But even if that happens, nobody should be surprised if a large contingent of those Jews who remained supportive of the Jewish state still continued to show up in D.C. and effectively lobby their political leaders.
In short, even if American Jews in their majority turn against the Jewish state, the United States likely will not.