Commentary Magazine


The Lobby, by Edward Tivnan

Attacking AIPAC

The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy.
by Edward Tivnan.
Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $19.95.

Edward Tivnan believes that a principal obstacle to peace in the Middle East—perhaps the principal obstacle—is Israeli intransigence. That intransigence, in his view, is encouraged by American Jews who lobby on Israel’s behalf irrespective of its policies. Their lobbying agency is a “neoconservative” group called AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It has come to dominate the Jewish community because Israel has become “the religion” of American Jews. Not only does it dominate the Jewish community, but AIPAC also wields “phenomenal” power in American politics as a whole, because, says Tivnan, “few ambitious American politicians could even dream of higher office without the prospect of Jewish money.”

According to Tivnan, campaign contributions by Jews and AIPAC’s activities are all part of the same thing—“the lobby”—even though AIPAC itself cannot legally and does not donate to campaigns. The lobby is in turn dominated by businessmen who are motivated less by their concern for Israel’s well-being than by their thirst for power. If American Jews do not put a stop to all this, they will be sorry, cautions Tivnan, who is not Jewish. Not only will peace elude the Middle East, but a groundswell of anti-Semitism will continue to gather in the United States. “Resentment against Jewish power is already festering in Washington,” he warns.

Tivnan had better hope so, for it is hard to see who besides the resentful will provide an audience for this book. The relations between Israel and American Jewry, the role of Jews in American politics, and the dynamics within the American Jewish community are all fair subjects for scrutiny. But Tivnan’s account is so fevered, so riddled with errors of both methodology and substance, so driven by animus, as to render his book useless except to those similarly tormented.

Tivnan’s thumbnail sketch of Middle East history emphasizes Israeli culpability at every turn. Thus, to take one example out of many, not long after the 1949 armistice ending Israel’s War of Independence, Israel’s leaders, says Tivnan, began to plot a new war against the Arabs. Egypt’s new President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, repeatedly confided to American and British officials “that he was eager for peace with Israel.” But he was thwarted by “a grand plan that had been hatched . . . by Ben-Gurion and his lieutenants to push the Arabs into a war they could never win.” Ben-Gurion’s method was to sponsor what Tivnan calls “Israeli ‘reprisals,’” the true aim of which was “apparent[ly] . . . to keep the border areas in turmoil and increase the appearance of threats to [Israel's] own security.” These efforts climaxed with Israel’s conquest of the Suez in 1956.

Tivnan’s account omits Nasser’s 1951 closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping in violation of international law, his similarly illegal blockade of the Strait of Tiran, the all-too-real campaign of fedayeen terror that he sponsored against Israel, and the bellicose rhetoric that accompanied all of this.

Again in 1967, Nasser did not want war, explains Tivnan, and “there was no real threat to the existence of Israel,” but the series of steps that Nasser took frightened Israelis. President “Johnson tried to calm the Israelis and win political support for the opening of the Strait. But on June 5, 1967, Israeli planes bombarded Egyptian airfields, and thus took the offensive against the might of the entire Arab world.”

There is some truth to this account, but as always with Tivnan, some distortion and some omission as well. What is missing is that Johnson’s efforts to win support for international action to open the Strait failed—the other powers balked at becoming involved. Missing, too, is any mention of the limits on Israel’s ability to sustain a full alert of its citizen-army in the face of Egypt’s mobilization in the Sinai. As the days of international inaction turned into weeks, Israel concluded it could wait no longer, but contrary to Tivnan, it did not take the offensive against “the entire Arab world.” It struck against Egypt, at the same time sending urgent diplomatic messages to Jordan through U.S. intermediaries pledging not to attack Jordan if Hussein refrained from attacking Israel. But, as Hussein has subsequently recounted, he was manipulated by Nasser and he did attack, a misstep without which the West Bank and East Jerusalem—today the focus of so much anguish—would still be in Arab hands.

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Tivnan’s harsh view of Israel’s history is matched by his opinions about Israel today. Israel, he says, has been “a foreign-aid junkie [since] a very early age.” “One might even say that the U.S. owns Israel,” he snickers, and adds, its “major industry seem[s] to be tax evasion.” Nor is Tivnan much more charitable in his discussions of American Jews. He summarizes his own judgment by quoting an anonymous “Jewish professional”: “Today’s Jewish leaders are dwarfs. . . . Jewish politics these days has been reduced to ‘photocracy.’ . . .” But these dwarfs are also terrifyingly powerful. Tivnan quotes another anonymous source as saying that “No one can run for national office without Jewish support,” and he buttresses this by reporting that “pro-Israel PACs [political action committees] in 1984 contributed nearly $3.6 million” to federal candidates.

Tivnan scupulously avoids mentioning the only figures that would allow any honest assessment of the weight of these PACs—namely, how their contributions compare with those of other PACs—although such figures must have been available to him from whatever source provided his statistic for the pro-Israel PACs. According to the Federal Election Commission, all PACs gave $113 million to federal candidates in the 1984 election. Thus the pro-Israel PACs Tivnan cites accounted for 3.2 percent, and only one of them made its way onto the FEC’s list of the fifty largest PAC donors in 1984.

Tivnan suggests that Jewish political activity constitutes a threat to American democracy. He claims that “American Jewish leaders stifled dissent, and questioned the motives of anyone who dared criticize Israel, Jew, Gentile, or President of the United States.” At another point he writes, “AIPAC was smothering the kind of debate that is supposed to fuel American democracy.” And at still another he asserts (without offering a single example or shred of evidence) that U.S. university faculties are “appalled by the lobby’s efforts to crush academic freedom.”

Sometimes one hears in Tivnan’s voice faint doubts about the Americanness of American Jews. Extolling the publication in 1966 of an obscure anti-Zionist book, Tivnan declares: “This kind of reassessment marked a maturity in American Jews as Americans and as Jews.” That Tivnan should purport to measure the “maturity” of Jews as Jews is merely ridiculous, but that he presumes to judge their “maturity” as Americans is somewhat nastier, as is his reference to frictions “in U.S.-Jewish relations.” Are Jews not part of the U.S.?

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Tivnan may be entitled to his opinions and his dislikes, but he is less entitled to his methodology. Although the jacket blurb observes that Tivnan holds a Ph.D., his work does not purport to be scholarly. Neither does it measure up to the standards of journalism. Anti-Zionist views attributed to President Roosevelt, criticisms of Jewish leaders attributed to President Truman, and lots of other provocative things are offered without a hint of a source. In more than fifty places the text is footnoted, “Confidential interview.” This is a practice that would warrant little credence even in a writer careful with facts. But Tivnan is not such a writer.

I was able to trace one of his confidential sources to its origin. Tivnan heaps praise on Jews who criticize Israel; one he cites often is Philip Klutznick, formerly the president of the World Jewish Congress. During the 1982 war in Lebanon, Klutznick wrote an op-ed article. As a result, according to Tivnan, “Once again Klutznick became a target of abuse; an editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report had to be restrained from branding [him] a ‘Nazi.’”

Even had Tivnan gotten this story straight, his report would be absurd: what does it matter what someone was restrained from saying? But he did not get the story straight. The editor in question was Moshe Decter, and the person who “restrained” him, and who also turns out to have been Tivnan’s “confidential” source, was assistant editor David Silverberg. In an exchange of memos that Silverberg has preserved, he persuaded Decter to tone down his criticisms of Klutznick. Decter’s draft had charged Klutznick with having likened the Israelis in Lebanon to Nazis; Silverberg pointed out that Klutznick had merely quoted such accusations, leaving it ambiguous whether he himself endorsed them. In any case, however, all this is rather a different matter from Decter’s having called Klutznick a Nazi. How many of Tivnan’s other anonymous stories are similarly garbled?

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Tivnan also relies heavily on secondary and tertiary sources, both for written material and for accounts of conversations. In the latter case the sources are often anonymous and rarely corroborated. When a second- or third-hand account furnished Tivnan with something he wanted to use, he seems to have deliberately avoided checking with the primary source, even where it was readily available, lest the story be denied. Thus he asserts (without naming any sources) that AIPAC’s former director Morris Amitay “threaten[ed] to shut of Jewish campaign funds [to members of Congress who] didn’t vote AIPAC’s way,” and that on another occasion Amitay pledged retaliation against Senator George McGovern. Tivnan does not mention that according to Amitay both these stories are wholly false, although elsewhere in the book he claims to have interviewed Amitay.

Similarly, Tivnan reports that former President Ford, lobbying on behalf of President Reagan’s 1981 Awacs sale to Saudi Arabia, asked a Republican Senator: “Are we going to let the fucking Jews run American foreign policy?” Ford vociferously denies saying this, and asserts that Tivnan never asked him about it. Nor does Tivnan claim to have asked him; Tivnan’s footnote attributes the quotation merely to a “confidential interview.” In the page proofs originally circulated to reviewers, the same footnote cited an unnamed dinner partner of the Senator as the source of the story, and then added: “story confirmed by Senator (tk).” The notation “tk” is publishing shorthand for something still to be filled in. Apparently Tivnan tried and failed to get the Senator to confirm the story; when the book went to press he used the quotation anyway, but shortened the footnote.

Elsewhere Tivnan cites Senator Edward Kennedy complaining at some length about having been “beat[en] over the head” by AIPAC to get him to sign a letter in 1975 in which 76 Senators protested against President Ford’s announced “reassessment” of U.S. Middle East policy (generally understood as a device to pressure Israel). Tivnan names Senator James Abourezk, a militant advocate of the Arab cause, as his source. Kennedy asserts he has “no memory of having said any such thing,” and his staff points out that the attributed statement is contrary to Kennedy’s long-held views on the Middle East. As with Amitay and Ford, Tivnan never asked Kennedy about the accuracy of the quotation.

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Tivnan’s most arresting use of a secondhand source concerns the late Moshe Sharett, who served as Israel’s Prime Minister from 1953 to 1955. Sharett was more dovish than Ben-Gurion and others of his colleagues, and he confided some of their internal quarrels to his diary, which was published posthumously in Israel a few years ago. Tivnan writes that “Sharett’s diary is a blockbuster, belying most of the conventional wisdom about the Arab threat to Israel’s security during those early years,” and he quotes from it a half-dozen times.

The problem is that Tivnan does not draw directly from the diaries but from excerpts translated in a 73-page pamphlet entitled Israel’s Sacred Terrorism; this pamphlet, published by the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), was written by one Livia Rokach, “an Italian writer and journalist of Palestinian origin” (according to the pamphlet). Something of Rokach’s perspective on her subject is revealed in her preface where she writes that Sharett “lucidly perceived as fascist the logic behind Israel’s security doctrine. . . . The liquidation of his dissenting presence was considered indispensable to the realization of the Israeli political/military leadership’s megalomaniac and criminal designs.”

The AAUG notes in an introduction that the portion of Sharett’s diary excerpted by Rokach “amounts to no more than one percent of the whole” and that her “study utilizes excerpts from the Sharett diary to reinforce and illustrate her own thesis.” In this light, most journalists, not to say scholars, would find reason to pause before relying on such a work as a source for Sharett’s opinion. Tivnan not only relies on it, but embellishes it where he finds it insufficiently condemnatory of Israel. Thus, where Rokach reports that “Sharett noted an episode of ‘the worst type,’” Tivnan borrows this and improves on it, writing: “Sharett was scribbling in his diary about Israeli terrorism of ‘the worst type.’” (Throughout the book, Tivnan refers frequently to Jewish terrorism and Israeli terrorism, never using quotation marks, but when he comes to mention the famous 1985 hijacking of a TWA jetliner, he refers to the hijacker/ murderers as Shiite “terrorists.”)

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His unprofessional use of sources is compounded by the fact that Tivnan came to his subject with little prior knowledge and seems to have learned only enough to furnish grist for his polemic. As a result, he occasionally lapses into assertions that are downright absurd—for example, when he writes that Israel’s “failure to consider Palestinian rights” has “cut of Jewish organizations” from, among others, the American labor movement. Everyone who knows anything about this subject knows that the AFL-CIO remains Israel’s staunchest friend outside of the organized Jewish community.

But Tivnan also draws on a handful of authoritative writers, notably Howard M. Sachar and Walter Laqueur, to construct a scaffolding of historical facts on which to drape his argument. In numerous places, indeed, his text seems merely a hasty rewrite of passages from their works. He seems particularly pleased to be able to cite them for facts that purportedly show Israel or Jews in a poor light, while omitting whatever balancing material might have been in the original or adding his own edge to the story. The result sometimes might be called plagiarism with embellishments.

For example, Tivnan writes of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of Revisionist Zionism:

Jabotinsky . . . was not comfortable with the murder of Arab women and children; he implored the Irgun commanders to give fair warning so that the Arabs could evacuate the areas under attack. The leaders contended that such warnings could not be given without endangering the lives of the attackers, and thus the success of the terrorist operations.

He cities Laqueur’s History of Zionism as his source, and there we find:

Jabotinsky was unhappy about the murder of Arab women and children and asked the Irgun leaders to warn the Arabs in time for them to evacuate the areas that were to be attacked. The Irgun commanders replied that such warnings could not be given without endangering the success of the attacks and the lives of those engaged in them.

In contrast to Laqueur, however, who describes the Arab attacks on Jews for which the missions discussed here were retaliations, Tivnan spares his readers such details, merely borrowing Laqueur’s passage and adding the word “terrorist” to give it a different slant.

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Citing Laqueur and Sachar is part of a broader tactic. Tivnan argues that “maybe the most powerful” weapon of Jewish political power in America is the ability to brand those who disagree with Israel’s current policies “anti-Semitic.” To blunt this weapon, Tivnan decks himself in Jews. He notes in his introduction that he got the idea for the book from a friend named Schwartz; the book jacket carries two blurbs—one by the journalist Carl Bernstein and the other by Leon Charney, the self-proclaimed “unsung hero” of the Camp David accords; Tivnan repeatedly quotes and praises such Jewish critics of Israel as Arthur Hertzberg and Israeli dissident sources like the magazine New Outlook; and he exhorts the Jewish silent majority to rally to the banner of such left-wing groups as Breira and New Jewish Agenda. But none of this can obscure the fact that Tivnan’s book is a shoddy and odious piece of work, suffused with enmity for its twin subjects of Israel and the American Jewish community.

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About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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