The Israel lobby group the American Jewish Committee (AJC) decided to support the Israeli government against the White House in 1991 over illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank, even though many officials at the organization privately backed the president. The AJC reasoned that a leading Jewish organization in Washington had a “primary responsibility” to stand up for Israel because the country represents the “collective will” of the Jewish people, an AJC official says.
Steven Bayme, the directory of contemporary Jewish life at the AJC and a respected scholar and author, related the matter in discussing many strains between U.S. and Israeli Jewry in a Zoom webinar last week for the AJC.
Bayme told of the confrontation between the U.S. and Israel in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush refused to give Israel $10 billion in international loan guarantees to resettle Soviet emigrants unless Israel promised not to put them in illegal West Bank settlements. Many at the American Jewish Committee opposed settlements, because they would prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, but the organization’s new executive director, David Harris, “made a very powerful pitch” at a board meeting “that resonates to this day,” Bayme related:
This is not about what you or I may feel about West Bank settlements. It is not simply a matter of opinion, it is a question of what is a responsible position for a leadership Jewish organization to take with clout in Washington, addressing the Congress and the administration. This was essentially a statement of … I might agree with Bush that money should not be used for the West Bank, but the question is, Should a leadership organization be taking a position in support of the Israeli government, which David argued would be the responsible thing to do, or do we take a position that simply reflects our own sentiments?
David’s position prevailed, that the responsible thing to do is not to dissent from Israeli governmental policy on such a matter but rather, regardless how we may feel individually, the organization essentially argued for the loan guarantees.
(Btw, Bush held his ground, and the pressure actually got Israel to go to the Madrid peace conference, though Bush’s stance is thought to have contributed to his loss of the presidency the next year, when Bill Clinton ran to his right on the settlements issue.)
Bayme said the AJC also sided with Israel nine years earlier when Israel invaded Lebanon– though many Jews were opposed to that war, and saw it as Israel’s Vietnam. Four senior staff at AJC had signed an ad in the New York Times protesting the war. Leading AJC staffers challenged the organization. Hyman Bookbinder said, “Why did we back Operation Peace of Galilee instead of mounting a full-blown dissent?” Another staffer argued, AJC should be the peace party, and against the uncompromising Likud governments.
But in the end the AJC’s president Maynard Wishner said that the AJC must be on Israel’s side when it went to war because Israel reflects the “collective will” of the Jewish people.
Bear in mind the AJC is not going to go against the collective will of the Jewish community…. While we are the leadership of the community, we are very much of the community. He argued that, No it is not appropriate for AJC to be taking a position in direct opposition to military action undertaken by the Israelis…
AJC as a leadership organization feels its primary responsibility is to be supportive of Israel. That’s what we’re about. In which case sometimes issues on which we might otherwise dissent we put to the side and say what are we really about?
Alienation of young American Jews from Israel.
Bayme acknowledged the alienation of younger American Jews from Israel: they feel that Israel has “not been serious in its quest for peace.” But Bayme dismissed the “chasm” between young Jews and Israel as a problem of American Jewish identity, not Israel’s behavior.
“At the very root of the chasm… is the issue of assimilation. The more distant one is from Jewish matters generally, the more distant one is from Israel,” he said, and with a 71 percent intermarriage rate among non-orthodox American Jews, the chasm between American Jews and Israel will grow.
“If Israel did everything American Jews would like her to do– on issues of West Bank settlements, religious pluralsm, support for a peace process, if Israel did all of that, you would still have the problem of distancing, because none of it addresses the issue of assimilation.”
What should be done? Bayme said that American Jews need to be educated “about the realities of Israel.” American Jews only know the headlines in newspapers, they don’t know “the reality of serving in the army, an experience largely foreign to American Jews.” Israeli Jews live on the front line.
We live in the greatest society in diaspora Jewish history. We do not have to deal with the day to day threats that are existential in nature of a ton of people who say you should not be in existence. That results in a different model of society in which security concerns do become paramount. Service in the army becomes a requirement.
Why American Jews turned on Jimmy Carter.
American Jews are liberals, except on Israel, Bayme said.
“The one thing that is predictable, is that American Jews will vote for the more liberal candidate in American politics provided that candidate is not understood as being hostile to Israel. The ties between American Jews and Israel are still strong in the sense We rejected President Carter in 1980 because he was seen as not being friendly to Israel– he certainly upped the pressure on Israel considerably– even though he was clearly the more liberal candidate in the 1980 presidential election.”
Liberal Jews are key to the Israel lobby in Washington.
Israeli leaders misunderstand American Jews, Bayme said. They look at the intermarriage rate and say, Reform and Conservative Jews are “doomed to disappear,” so, “why should we invest in them.”
That’s flawed on two major grounds. Number one it is simply a denial of Jewish peoplehood. Whatever you think of the future of those two movements, they represent core dimensions of how we define the Jewish people today… Second and more importantly it totally misses the critical significance of the liberal religious movements for American Israeli relations. Namely that American Jews, found within the liberal movements, are key backers of the U.S. Israel special relationship. You dismiss those movements, you say they are not relevant, we should invest only in the orthodox… [that] is ultimately undermining Israeli national security.
Bayme said the AJC has raised this issue again and again but “not moved the needle” with Israeli leaders.
U.S. Jews are key to Israel’s “national security” because they have great political influence as top editors and writers.
We have far more clout than our raw numbers, in the political culture, Bayme said.
Oftentimes Israeli leaders think well, American Jews are less than 2 percent of the population of the United States, therefore again, do they really make a difference in terms of US Israel relations. How can less than 2 percent of the population have much of an impact? Yes, we are less than 2 percent of the population. To be precise, we are 1.8 percent. But if you realize that We are one third of the religious influence in this country, That speaks volumes. When you realize so much of the political discourse in American politics is articulated by Jewish intellectuals, Jewish writers, Jewish editors of magazines, in other words the political culture of America is one in which Jews play an enormous role. Therefore not to understand and appreciate the influence of American Jews politically, culturally and intellectually again is not only hurtful of the concept of peoplehood, of who we are as one people, it’s also hurtful of Israeli national security.
(Peter Beinart made this same point, about how many editors of influential American publications are Jewish. Let’s not even go to MSNBC and CNN. And it’s another reason Jared Kushner and my Zionist editor at the New York Observer killed this website there as a blog in 2007.)
Israel must have “a priority” for Jews in America.
Bayme emphasized that Israel is the “beacon” for all Jews, but Israel must support American Jews:
To me, If one believes, if one upholds the standard of Jewish peoplehood, it means the critical beacon of Jewish peoplehood, namely the return of the Jews to sovereignty and statehood and a homeland of their own– its obligation is to be strengthening the diaspora as opposed to be thinking about the withering away of the Diaspora..
“Classical Zionist theory” held that once Israel was founded, Jews who want to be Jewish will “return” to a Jewish state and the rest can assimilate. That was wrong historically. Israel is the priority, but American Jewry must be supported.
The vitality of diaspora Jewry, again notwithstanding the Holocaust, which dealt an incredible blow… what we’ve seen is that diaspora Jewry is much more resilient than classical Zionist theory allotted for. And later Zionist theory has argued much more for a symbiotic relationship between Israel and the diaspora as opposed to a relationship one in which Israel is the center and the diaspora is the periphery.
“I would without question still see a priority being given to the notion of homeland, which is not the case in the diaspora. But that said, I would say we have strong communities, we need to strengthen one another.”
That’s another way of saying, Israel first.
The Pollard case.
Bayme said the AJC was accused by Israelis of being fearful of the dual loyalty charge in 1987 when it did not back Jonathan Pollard, the former US government intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel and given a lifetime prison sentence (Pollard was freed in 2015). “Many Israelis,” Bayme said, felt that American Jewry abandoned Pollard out of fear of being seen as more loyal to Israel than the U.S.
More important than fear of such accusationa, Bayme said, were the actual facts of the Pollard case. Pollard showed no remorse. His wife said ahead of sentencing, We regret nothing. Rather than showing discretion, Pollard spilled his guts to Wolf Blitzer of the Jerusalem Post in prison interviews. And though Pollard’s sentence was “excessive,” longer than that for other spies, in Bayme’s view, the AJC deferred to the fact that: 9 different secretaries of defense upheld the sentence, and when President Clinton was under pressure from Netanyahu to release Pollard in 1998, his CIA chief wrote a letter saying that if Pollard was freed, the U.S. would face “a massive resignation of CIA officers.”