Philip Weiss, November 14, 2009
When people ask why Obama has capitulated to the prime minister of a tiny state– Bibi Netanyahu– various theories are offered about Health care first, or the economy, or Afghanistan, or oil. Few say directly: Netanyahu feels invulnerable because of the Israel lobby in the U.S. As readers of this site know, I am a bull on this issue: I think the lobby has a tremendous amount of power. And all efforts to poohpooh its influence strike me as foolish until such time as the media address it openly and vigorously, as they do, say, the gun lobby. Once there’s information and sunshine, we can argue about its magnitude.

The difficulty is that you cannot be plain about this matter without addressing the idea of Jewish influence. Israelis are often more plain about this. Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz the other day, “the most significant joint endeavor of America’s Jews [is] six decades of unswerving support for the Israeli government of the day.” I.e., a hammerlock on U.S. policy. And last year at the NYPL, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg described “two structures” built by Jews, one being Israel, the other “the semi-autonomous American Jewry, which was not here 150 years ago– powerful influence, access to the corridors of power, impact on the culture, and civilization… plus the infrastructure of the community of solidarity and fraternity and support system and education etc.”

Obama’s crumple cannot be explained without talking about that influence, and Obama’s/Rahm Emanuel’s fears for a second term. Some of this power is media/Establishment presence, to which I was long a personal witness. (And yes I wonder why Nina Totenberg referred to Emanuel as “Rahm” three times in a report last night on NPR.) Some of it is financial. As former AIPAC boss Tom Dine told Helena Cobban lately of a political epiphany he had on the Kennedy campaign in 1980: “[Jews] were the kings in every city!”

The Jews were kings because of money. As I insist on stating, more than half of the money in Democratic politics comes from Jews, the richest group by religion in the U.S. The two baronial families that lifted Barack Obama in Chicago, the Crowns and the Pritzkers, are both Jewish (and one, the Crowns, includes fire-and-brimstone Israel supporters; I am not sure about the Pritzkers).

Money is famously the mother’s milk of politics, and the money that the lobby directs is playing a huge role in limiting debate of Israel/Palestine in the U.S. What follows are several items. The first three are from the recent J Street conference, which prompted this post. The later items are recycled:

–If you look at Video 5 here from J Street, at Minute 48 or so, Congressman Bob Filner speaks openly about the financial threat to a politician in going against the Israel lobby. “Campaign contributions,” he explains, are the reason “why you get 400 votes for these measures” in support of Israel. “An economic weapon?” moderator Bob Franken ventures. “Of course,” Filner says, with feeling. “On the issue of Israel, people are taking positions that could lead to war on the basis of…’Am I going to get a campaign contribution?’… The dangerous thing here is that people are making decisions– you could have nuclear war in this whole world, and they’re making it on narrow political, parochial grounds.” [emphasis Weiss's]

What are those contributions worth? Filner says (at minute 25 or so) said that 10 years ago he voted against a resolution to condemn Khalid Muhammad, an associate of Louis Farrakhan who was making anti-Semitic speeches. Filner didn’t like what Muhammad was saying, but he felt that it wasn’t Congress’s place to condemn speech. “What about the First Amendment?” But only 10 people voted against it, Filner says. “You know you’re going to pay for that,” he was told by fellow congressmen. “Then I started getting all these calls. I’m not sure which organization was behind it.I will tell you… on that vote I lost about $250,000 an election cycle in contributions. That’s intimidating to most of my colleagues. That kind of money… is an intimidating factor. Not many people would stand up to it.”

–Also at J Street, Elissa Barrett, the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, in rationalizing her organization’s pitiful silence on Israel’s human rights record, said “we can’t be blase about our funders and how they stand with us.” She said that “PJA has lost funders around this.” Sad. Presumably she was referring to this type of lame statement in the midst of the Gaza war. This demonstrates that even in the leftleaning Jewish community, people are scared of the neoconservative shadow.

–Jonathan Chait of the New Republic warned J Street that because it was providing a forum for (mild) criticisms of Israel, a leading Democratic consultant had told him recently that he would have to advise political candidates to return contributions from the group.

–Back when Harvard professor Steve Walt co-authored his bombshell paper on the Israel lobby, Bernard Steinberg, director of Harvard’s Hillel center, brought up the money issue unprompted when I was interviewing him for the Nation: “I talked to someone in Harvard development and asked what the fallout had been, and he said, `It’s been seismic.’” Subsequently the New York Sun tried to maumau the Jewish benefactor of Walt’s chair at the school, Robert Belfer, and described “snowballing outrage from Harvard donors.

–When Lawrence Summers was forced out as Harvard’s president, Martin Peretz said it was out of “anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish animus” and threatened financial repercussions: “…[M]y own impression of wealthy alumni who were once my students is that Summers made them more generous… I know of at least three gifts in the $100 million range that were very likely to materialize and now are dicey.”

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