J'Accuse, Sort Of
You never know where you're going to find anti-Semitic propaganda.
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy—in which John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt argue that Jews have created a powerful lobby in the U.S. government to keep Israel's interest at the forefront of American foreign policy—is being called "the fall's most controversial book." In 2003, Slatefounder Michael Kinsley argued that Zionist lobby organizations often propagate anti-Semitic stereotypes by touting their own influence.
Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia, already a locally famous foot-in-mouther, went national last week by declaring at an anti-war rally that "if it was not for the strong support of the Jewish community," the war against Iraq would not be happening. He said that Jewish "leaders" are "influential enough" to reverse the policy "and I think they should."
The thunderous rush of politicians of all stripes to denounce Moran's remarks as complete nonsense might suggest to the suspicious mind that they are not complete nonsense. Moran himself almost immediately denounced his own words as "insensitive." He said he was using the term "Jewish community" as a shorthand for all "organizations in this country," which would certainly be a first if it were at all plausible.
As others have noted, Moran's words are less alarming for their own direct meaning than for their historic association with some of the classic themes of anti-Semitism: the image of Jews as a monolithic group suffering from "dual loyalty" and wielding nefarious influence behind the scenes. When someone touches even lightly on these themes in public, it's only natural to wonder whether his or her actual views are a lot darker.
Nevertheless, Moran is not the only one publicly exaggerating the power and influence of the Zionist lobby these days. It is my sad duty to report that this form of anti-Semitism seems to have infected one of the most prominent and respected—one might even say influential—organizations in Washington. This organization claims that "America's pro-Israel lobby"—and we all know what "pro-Israel" is a euphemism for—has tentacles at every level of government and society. On its Web site, this organization paints a lurid picture of Zionists spreading their party line and even indoctrinating children. And yes, this organization claims that the influence of the Zionist lobby is essential to explaining the pro-Israel tilt of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It asserts that the top item on the Zionist "agenda" is curbing the power of Saddam Hussein. The Web site also contains a shocking collection of Moran-type remarks from leading American politicians.
Did you know, for example, that former President Clinton once described the Zionist lobby as "stunningly effective" and "better than anyone else lobbying this town"? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone even further (as is his wont), labeling the Zionists "the most effective general interest group … across the entire planet." (Gingrich added ominously that if the Zionist lobby "did not exist, we would have to invent" it.) House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is quoted saying that if it weren't for the Zionist lobby "fighting on a daily basis," the close relationship between America and Israel "would not be." Sen. John McCain has said that this lobby "has long played an instrumental and absolutely vital role" in protecting the interests of Israel with the U.S. government. There is a string of quotes from leading Israeli politicians making the same point.
According to this Web site, the Zionist lobby is, like most political conspiracies, a set of concentric circles within circles. The two innermost circles are known as the "President's Cabinet" and the "Chairman's Council." Members allegedly "take part in special events with members of Congress in elegant Washington locations," "participate in private conference calls," and attend an annual "national summit." In the past members of these groups have met "in a private setting" with President Clinton, with Vice President Gore, and with the president of Turkey, among others. If this Web site is to be believed, these Zionist-lobby insiders have even enjoyed "a luncheon with renowned author and commentator George Will."
And who is behind this Web site? Who is spreading the anti-Semitic canard that Jews and Zionists influence American policy in the Middle East, including Iraq? It is a group calling itself the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and claiming to be "pro-Israel." They all claim that, of course. But in this case, AIPAC actually is considered to be the institutional expression of the amorphous Zionist lobby. All the foregoing quotes and assertions about the huge Zionist influence with the U.S. government and the lengths to which Zionists go to protect and expand it actually refer to AIPAC itself.
This doesn't make it all true, of course. AIPAC, like any organization, has an institutional interest in exaggerating its own importance. This is especially true of any organization that must raise money to support itself. The "President's Club" and "Chairman's Council" are both fund-raising gimmicks, intended to give donors the feeling that they are in the thick of government policy-making. It's more about being able to say, "As I was saying to Colin Powell" than about trying to say anything in particular to Colin Powell. Another element in AIPAC's braggadocio is rivalry with other Jewish organizations. The American Jewish Committee also has a page of quotes on its Web site about how influential it is. ("We know that yours is the most important and powerful Jewish organization in the United States," says President Jacques Chirac. Maybe it sounds more like a compliment in French.) This evident rivalry undermines any notion of a unified Jewish conspiracy.
Just as African-Americans can use the "n" word when joshing among themselves and it sounds a lot different than when used by a white person, talk about the political influence of organized Jewry sounds different when it comes from Jewish organizations themselves. Nevertheless, you shouldn't brag about how influential you are if you want to get hysterically indignant when someone suggests that government policy is affected by your influence.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.