Few issues are as crucial to the future of the human race as the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and few are as misunderstood in American politics. The reasons, naturally, are complex; so too, God knows, is the conflict itself. But much of the confusion arises from the combined ability of professional Jewish organizations, right-wing think tanks and media-based neoconservative pundits to misrepresent both the views and the influence of American Jews and to enforce their misrepresentations on the mainstream media via political intimidation.
To unravel the confusion, one first has to get a few facts straight. Self-identifying American Jews constitute just 1.7 percent of the voting population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. This compares with 51.3 percent Protestant, 23.9 percent Roman Catholic and 16.1 percent “no religion.” Of the tiny percentage of American voters who are Jewish, roughly 7 percent put Israel at the top of their list of political concerns. So, overall, 7 percent of 1.7 percent—or pretty close to 0 percent—say they vote on the basis of policies related to Israel. And of this minuscule percentage, many are hawkish, but many others are dovish, and still others are in between or change their minds depending on the situation. Jews, you may have heard, have been known on occasion to disagree with one another, and even with themselves. But more than 80 percent of Jews polled share the view that the United States should play “an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict”—roughly the same number who agree that a “two-state solution is necessary to strengthen Israeli security.”
And yet it’s nearly impossible to find a story in a mainstream media outlet that reflects this reality. Almost without exception, one reads of the danger to Obama of losing Jewish voters, with the reason being their alleged unhappiness with his (equally alleged) lack of sympathy for Israel. But Obama is not losing Jewish voters to Mitt Romney: they continue to support him, in every significant poll, at the rate of approximately 70 percent. And if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be because of Israel, and it wouldn’t matter anyway. The numbers are just too tiny.
The reason these facts, while available to all, remain so difficult to discern in our political coverage is that while Jews remain liberal and dovish—even on Israel—many Jewish funders and neoconservative pundits do not. Although these people are deeply out of step with the vast majority of Jews, they wish to create a media narrative that suggests the opposite. They are aided in this task by the largely conservative leaders of “major” Jewish organizations, who work with these same funders (most famously right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, currently under investigation)—funders who also happen to pay their extremely generous salaries. Money, you may also have heard, has a way of talking when it comes to politics. The fact that the policies these organizations push and the politicians they support and nurture represent views antithetical to those of the very same people they profess to speak for might be a problem in, say, an Israeli kibbutz or a Park Slope food co-op. In the world of professional Jewish organizations, however, it barely rises to the level of an inconvenience.
The role of the neoconservatives in the media reinforces this misperception. Google the words “Jews, Republicans” and the result will be about 13 million hits. Even allowing for false positives, repeats and some negative responses, this is a considerable ado over next to nothing. Commentary has been publishing its wishful thinking about a Jewish desertion of the Democrats ever since Milton Himmelfarb (Irving Kristol’s brother-in-law, William Kristol’s uncle) posed the question “Are Jews Becoming Republican?” back in August 1981. Obviously, the answer has been “no” for the last thirty-plus years—and yet every election cycle, some gullible journalists find themselves asking it again, and doing so as if it would matter either way.
So why has it been so easy to fool so many members of the media so much of the time? One reason is laziness: journalists use the views of so-called Jewish leaders regarding Israel as a shorthand for those of all American Jews. (Meet the Press’s David Gregory recently went so far as to call Bibi Netanyahu the “leader of the Jewish people,” God help us.) No less significant, however, is the willingness of the hawkish, Israel-obsessed micro-minority to intimidate critics with accusations of anti-Semitism or Jewish “self-hatred.” Happily, with Marty Peretz having been forced out of The New Republic after only thirty-seven years of slanderous attacks, this brand of Jewish McCarthyism is no longer associated with the word “liberal.” But it remains many neocons’ weapon of first resort.
This tendency was evident not so long ago, when The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd wrote a column critical of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for outsourcing their foreign policy to the same neocon armchair warriors who championed the invasion of Iraq. According to Politico’s Dylan Byers, Dowd—who made no reference whatsoever to the religion or ethnicity of her subjects—“set the Jewish political community on fire…with a column about the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals that, according to her critics, peddled anti-Semitic imagery.” In fact, that “Jewish political community” consisted predominantly of neocons and former Bush cheerleaders, a significant number of whom now appear to be pining for similar bloodshed in Iran. Byers even quoted Commentary’s excitable blogger Jonathan Tobin, who insisted that Dowd’s column somehow marked “a tipping point that should alarm even the most stalwart liberal Jewish supporters of the president.”
Call me self-hating—or whatever—but I think this absurd set of circumstances should alarm even the least stalwart supporters of common sense.
Bernard Avishai, reviewing Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism in last week’s issue, explains why Israel’s purposes cannot be grasped only through the American Jewish experience.