Getting into the Zionist Organization of America’s annual dinner Sunday night at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan proved surprisingly difficult. There were a dozen protesters outside holding signs calling for an end for US aid to Israel. They did not get in my way, but a security guard, referring vaguely to an ominous “situation,” demanded that I wait until his supervisor could inspect my media credentials before letting me up there. “You’re not with the people outside?” the supervising guard asked me. So that was the “situation” that put the Hyatt, in the words of the first guard, “on lockdown.”
Does that strike you as a bit paranoid? Well, it was very much in keeping with the overall tenor of the evening. The state of Israel, according to the various speakers, most notably Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), is surrounded by ever-worsening threats. From the “Arabist” professors on college campuses invoked by one ZOA speaker, to the menace of a potentially nuclear Iran, the message of the evening was clear: no one can let up their guard for even a second against Israel’s opponents.
Speaking via video, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “vilification” “the greatest threat of all” to Israel. Netanyahu thanked the evening’s high-profile honorees—Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Glenn Beck—for “being fearless in defending Israel from slanders hurled against it, at great personal cost.” In Netanyahu’s alternate universe, it appears that defending Israel is a threat to one’s American political career.
The ZOA event confirmed that the extremist wing of pro-Israel activism has become virtually indistinguishable from the political right. Ros-Lehtinen gave shout-outs from the dais to three House colleagues: Representative Dan Burton (R-IN), Bachmann and freshman “majority maker” Representative Ann-Marie Burkle (R-NY).
When ZOA President Mort Klein introduced Bachmann, he proudly noted that she holds an LLM in tax law and practiced at the Internal Revenue Service. There was no obvious reason for him to point out this out, except that from the tone of his voice, it sounded as if he was fending off the impression that Bachmann is less than the brightest light bulb. After all, the ZOA doesn’t care about taxes one way or another. But the clearly conservative crowd reacted, by booing dramatically, as if they were in the Club for Growth.
When Bachmann took the stage, she tried to spin her years at the IRS to conservative advantage, claiming, “I wore a white hat, and I tried to be an advocate for lower taxes, not higher taxes, in that position.” That’s a strange assertion. Her job at the IRS contained no advocacy role with regard to public policy. It is Congress, not the IRS, that sets tax rates. Her job, according to The New Yorker, was “representing the commissioner of the IRS before the US Tax Court and advising agents who were conducting audits and collecting tax assessments.”
ZOA President Mort Klein was careful to note that the group is nonpartisan and that pro-Israel Democrats such as Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and former Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) have attended regularly in the past. The invocation of Weiner brought all the guffawing you might expect.
To say that the protesters on the street and the crowd in the ballroom were talking past each other would be an understatement. Neither is willing to make the concessions that would be needed for peace. One of the protesters, Phyliss Gelman of Adilah, New York, told me they support “justice for the Palestinian people” and that includes a right of return for refugees to within the 1948 borders of Israel. Meanwhile Ros-Lehtinen cracked that two West Bank settlers she met in the audience are “the impediment to peace,” as if no sane person could possibly think Israel stealing Palestinian land to construct settlements with their own, militarily protected infrastructure gets in the way of making a fair peace deal. “We say that’s not an impediment, that’s the solution,” said Ros-Lehtinen, to applause. How settlement building, much like continued demands for the “right of return,” brings us closer to a two-state peace agreement, is unclear.
Ros-Lehtinen made two points: President Obama is too reluctant to side with Israel against the United Nations, and a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable threat to the US as well as Israel. “The Little Satan and the Great Satan, we’re in it together,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “When you hear the Obama administration or UN apologists, but I repeat myself,” she joked. It should be noted that Representative Ros-Lehtinen, who apparently thinks so little of the United Nations, chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Before the dinner I caught up with Bachmann and got to ask a few questions. She replied with talking points. When I asked what exactly Obama has done that has so injured Israel, she said, “He has failed to stand for Israel. He has put daylight between the US and Israel for the first time since Harry Truman recognized their sovereignty.” The nerve that man has, acting as if Israel and the United States are two different countries with occasionally diverging interests! When I asked what she makes of the concerns of liberal Jews that policies such as hers are unhelpful to the peace process, she looked confused. So I gave the illustrative example of how US support for settlement construction is controversial. She responded with a point she would repeat during her speech: “Settlements are not the problem, a nuclear Iran is.”
Bachmann’s speech was laden with heavy-handed religious imagery and invocations of the Holocaust. The Book of Genesis, Bachmann reminded the audience, “says opponents of Israel will be cursed.” She compared Mahmoud Ahmedinijad to Adolf Hitler, saying the modern threat to the Jewish people must be treated with comparable seriousness. “When a madman speaks, the world must listen,” Bachmann declared to applause.
Bachmann believes that the United States should go to war with Iran if that’s the only way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Apparently, the lessons of our last war in the Middle East, supposedly to stop Iraq from getting nuclear weapons—4,421 Americans dead and 31,921 wounded, at least 103,640 Iraqis killed, and trillions of dollars spent—is lost on Bachmann.
But most chilling was her statement, to great applause, that “all options are on the table,” with regard to Iran. Typically if a US president says “all options,” it is an oblique reference to nuclear weapons. Does Bachmann think we should launch a nuclear strike against Iran? I e-mailed her campaign press office for an explanation, but got no response.
Potentially nuking Iran is not Bachmann’s only extremist idea on the Middle East. She also wants to undermine the principle of disinterested civil service. “We need secretaries of State and Defense who fully support a pro-freedom and security policy towards Iran, and we need them to replace those in the bureaucracy—especially at State—who will not fully support this policy,” said Bachmann. In other words, a President Bachmann would conduct an ideological purge of the State Department because she does not care for career foreign policy expertise if it does not lead to her desired conclusions.
There is no reason that one could not support Israel’s right to exist and defend itself without disagreeing with virtually all this lunacy. But the ZOA seems to feel differently. After her address Bachmann was mobbed by adoring fans snapping cell phone photographs with her.