Myth I: America Is Totally in Hock to the Jewish Lobby
Three weeks ago, I was standing in Piccadilly, watching the big anti-war march pass by. Two girls in Islamic headdress glanced my way, nudged each other, and then approached me.
“Have we seen you on television?” one of them asked.
I had appeared on a British television programme about Iraq shortly before, so I answered that yes, very possibly they had.
“We knew it!” they exclaimed. Then they hissed: “You’re part of the Jewish lobby, aren’t you?” “Oh yes,” I said, with maybe more bitterness than I should have. “I’m the man responsible for putting up your interest rates.”
I wish I could say that those two girls had learnt their politics from some ranting mullah in a north London mosque. In fact, the certainty that American policy is controlled by what one British magazine called a “kosher conspiracy” was the single most widely held opinion I heard in the course of an eight-day visit to Britain.
When the Daily Telegraph invited me to report on British attitudes about America, I had braced myself for the worst. Only a week after September 11, the Guardian had published a column with the charming headline, “A Bully With a Bloody Nose is Still a Bully”, and, in the year since then, my “ugly file”, as I called my collection of anti-American clippings from the British press, had grown fatter and fatter.
So it was a very pleasant surprise to spend a week here in person and discover just how faint and marginal true anti-Americanism is. It exists, of course, but even when it does, it often seems motivated by envy rather than hatred. “You have to understand,” one Left-wing journalist told me over a boozy lunch, “that everybody in our business here wonders whether he didn’t make the mistake of a lifetime by not moving to the United States when he was 22.”
What I encountered more often than animosity was a strange unawareness of the realities of American society and politics. So I thought it might be useful to address directly the perceptions—and misperceptions—about America that I encountered most often. Think of it as one Anglophile’s reply to Four Weddings and a Funeral: Four Myths—and One Truth.
Like many myths, the myth of the Jewish lobby is founded on observed facts. Once upon a time, Jewish votes—though few in number—did play a strategic part in national politics. Back in 1948, New York was the largest state in the country. Harry Truman may have hoped that recognition of Israel would help him snatch New York’s electoral votes from his Republican opponent, New York Governor Thomas Dewey.
Today, Jewish votes matter much less, not only because the Jewish population is relatively smaller (5.2 million in a country of almost 300 million), but because only one of the states with a large Jewish population—Florida—is still a key marginal state in a presidential election.
It is true that American Jews are important sources of political funds. Some experts estimate that up to one third of the money given to Democratic candidates comes from Jewish donors. But most of this money seems to come from people motivated by their liberalism rather than their ancestral Judaism: Hollywood gives generously to pro-abortion and pro-environmental Democrats, but in this year’s United Jewish Appeal campaign, Greater Los Angeles lagged well behind Toronto, a city with half LA’s population and much less than half its wealth.
Here is where the myth is false. The force that sways American politicians’ positions on Israel is not their hope for Jewish money or votes: it is ideology, conservative or liberal.
Of all American presidents, Bill Clinton was far and away the most personally friendly to America’s Jews. No president had ever before named so many people of Jewish background or faith to so many important positions: Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, William Cohen, Alan Greenspan, Bernie Nussbaum, Robert Reich, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and on and on. Even Clinton’s most famous mistress was Jewish.
And America’s Jewish community loved Clinton right back. He raised tens of millions in soft money from Jews in Hollywood and New York, culminating in an $8 million gift from entertainment mogul Chaim Saban to build a new HQ for the Democratic Party and more than $500,000 from Denise Rich for his own library.
And which American president was it who pushed Israel hardest and furthest to evacuate from the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state? Who received Yasser Arafat more often than he received any other world leader, including even the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of Russia? Who responded to the September 2000 al-Aqsa intifada by pressing Israel for even more radical unilateral concessions? That same Bill Clinton.
Conversely: of all American presidents since the Second World War, only one was infected with anti-semitism—Richard Nixon. “The Jews are irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards,” Nixon observed in a conversation he recorded in 1972.
Nixon kept lists of Jews in the media and in his own administration, and never quite forgave even his closest adviser, Henry Kissinger, for his religion. Yet it was Nixon who rearmed Israel in its darkest hour, October 1973, turning catastrophic defeat in the early hours of the Yom Kippur war into triumph by the end.
If Jewish influence explains America’s Middle East policy, how do we account for Clinton’s conduct and Nixon’s? For that matter, how do we account for George W. Bush’s? Few presidential candidates of modern times received less support from Jews than did Bush in November 2000—about 19 per cent.
The answer to the conundrum can be found in the opinion polls. In America, Israel is not an issue that divides Jews and non-Jews. It divides liberals and conservatives. A Gallup poll taken in April found that Republicans secular as well as religious support Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of 67 per cent to eight per cent, while Democrats do so by a margin of 45 to 21. (The most liberal Democrats are even more evenly divided: 41 for Israel against 40 for the Palestinians.)
When the European political Left looks at the Middle East, it sees a page out of a shameful past: arrogant white people conquering and colonialising oppressed non-whites. They think the Israeli cause is wrong, but, right or wrong, they believe it is hopeless—after all, did their own countries not fight very similar wars themselves during the retreat from empire? And did they not lose?
Nor is the political Left immune to older prejudices: a Labour minister complained to me about the Israelis “rampaging through the Holy Land at Easter”—an unconscious hint that, while dechristianised Britain may have lost its faith that Christ ever lived, it has not quite forgotten who killed Him.
But post-colonial guilt has a weaker purchase on the American conscience. When Americans look at the Middle East, they see a democratic society inspired by the Bible and committed to human freedom, surrounded by murderous and tyrannical enemies.
And when they look at the Palestinians, what do they see? Not the victims that Europeans perceive—but the people who danced with glee as New York and Washington burned. Americans see the inventors of the airplane hijacking and the exponents of suicide-murder. In short, they see people who inspired and sympathise with America’s newest and deadliest enemies.
There’s a joke from the 1960s about the social worker who witnesses a brutal mugging. The victim crumples to the ground, the mugger administers a final kick and then runs away with the victim’s wallet. The social worker rushes over, checks the victim’s pulse, and murmurs: “That poor man! Imagine how much he must have suffered to want to beat you like that!”
Americans had little sympathy with that social worker; they have less sympathy for her foreign policy equivalents today. And it is for that reason, and not because of some kosher conspiracy, that America stands by Israel and confronts Iraq.