Rabbi’s Essays

Jews & Power

The old Jewish joke goes: It is Berlin in the early 1930s, and Simon bumps into Isaac. Isaac is sitting on a bench reading the Nazi daily, Der Stürmer. “Isaac!” Simon exclaims. “How can you read that trash!” Simon puts down the paper. “Well, I’ll tell you. I used to read the Yiddish press, but all it talked about was Jews getting beaten, expelled from their homes and having their businesses burned down. It made me feel miserable. But here in Der Stürmer I read that Jews are powerful and in control of the world, and it makes me feel great!”

A second story: Around the same time and place, two young Jewish men found themselves walking up a street late at night. They saw a pair of dark figures moving toward them. One Jew turned to the other and plaintively asked: “What are we going to do? There are two of them, and we are alone!”

Here is no joke: The perception of Jewish power — and of Jewish powerlessness — tends to be greatly exaggerated.

Throughout their entire history, Jews have represented a small population existing in the midst of much larger, stronger and more populous cultures and societies. King David’s kingdom might have represented the greatest reach of Jewish national power before or since (including the modern State of Israel right after the 6-Day War), but it was a rather tiny monarchy compared with Egypt to the west or Assyria to the north. Yet, at no time have the Jews been wholly powerless. Through the utilization of strategic skills, talents, financial wherewithal or location, Jewish communities have successfully bargained much greater powers in order to survive or to preserve certain rights and prerogatives.

Figuring out just how much power a particular Jewish community has is very difficult to do. In general, however, gentile society often overestimates Jewish power, while Jews themselves tend to underestimate it. The two jokes related above do point to underlying truths.


The problem with assessing Jewish power has been brought to bear by two recent books and the reactions they have engendered. In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter produced Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a rather astringent assessment of Israel’s role in the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Around the same time, two academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published a long essay in the Times of London Literary Supplement that has subsequently been expanded into the recently released The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. While Carter takes aim at the State of Israel, Mearsheimer and Walt examine American Jews. Both books generated large howls of outrage claiming the authors were definitely anti-Israel and probably anti-Semitic. All in all, I believe, both the books and the reactions have produced more heat than light.

From my standpoint, Carter and Mearsheimer/Walt have produced deeply flawed and problematic theses. Neither work, however, is either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, but they do greatly miss the mark regarding assessments of Jews and power. I wish to say more about the Mearsheimer/Walt book. It is more recent, and the object of its concern is you and me rather than the Israelis. I also wonder about the timing of these books, and believe that they are very much the product of the middle of this decade; that neither would necessarily have even been contemplated ten years earlier.

Who are These Two?

John Mearsheimer is a professor of political studies at the University of Chicago. Stephen Walt teaches international relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Both have published a number of books and articles in the area of US foreign policy. This is their first collaborative effort. It is evident from their earlier writings that the two were drawn to each other by their philosophical attachment to an approach to foreign policy known as Realism. Their devotion to this concept is an underpinning to their attitude toward the Lobby.

Realism is a policy-generating mechanism that focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on a country’s national interests. Decisions are made regarding one’s relationship with other nations based on what is best for one’s own. Considerations such as the nature of other country’s government, societal structure or economic system are essentially bracketed out of one’s consideration. If the other country is a dictatorship, weak in human rights or socialist, for instance, but an alliance would nonetheless serve American purposes, then it probably behooves the US to forge that alliance.

Neither Mearsheimer nor Walt is that cold-blooded. They recognize the limitations in their approach, and recognize that considerations of standards of behavior must modify pure narrow state interest. They preach caution, however, in establishing too rigid criteria for appropriate or inappropriate state behavior. Human nature, in their opinion, is flawed. No national system is static, nor does any nation live up to the ideals and standards it sets for itself. Alliances should therefore be instrumental in the pursuit of national interest, and not entangling.

You might be able to infer already a few positions that Walt/Mearsheimer would take. For one, they were quite opposed to the US military effort to topple Saddam Hussein. Second, they would feel that the US is too consistently allied with Israel. Both professors would contend that Saddam was a tyrannical and cruel despot. And both have expressed mostly admiration for the State of Israel. The focused issue for them, however, has been whether either actions or relations are fully in America’s self-interest. The case with Iraq entails, among other things, whether US foreign policy requires an evaluation of the morality of another country’s leadership. The case with Israel is whether American foreign policy should be so engaged with a defense of the Jewish State that it constrains all other options in terms of diplomacy and action in the Middle East.

A Good Friend

Walt/Mearsheimer’s book is about the Israel Lobby, of course. They have relatively little, however, to say about Israel itself. What they do say is mostly complimentary, particularly from the Realist perspective. The Zionist enterprise, in creating the Jewish State, followed a Realist approach: forging alliances, carrying on public and secret negotiations and developing a military strategy that has been marshaled in pursuit of developing and preserving Jewish interests in the land of Israel. Equally impressive to the two is the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy; how it maintains and even encourages the public expression of a broad range of ideas on how the nation should deal with the Palestinians, the territories, its neighbors and the world. For Walt/Mearsheimer, there is very little not to like about Israel.

Liking a country, however, is only a partial factor in the forging of a Realist foreign policy. Yet, the US relationship with Israel is not only extraordinarily close, the professors contend, it is politically monochromatic. As Prof. Walt put it in a published interview from 2005, the range of acceptable discussion in the United States regarding Israel “runs from A to A-.” A vibrant debate on policies and initiatives — from unconditional return to the 1967 borders to the forced expulsion of all Arabs — that occurs daily in the Israeli media and even the halls of Knesset, is reduced to platitudinous remarks on the American political scene — from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican — of how we need to stand by ‘our good friend’ Israel.

Consider this circumstance. In American public discourse, opposition to Israel, its policies and actions, is politically lethal. One cannot say the same about any other nation: not Canada, Japan, Germany, the U.K., France (especially France!), even though all are democratic nations with a long history of alliance with the U.S. By any standard, Israel has a uniquely special place in the American body politic. Some observers have joked about Israel being the fifty-first state in the Union, but even states can come under public criticism without engendering a universal uproar!

Walt/Mearsheimer duly marvel at this situation. They wonder how such a non-critical circumstance arose, and also why it should persist even when, in their opinion, it is not good for American foreign policy goals. Their answer, needless to say, is the Israel Lobby.

Power . . .

One would be hard pressed to suggest that the two professors are wrong. Howard Morley Sachar, a leading scholar in modern Jewish history, once compared the case of Israel to that of Armenia. In the aftermath of World War I, Armenians pressed the victorious Allied powers to grant them an independent homeland. They had a number of factors in their favor. They were Christians living in an area predominated by Muslims. They had the sympathy of the Allied world after suffering genocidal losses at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who had been on the losing side of the War. Armenia itself was a large parcel of land, nestled between Turkey and Iran to the south, Georgia to the north. It was well protected by mountainous terrain. Thus, in August 1920, Armenia became an independent nation. By December, it had lost half its territory to Ataturk’s Turkey, and by 1922, the nation disappeared altogether, swallowed up by the Soviet Union, and not to appear again until the USSR’s break-up in 1991.

In comparison, Sachar notes, the Jews had no natural allies and relatively little in gained sympathy following the Holocaust. The land they pressed for, also in the midst of predominantly Muslim territory, was rather tiny and had no natural defenses. Yet, in stark contrast to Armenia, it fended off serious military pressure at its birth in 1948, and again in 1967 and Yom Kippur 1973. Sachar suggests that the chief critical difference is the presence of an organized and supportive Jewish Diaspora.

There is no mystery in this assertion of Jewish ‘power.’ As early as biblical times, Jews recognized that the vulnerabilities of their small population and command of few resources required a strategy by which they would leverage whatever assets they possessed in order to nudge far greater powers into respecting their interests. Through these means, Jerusalem survived the onslaught of the Assyrians, Nehemiah received Persian support in rebuilding the Temple, the Jews retained their status as an official nation within the Empire, even after two failed revolts against Rome, medieval Jewish communities maintained some measure of protection and autonomy from Christian and Muslim authorities, and the Zionist project of building and maintaining a Jewish State could be achieved. Whatever power Jews wield today comes from nearly three millennia years of practice in learning how to wield it.

. . . And its Limitations

Walt/Mearsheimer recognize this form of Jewish power; marvel at it, and then proceed to overstate it. They err in two ways: first, by exaggerating the strength the Israel lobby and the Jewish influence behind, and then (perhaps as a result) by misreading the relationship between the US and Israel, and what impact that makes on American Middle Eastern policy. On one account, however, they are right: US public opinion regarding Israel is monochromatic and simplistic. Alas, they are as guilty of oversimplification as anyone else.

We will take these objections in order: The Israel lobby is indeed powerful. Walt/Mearsheimer’s observation of the limited nature of public debate regarding US Middle East policy concerning Israel is a case in point. It is not, however, all-powerful. Walt/Mearsheimer particularly err when they suggest that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the work of the lobby.

Yes, there is certain prima facie evidence that would point toward the lobby: Saddam Hussein had been a cheerleader for the more violent aspects of the intifada, including providing financial support for families of suicide bombers. Further, the action in Iraq moved US policy and resources away from a focus on Israel-Palestine and toward the concept of a democratic Iraq as a linchpin for achieving stability in the Middle East. This is a rather thin reed on which to suggest that the removal of Hussein was done principally for the sake of Israel.

The authors apparently felt justified in pushing this notion on the grounds that there were so many Jews in key policy positions who pushed for action against Saddam. The usual suspects are recited: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, and cheering on from outside the Administration, Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol. In addition to ignoring the considerable number of non-Jewish promoters of the Iraq invasion, Walt/Mearsheimer ignore any differences among these individuals. Wolfowitz, in particular, who is often identified as one of the most vociferous supporters of “regime change” in Iraq, has expressed support for positions on Israel-Palestine similar to the so-called Israel Peace Lobby, such as Peace Now.

Walt/Mearsheimer employ one more argument, namely the vocal support given by Israel’s leadership for the invasion. Well, yes and no! With this contention, we move into the second error mentioned above, the misreading of US-Israel relations.

The late political scientist Daniel Elazar once noted that David Ben Gurion and Menahem Begin each learned a lesson from the failed Jewish revolt against Rome that ended in the destruction of the Second Temple. Begin learned that the Jews must never allow philosophical and political differences to become divisive with regard to national purpose. Ben Gurion learned that the Jews cannot afford to cross a great power regardless of principles. Ben Gurion and Begin represent the two sides of Israel’s body politic from before the founding of the State until this day (well after their deaths), and the lessons they learned have persisted as underlying motivations in Israel’s political culture.

For our purposes, the Ben Gurion lesson is the most important. Israel has never and will not do anything that is truly not in America’s interests. While US and Israel concerns are not completely aligned, and Israel will occasionally veer in careful and relatively safe ways from expressed American wishes, for the most part the Jewish State knows the obligations and responsibilities of having a good and powerful friend. Obviously, Israel had no reason to be averse to an American upending of the Saddam regime. Thus, if the Bush Administration wanted to pursue this policy, the least Israel’s leadership could do was express public support. Walt/Mearsheimer had it backward. Israel was not pushing the US into Iraq, rather it was responding with friendly expressions of support to what the US intended to do!

Whose Lobby?

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is a tendentious, sloppy and simplistic work. It’s strong book sales might provide a nice nest egg for its authors, but I do not see how it will further their respect and credibility in academic circles. Be this as it may, we need to deal with the one thing that Mearsheimer and Walt got right: the relative strangulation of debate regarding Israel in the US. Let me suggest a few reasons for this situation.

1. Sheiv Al Ta’aseh! [Sit and don’t do anything] The Middle East is a maddening brew of competing traditions, peoples and interests. There is oil, the geopolitical nexus of three continents, and the religious centrality for three faiths. The area is awash in money, armaments, resentments, radicalisms and nihilistic violence. In foreign policy terms, the most precious commodity is stability. Israel, whatever its faults and weaknesses, is a stable society. Moreover, it is a stable democracy; the only nation in the region that has experienced a peaceful transfer of leadership without a death or a coup. US Administrations might not like its growing settlements in the West Bank — nor do they like Egypt or Saudi Arabia’s absence of democracy — but they value their stability. In any calculation, abandoning support, which is both financial and political, is far more problematic than enduring charges of hypocrisy or the abandonment of ideals.

2. It’s Their Country. For American Jews, discussions of Israel’s political and military decisions tend to be muted by the overriding reality that we live here, not there. I think that most American Jews favor acknowledgement of Palestinian national ambitions and territorial compromise (including a substantial withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank). But, the American Jewish community is also conscious of Israel’s security concerns, and feels that the country has a vibrant enough democracy that it will move in the direction of its best interests without undue foreign (i.e. American Jewish) influence.

3. Minority/Majority. Israel is powerful. It is undoubtedly the strongest military presence in the Middle East. Even when it handles a military operation poorly, as it did in 2006 against Hizb’allah, or in the initial battles of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, its armed forces inflict considerably more damage than the opposition. While the Jewish State overwhelms the Arab Palestinians in the immediate vicinity, Israel is tiny in land, resources and population within the context of the Middle East. Like an optical illusion, Israel is alternately an immensely powerful juggernaut (with a nuclear arsenal, no less), and a tiny beleaguered country in the midst of an implacably hostile enemy. For many American Jews, and Americans in general, the latter fairly balances out the former.

4. Follow the Money. The Israel lobby, however, is much more conservative than the American Jewish community. For instance, no more than 20% of the Jewish electorate supported George W. Bush in 2004 — a drop from roughly 25% in 2000 — and in great part over dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. The leadership of the Israel lobby was among the more vocal defenders of the 2003 invasion, and remained at best silent over its disposition since. The lobby has clearly promoted issues of security and defense over those of reconciliation and compromise.

The Evangelical Christian component of the lobby is probably as much anti-Muslim as it is pro-Israel. The Jewish component, I believe, is more pragmatic. It is easier to garner support for Israel if it can also be tied to the possibility of material benefits to a Congressperson’s district or a Senator’s state. Simply put, there is much more money in security than there is in diplomacy.

Why Now . . .

I do not believe that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been merely engaging in a scholarly enterprise. All of the features I have listed above regarding the conservatism of the Israel lobby and the uniformity of public expression on Israel and the Middle East, have been in place for decades. The book could have been written in 1977. [One difference between thirty years ago and now is, of course, the fall of the Soviet Union. In American discourse, this has mostly meant replacing the term ‘Communist’ with ‘Islamist extremist’, and then carrying on business as usual.]

The last few years, however, have been marked by worsening conditions between Israel and its neighbors, the disastrous mess in Iraq, and the substantial fall in American prestige throughout the world. One reasonable explanation for this negative turn of events is the monumental failure of the current Administration. Perhaps for Walt/Mearsheimer, this reason does not go far enough. They appear not to believe that Bush could preside over such an intellectually lazy, morally arrogant and strategically incoherent policy all by himself. And perhaps it is especially unbelievable that the hard-headed realism of Bush Sr., who developed a broad international coalition to stop Saddam, and who nudged Israel and the Palestinians toward Oslo with his Madrid Conference in 1991, could deteriorate so badly during the reign of his son, especially when he had so many of the same advisors. I believe that Jimmy Carter betrayed a similar streak of resentment, disappointment and anger within his book.

. . . And What Now

When, in 1982, the Lebanese Phlangists massacred Palestinians in the refugee camps of Shaba and Shatila, Israel’s Prime Minister Begin sourly remarked: “Christians slaughter Muslims and everybody blames the Jews.” Begin was partially right. Nobody, least of all Israeli forces who had pushed as far north in Lebanon as Beirut in an effort to drive out the PLO, made the Phlangists attack the camps. The Israelis, on the other hand, made no effort to secure the camps, and the invasion itself freed the Lebanese to attack. One could not lay all the blame for the massacre on Israel, but neither was Israel free from responsibility.

Contra Walt/Mearsheimer, one cannot place all the blame for the mess perpetrated by the US on the Israel lobby, but the lobby — and the American Jewish community (you and me!) — is hardly free of responsibility, either.

The loudest voices with respect to Israel and the Middle East, have been the more conservative ones, suspect of Arabs and Muslims, most comfortable with the projection of American military might, most willing to assert Jewish hegemony over territories captured in the 1967 War. As a group, this component of the Jewish community is a minority. In the case of its neo-conservative outlook, it is a tiny minority. Yet, they are the loudest voice, and the entire Jewish community is painted by their brush. Walt/Mearsheimer took pains not to identify the Israel lobby with America’s Jews, but the connection is too close and too uncomfortable.

The situation will almost certainly get better after January 20, 2009, with the inauguration of a new President. Administrations in the first year of their terms have the most freedom with respect to foreign policy, and are least effected by any lobby however powerful. (I am assuming that any new Administration would not want to continue along the same path of the current one. I concede this might be an unwarranted assumption.) At any rate, one year is a small window of opportunity, particularly if the White House turns over to a new Party, and there is a time-consuming changeover in key personnel. The new President will have to achieve — at very least — the clear expectation of successful diplomatic breakthroughs in forging an Israel-Palestine agreement, otherwise the conservative pressures represented by the Israel lobby will build up.

I am pretty confident that this is a fairly accurate prognosis, because it has been the immutable pattern for forty years. There have only been two significant breaks in the pattern: Anwar Sadat going to Jerusalem in 1977 (the fortuitous and unexpected result of the Yom Kippur War and the fall of the Labor Party, after being Israel’s unchallenged leader since well before the founding of the State in 1948), and the Oslo Accords (brought about by Iraq’s defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, the first intifada and the Madrid Conference).

Maybe some unforeseen set of events and circumstances will disrupt the pattern again. We should not bet on it. More likely the status quo will hold: Palestinians will get poorer and angrier. Arab leadership in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will have to use more force and violations of human rights in order to maintain power. Israel will feel increasingly beleaguered and become fortress-like in order to preserve the safety of its population, including the West Bank settlers. The UN and Europe will express their powerlessness to alter the situation with useless and excessively one-sided resolutions which will only stiffen Israel’s defensiveness and US support. No one will be better off, except maybe arms manufacturers and merchants around the world.

The Lobby vs. the Jews

We, the entire American Jewish community — you and I — become complicit in this sad status quo, as we essentially cede the Israel debate to our more conservative elements. We are stuck in a downward spiral; one that has been confirmed in recent years by opinion surveys. The American Jewish connection to Israel has been getting weaker and weaker. The alienation has been created, I believe, by two factors: the emotional and spiritual exhaustion brought about by the ongoing crisis of the occupied territories, and the domination of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel’s Jewish society, so oft-putting to a more religiously progressive American community.

These two mutually reinforcing factors tend to push Israel to the margins of American Jewish awareness, thus leaving the field to those who are not uncomfortable with a religiously Orthodox “Fortress” Israel. Then, of course, as these voices become the dominant public expression of support for Israel, the rest of the community is pushed away further. The problem is not only “AIPAC and the Jewish neo-conservative establishment do not speak for me on Israel,” it is that “no one speaks for me on Israel!”

In the iron-clad rules of American political discourse, the simplistic always trumps the nuanced, and the hard-line turns everyone else into ‘soft.’ In the end, everyone — including Israel — loses.

There are indeed a number of American Jewish organizations and institutes that promote a less simplistic and thus more — to use the Walt/Mearsheimer term — realistic relationship between the US and Israel. They recognize that Israel’s control of the territories is an albatross for the Jewish State, but also one that cannot be lifted without some palpable sense of continued security after the settlements were dismantled. Israel cannot do this alone, and actually needs the US in order literally to force a negotiated settlement.

These organizations — Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom [A Just and Peaceful Settlement], are among the more prominent — are relatively small and weak. They not only do not have the high profile of AIPAC, they also lack stature among a large number of American Jews who substantially agree with their aims. Neither of these groups, nor similar associations, can effectively claim that they have the support of the “silent majority,” even if this might well be the truth. Silence only supports those who have power, and currently the more conservative groups of the Israel lobby have the power.

Jimmy Carter and Walt/Mearsheimer have expressed their own frustrations and betraying their limited comprehension of the Jewish State and of US-Israel relations, and in the process have accomplished at best nothing toward their sense of a balanced American policy in the Middle East with a secure and just State of Israel. In the absence of another Sadat or Rabin, the way forward rather requires an energized and reengaged American Jewish voice.