Israel has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the American Congress. That support has been primarily expressed in billions of dollars of military aid annually, which has allowed Israel to maintain its qualitative advantage over potential Middle East adversaries.
Conventional wisdom has it that American support for Israel is primarily based on the political power of the American Jewish community. Like most conventional wisdom, this picture is only partly true.
Jewish political power is said to consist of two components. The first is the heavy concentration of Jews in a few states with rich lodes of electoral votes – New York, California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey. The second source of that power is the widely disproportionate share of Jewish contributions to the Democratic party, particularly to presidential candidates.
Those explanations overstate the importance of Jewish political power. For one thing the bipartisan support for Israel in Congress cannot be explained by the concentration of Jewish voters in a few key states. Even if 14 Senators come from states with heavy concentrations of Jewish voters, another 86 do not. Some of the strongest and most consistent supporters of Israel have always come from states with negligible Jewish populations – Sam Brownback of Kansas, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, and John Ashcroft of Missouri.
Nor can the magnitude of Jewish money in American political life explain the bipartisan support for Israel since that money goes almost exclusively to Democratic candidates. Jewish votes have paralleled Jewish money: almost all go to Democrats, at least in national races. Democratic presidential candidates can safely count on around 80% of the Jewish vote.
EVEN within the Democratic Party, where the influence of individual Jewish contributors is strong, that influence cannot be assumed to be automatically transferable to Israel’s benefit. Democratic electoral strategy, particularly at the national level, depends on ensuring a large turnout of minority voters. There are, to be blunt, a lot more black voters than Jewish ones. More than Democratic candidates need Jewish money, they need black votes. Money is a means; votes are the end.
The problem is that anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments are growing in the black community. Despite the leading role played by Jews in the civil rights movement, Jews have become the lighting rod for a great deal of the anti-white feeling in the black community. Jews have prospered in America even though most of their ancestors arrived on American shores with no more resources than newly freed black slaves. For that reason, Jewish success engenders even more resentment.
(Similar resentments can be seen in Palestinian attitudes to Jews. A hundred years ago, Jews and Palestinians alike were primitive agriculturists. The Jews have built an advanced, industrial state, while the Palestinians have built nothing.)
The Democratic Party often functions as an association of "victims." That regnant victimology is much more easily exploited by the Palestinians than by Israel. What are a few hundred Jewish terror victims compared to three million "occupied" Palestinians.
Palestinian victimhood play well not only to those who continue to define themselves as victims, but also to those who cannot by the wildest stretch of the imagination be described as victims. Young yuppies, products of America’s elite universities, find support for the world’s "victims" to be a painless salve for any tinges of conscience aroused by their lives of conspicuous consumption. This group too is well-represented in the Democratic party.
A final reason that Jewish Democrats cannot bring much influence to the table on Israel’s behalf is that American Jewry has been so divided about what it means to support Israel. As Bill Clinton proved, it is possible to sell continual pressure on Israel as the "truest friendship." In this view, Clinton not only found ready allies among his biggest Jewish contributors, like Daniel Abrahams, but also among the entire Oslo crowd in Israel.
DESPITE the overwhelming presence of Jews within the Democratic Party, it is the Republican Party that is increasingly the redoubt of strong pro-Israel sympathies. Every Gallup poll over the last 15 years has shown Republicans and conservatives to be far more supportive of Israel than are Democrat and liberals.
Two-thirds of Republicans describe themselves as more sympathetic to Israel than to Palestinians, with only 8% more sympathetic to Palestinians. By contrast, among Democrats 54% are more or equally sympathetic to Palestinians, while only 45% (still the largest single group) are more sympathetic to Israel. Among self-described conservatives, 59% are more sympathetic to Israel, while among liberals the same 59% are more or equally sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Democrats and liberals tend to view the world in terms of oppressors and victims, and that leads to greater sympathy for Palestinians. Conservatives emphasize certain values and the willingness to defend those values, and that leads to sympathy for Israel, a Western democracy, battling for its existence in a sea of Arab despots.
It is thus not accidental that of the 23 congressional lawmakers voting against a pro-Israel resolution last week, all but 3 were Democrats.
The high support for Israel among conservative Republicans, particularly evangelical Christians, has according to most political observers already translated into significant political advantage for Israel. With little reason to fear a Jewish backlash in campaign contributions or at the ballot box, the first President Bush could afford to portray himself as one lonely man battling the Jewish lobby in Congress. And his Secretary of State James Baker could publicly express his disgust with Israel by offering Prime Minister Shamir a White House phone number to call when he was serious about peace.
President George W. Bush, on the other hand, is constrained by the Christian Right, which constitutes his power base within the Republican Party. The Christian Right reacted with horror when Bush succumbed to the urgings of Secretary of State Powell to resume the Oslo process, as if nothing had happened over the previous 19 months. Evangelicals have no use for the way Powell lumps together Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military responses as part of a seamless cycle of violence or for his continual focus on Israeli settlements and occupation as a key obstacle to peace.
As a consequence of the outcry within his own party, Bush let up on his pressure for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities and towns, and called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "a man of peace." "The Bible Belt proved to be Israel’s safety belt," said the head of the Southern Baptists.
Outside of the United States, it is rare to find a single articulate voice raised in Israel’s defense. (Mark Steyn is one notable exception.) In America, by contrast, there is a plethora of articulate defenders of Israel. Almost uniformly these voices are from the conservative side of the political spectrum: George Will, William Bennett, the enormously influential Wall Street Journal editorial page, Norman Podhoretz, Cal Thomas, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, David Tell, Daniel Pipes, Michael Kelly, and Jeff Jacoby. Martin Peretz and his fellow editors of The New Republic are among the few exceptions to the rule.
These conservative thinkers writers were quick to call President Bush to task for threatening the moral clarity of the war on terrorism by demanding an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-controlled areas. They put forth their position so forcefully and cogently that the President (whose instincts, in any event, lie with them) could not afford to ignore them with impunity.
THE big question now is whether the rush of conservatives to Israel’s side at a time when she was being abandoned in the elite press and on college campuses will result in American Jews rethinking their traditional politics. Will American Jews consider whether certain congeries of opinion are more than accidental? If, for instance, skepticism about multilateralism and support for a strong American defense posture tend to go together with support for Israel, will American Jews reconsider their traditional positions on the former issues?
The challenge confronting Republicans, says Orthodox Republican activist Jeffrey Ballabon, is explaining the organic connection between their core values and support for Israel.
The fly in the ointment, as far as forging a deeper alliance between the Republican Party and American Jews, is that the strongest supporters of Israel in the Republican Party are Christian evangelicals, whose conservative social agenda is anathema to most American Jews.
Democratic activists are counting on the fact that American Jews will not be able to overcome their fear of the Christian Right, as long as Democratic candidates continue to mouth the appropriate vaguely pro-Israel sentiments.
That, however, depends to a large extent whether Israel remains at the top of American Jews’ priorities next election day, and that, in turn, will be a function of whether current anxieties about Israel’s survival remain as intense as they are at present.
One group of American Jews, however, does not face such a choice between their concerns for the security of five million Jews in Eretz Yisrael and conservative social values: the Orthodox.
The newly affluent Orthodox community, which forms the most committed core of pro-Israel activism in the Jewish community, is thus poised to play a major role on the American political scene. As Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg explained last week in the Jewish Week: "Jews have always been the brains, the wallet and the legs of the Democratic Party. . . Even a 20% change in Jewish political giving could shake the political world to the core?
Whether American Jews are ready to reconsider their traditional political alliances remains to be seen. At least one group of yeshiva-trained, young professionals is determined to find out. To that end they have formed, Roshem – the Center for Jewish Values, "to convey authentic Torah values to U.S. policymakers and to support public policies that reflect those values." It will be interesting to watch as this story unfolds.