What is the Israel lobby?

By Megan McArdle

Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby fame, launches into the blogosphere with a bang:

Here's a thought experiment:

Imagine that Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had won the Six Day War, leading to a massive exodus of Jews from the territory of Israel. Imagine that the victorious Arab states had eventually decided to permit the Palestinians to establish a state of their own on the territory of the former Jewish state. (That's unlikely, of course, but this is a thought experiment). Imagine that a million or so Jews had ended up as stateless refugees confined to that narrow enclave known as the Gaza Strip. Then imagine that a group of hardline Orthodox Jews took over control of that territory and organized a resistance movement. They also steadfastly refused to recognize the new Palestinian state, arguing that its creation was illegal and that their expulsion from Israel was unjust. Imagine that they obtained backing from sympathizers around the world and that they began to smuggle weapons into the territory. Then imagine that they started firing at Palestinian towns and villages and refused to stop despite continued reprisals and civilian casualties.

Here's the question: would the United States be denouncing those Jews in Gaza as "terrorists" and encouraging the Palestinian state to use overwhelming force against them?

Ross replies:

The odd thing is that by Walt's own account, the answer would seem to be "Yes," since presumably the rump Orthodox Gaza - run, perhaps, by Verbover Jews - wouldn't have an all-powerful lobby shaping U.S. policy and public opinion to its specifications. Or am I missing something?

If the implication is that minus the current state of Israel, there would be no "Israel lobby", then yes, I think Ross is missing quite a lot.  There managed to be an "Irish lobby" for decades in this country which survived not on the support of the Republic of Ireland, but on the support of Irish politicians, and Irish voters in heavily populated areas.  The lobby existed independent of the state itself, and indeed kept right on going on Northern Irish issues even though the territory was part of Great Britain.  As long as there is a largish population with a strong desire for a state, and an interest in the fate of that state's nationals, there will be a lobby for it.

I share the discomfort with noting the obvious fact that Jewish Americans, like every other hyphenated-american, actively seek the benefit of their ethnic compatriots by influencing US policy.  Other hyphenated Americans don't have the same history of accusations that they are engaged in a virulent conspiracy to run the world for their benefit, and thus we have no need to pretend that all the Turks just happen to take a different position on the Armenian genocide than all the Armenians do--nay, not even the Turks and Armenians themselves bother to claim this.  For that matter, I've spent a fair amount of time around members of organizations like the ADC, and I've never encountered any particular hostility when pointing out the obvious fact that their members identify with the Palestinians in part because the Palestinians are Arabs.

But though I understand why statements like this have to be made very carefully, if at all, the strenuous efforts to avoid making them have become cancerous.  The reluctance to state the obvious allows Israel's partisans to duck the undeniable fact that AIPAC and so forth do actively attempt to influence American policy, and frequently succeed.  Questions about whether this is really best for America, or the world, can be countered with more-or-less sly insinuations of anti-semitism.  In part because almost the only people who will state the obvious are looney-tunes anti-semites who think that there's a Jewish conspiracy, rather than . . . Jews acting boringly just like every other ethnic group to ever hit our shores.   Or Arabs with tin ears who come off as mostly mad because they're way behind in the ethnic lobbying sweepstakes.

It will not do my career much good to say it, but here goes.  America has an influential Israel lobby in large part because of ethnic affinity.   Not just Jewish ethnic affinity, I hasten to point out.  Yes, we have a large number of Jewish people--many more than we have Arabs.  And those Jewish people mostly strongly identify with Israel in the conflict.  Europe, which has more Arabs, and decimated its Jewish population 60 years ago, has more natural sympathizers with the Palestinians, and this probably influences their political and media coverage quite a lot.

But America also has an influential Israel lobby because it has a much larger group of people who identify, quasi-ethnically, with Israel: evangelical Christians who think of themselves as in some way descended from the ten tribes of Israel.  (Not to mention the lunatic fringe who hopes that the Israelis can in some way hasten the End Times.  As if God could be influenced by a sufficiently robust foreign policy.) 

And then most of the rest of us, because almost all Americans see Israelis as sharing a common European cultural heritage that the Palestinians do not.  (I believe Al-Qaeda agrees.)

Such identifications are, I'd wager, rooted deeply in our genes--our selfish alleles want to advance alleles more similar to them, which is why we tend to side with our family against our nation, our nation against foreigners, and foreigners against sabre-toothed tigers.  Those ties are not all-powerful, of course, which is why mothers don't let their children kill all the other children on the block.  But they are often decisive in complicated situations like the one in Gaza.

So we are the Israel lobby, to a greater or a lesser extent--all Americans who think of themselves as more like the Israelis than the Palestinians.  If the state of Israel were to vanish tomorrow, the lobby would remain.  It might not be as vigorous as it is now--the peace accords in Northern Ireland (and the Republic's prosperity) have left the Irish groups with a lot less to do.  But where issues concerning that territory, and those people, came up, that lobby would still spring into action.

I think there is nothing wrong with having an Israel lobby.  In a multiethnic society, there needs to be a great deal of tolerance for the fact that various ethnicities will still care about what happens in the Old Country.  And even if I did think ethnic lobbies were evil, I'd be out of luck, because they're inevitable.  If your relatives are in a country, you are going to care what happens to that country.  Until we allow unlimited robot immigration, we're stuck.

What's wrong isn't the Israel lobby, but the attempt to pretend that there isn't an Israel lobby, or that it consists of the nice folks at the Israeli embassy. 

One of the great strengths of conservatism is the recognition that all politics is interest-group politics, and all interest groups have more or less explicit ulterior motives.  It's not an insult to farmers to note that there is a powerful farm lobby--and we're not going to get good farm policy if we deny this obvious fact, much less demand that anyone who points it out prove that they don't hate farmers.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/01/what-is-the-israel-lobby/4558/