Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013. / Getty Images
In American politics, do Jewish voices count more on Israel than others? Should they? And who’s counting? UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, for one, who called on his Washington Monthly blog for readers to lobby their senator against a new Iran sanctions bill especially “if you’re Jewish, or have a Jewish-sounding name.” The anti-Zionist writer Phil Weiss responded that Kleiman’s appeal proves that, on this issue, “we [Jews] are 5/3 of a man, to reverse the old voting fraction of black people.”
Weiss has picked an obnoxious analogy. Even those who talk about Israel as an “apartheid state” rarely have the chutzpah to include Washington D.C. in the supposed ethnocracy. But Weiss is also wrong in a more interesting way. Talk of how much Jews count is hopelessly naïve, because in fact, American foreign policy — in many areas — responds far less to mass demographics than to small, committed ideological elites.
Why is that? First of all, American Jews don’t care much politically about Israel. Most feel emotionally attached to Israel, but in 2012, only four percent considered it their most important political issue, classing it with sleepers like the environment and immigration. Nor is our apathy atypical: Americans just don’t care much about foreign policy. Less than ten percent of us vote primarily on foreign policy. When asked what is the most important issue facing the country, we show no interest in other countries (well, a little when people leave them to come here). Government, policy, and media elites love to talk about an increasingly globalized world, but most Americans think of foreign affairs as politically remote and irrelevant.
Jews are typical because we have assimilated. You can see this process unfolding with Cuban Americans, of whom President Obama won a surprisingly large share in 2012. As the old guard of exiles ages and is replaced by a younger, American-born generation, the consensus on the embargo crumbles. Since about 2008, a majority actually opposes it. But more importantly, Cuban issues recede into the background entirely. Obama only suggested loosening restrictions after winning an unexpectedly large portion of the Cuban vote (in 2007, he had taken a hard line). Young Cuban Americans voted for Obama not to oppose the embargo, but because they are liberal (particularly socially).
Israel is unlike Cuba not because of strong present-day Jewish ties to Israel. Rather, two factors make our case special. First, right-wing ideas on Israel fit neatly into the right-wing ideas about the Middle East. Policy and government elites have strong reasons to be “pro-Israel” that have nothing to do with Jews. But second, the pre-assimilation generations of American Jewry built enduring institutions that preserved their politics. Powerhouses like the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations (which has had basically two leaders in half a century) toe a party line crafted years ago. So hard-liner Malcolm Hoenlein meets with President Obama, even though most American Jews haven’t heard of him or his organization.
I think the Iran sanctions bill is foolhardy, and I wish Kleiman the best of luck with his letters to senators. But if liberals want to affect Israel policy, we cannot just mobilize average Jews; we have to build institutions that rival the ADL, AJC, and AIPAC. Ironically, just the same assimilation that defanged our defensive conservatism on Israel also corrodes our interest in building Jewish political power. It’s telling that Kleiman lumps together Jews and people with “Jewish-sounding names” and that Phil Weiss bridles at being identified as a Jewish writer. If we lefties see their Jewishness as a merely incidental identity, then the Jewish voices that count aren’t likely to be ours.