For decades it was all but taboo to suggest that pro-Israel lobbies in the United States like AIPAC used their money and influence to keep lawmakers firmly in check on Israel-related issues – even if one had to be blind not to notice that that was exactly what they were up to.
When back in February Ilhan Omar pointed out the obvious – that US Representatives like her were routinely expected to submit to the lobby’s dictates on Israel, a foreign country – her colleagues clamoured to distance themselves from her, just as one might have expected were the pro-Israel lobby to wield the very power Omar claimed.
But surprisingly Omar did not – at least immediately – suffer the crushing fate of those who previously tried to raise this issue. Although she was pressured into apologising, she was not battered into complete submission for her honesty.
She received support on social media, as well as a wavering, muted defence from a Democratic grandee like Nancy Pelosi, and even a relatively sympathetic hearing from a few prominent figures in the US Jewish community.
The Benjamins do matter
Omar’s comments have confronted – and started to expose – one of the most enduring absurdities in debates about US politics. Traditionally it has been treated as anti-semitic to argue that the pro-Israel lobby actually lobbies for its chosen cause – exactly as other major lobbies do, from the financial services industries to the health and gun lobbies – and that, as with other lobbies enjoying significant financial clout, it usually gets its way.
Omar found herself in the firing line in February when she noted that what mattered in US politics was “It’s all about the Benjamins” – an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy song of the same name – later clarifying that AIPAC leverages funds over Congressional and presidential candidates.
The claim that the pro-Israel lobby isn’t really in the persuasion business can only be sustained on the preposterous basis that Israeli and US interests are so in tune that AIPAC and other organisations serve as little more than cheerleaders for the two countries’ “unbreakable bond”. Presumably on this view, the enormous sums of money raised are needed only to fund the celebrations.
‘A one-issue guy’
Making the irrefutable observation that the pro-Israel lobby does actually lobby on Israel’s behalf, and very successfully, is typically denounced as anti-semitism. Omar’s comments were perceived as anti-semitic on the grounds that she pointed to the canard that Jews wield outsized influence using money to sway policymaking.
Allegations of anti-semitism against her deepened days later when she gave a talk in Washington DC and questioned why it was that she could talk about the influence of the National Rifle Association and Big Pharma but not the pro-Israel lobby – or “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country”.
That pro-Israel lobbyists – as opposed to Jews generally – do have dual loyalty seems a peculiar thing to deny, given that the purpose of groups like AIPAC is to rally support for Israel in Congress.
Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a key backer of Republican candidates for the presidency, has never hidden his passion not only for Israel but specifically for the ultra-nationalist governments of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In fact, he is so committed to Netanyahu’s survival that he spent nearly $200 million propping up an Israeli newspaper over its first seven years – all so he could assist the prime minister of a foreign country.
Similarly, Haim Saban, one of the main donors to Democratic presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, has made no secret of his commitment to Israel. He has said: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”
Might Saban and Adelson’s “Benjamins” have influenced the very pro-Israel – and very anti-Palestinian – positions of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates? You would have to be supremely naïve or dishonest to claim it has not.
‘No Bernie-like approach’
This point really should be beyond doubt by now. This month the New York Times published an unprecedented essay in which author Nathan Thrall quoted political insiders and lobbyists making plain that, as one would expect, the pro-Israel lobby uses its money to pressure Congressional candidates to toe the lobby’s line on Israel.
Some of the lobby’s power operates at the level of assumption about what Jewish donors expect in return for their money. According to the NYT, some three-quarters of all donations over $500,000 to the major political action committee supporting Democratic nominees for the US Senate race in 2018 were made by Jews.
Though many of those donors may not rate Israel as their main cause, a former Clinton campaign aide noted that the recipients of this largesse necessarily tailor their foreign policy positions so as not to antagonise such donors. As a result, candidates avoid even the mild criticism of Israel adopted by Bernie Sanders, the Democratic party’s challenger to Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
“There’s no major donor that I can think of who is looking for someone to take a Bernie-like approach,” said the aide. Sanders raised his campaign funds from small donations rather these major funders, leaving him freer to speak openly about Israel.
Fight for donors, not voters
Other insiders are more explicit still. Ben Rhodes, a former confidant of Barack Obama, says the lobby effectively tied Obama’s hands domestically on efforts to promote peace. “The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class,” he told Thrall, adding: “The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.”
Joel Rubin, a former political director at lobby group J Street and a founding board member of the centrist Jewish Democratic Council of America, concurred: “The fight over Israel used to be about voters. It’s more about donors now.”
All of these insiders are stating that the expectations of major donors shape candidates’ US foreign policy positions in line with Israel’s interests, not necessarily US interests. It is hard not to interpret that as reformulation of “dual loyalty”.
Out of the shadows
What’s so significant about the NYT article is that it signals, as did the muted furore over Omar’s comments, that the pro-Israel lobby is weakening. No powerful lobby, including the Israel one, wants to be forced out of the shadows. It wants to remain in the darkness, where it can most comfortably exercise its influence without scrutiny or criticism.
The pro-Israel lobby’s loyalty to Israel is no longer unmentionable. But it is also not unique.
As Mondoweiss recently noted, Hannah Arendt, the Jewish scholar and fugitive from Nazi Germany, pointed to the inevitability of the “double loyalty conflict” in her 1944 essay “Zionism Reconsidered”, where she foreshadowed the rise of a pro-Israel lobby and its potential negative impacts on American Jews. It was, she wrote, “an unavoidable problem of every national movement of a people living within the boundaries of other states and unwilling to resign their civil and political rights therein.”
For that reason, the US-Cuban lobby has an obvious dual loyalty problem too. It’s just that, given the Cuban lobby’s priority is overthrowing the Cuban government – a desire shared in Washington – the issue is largely moot.
In Israel’s case, however, there is a big and growing gap between image and reality. On the one hand, Washington professes a commitment to peace-making and a promise to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. And on the other, the reality is it has offered full-throated support for a series of ultra-nationalist Israeli governments determined to destroy any hope of peace and swallow up the last vestiges of a potential Palestinian state.
Doing the Lord’s work
It’s important to point out, however, that advocates for Israel are not only Jews. While the pro-Israel lobby represents the views of a proportion of Jewish Americans, it is also significantly comprised of Christians, evangelicals in particular.
Millions of these Christians – including Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – can be accused of dual loyalty too. They regard Israel’s role in Biblical prophecy as far more important than the future of the US, or mankind for that matter.
For many of these evangelicals, bringing about the end of the world by ensuring Jews return to their Biblical homeland – triggering a final reckoning at the Battle of Armageddon – is the fulfillment of God’s will. And if it’s a choice between support for Washington’s largely secular elites and support for God, they know very definitely where they stand.
Again, the NYT has started to shine a light on the strange role of Israel in the US political constellation. Another recent article reminded readers that in 2015 Pompeo spoke of the end-times struggle prophesied to take place in Israel, or what is often termed by evangelicals as “The Rapture”. He said: “We will continue to fight these battles.”
During his visit last month to Israel, he announced that the Trump administration’s work was “to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state, remains. I am confident that the Lord is at work here”.
Divorced from reality
If the debate about the pro-Israel lobby in the US is for the first time making a nod to truth, the conversation about the pro-Israel lobby in the UK is becoming more and more divorced from reality.
Part of the reason is the way the Israel lobby has recently emerged in the UK – hurriedly, and in a mix of panic and damage limitation mode.
Given that for decades European countries largely followed Washington’s lead on Israel, pro-Israel lobbies outside the US were much less organised and muscular. European leaders’ unquestioning compliance was assured as long as Washington appeared to act as a disinterested broker overseeing a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, Europe was in little need of vigorous pro-Israel lobbies.
But that illusion has now been shattered, first by the explicit Greater Israel ideology espoused by a series of Netanyahu governments, and latterly by Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House and his vehement backing of Israeli demands, however much they violate international law.
That has left European policy towards Israel – and its enabling by default of Netanyahu and Trump’s efforts to crush Palestinian rights – dangerously exposed.
Conflating Jews and Israel
Popular backlashes have taken the form of a rapid growth in support for BDS, a grassroots, non-violent movement promoting a boycott of Israel. But more specifically in Britain’s case, it has resulted in the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn, a well-known champion of Palestinian rights and anti-racism struggles generally, to lead the opposition Labour party.
For that reason, Jewish leadership groups in the UK have had to reinvent themselves quickly, from organisations to promote the community’s interests into vehicles to defend Israel. And to do that they have had to adopt a position that was once closely identified with anti-semitism: conflating Jews with Israel.
This, we should remember, was the view taken 100 years ago by arch anti-semites in the British government. They regarded Jews as inherently “un-British”, as incapable of assimilation and therefore as naturally suspect.
Lord Balfour, before he made his abiding legacy the 1917 Declaration of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, helped pass the Aliens Act to block entry to the UK of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Balfour believed Jewish immigration had resulted in “undoubted evils”.
A lobby cobbled together
Also significantly, unlike the US, where the pro-Israel lobby has maintained fervent support for Israel as a bipartisan matter over decades, the need for an equivalent pro-Israel lobby in the UK has emerged chiefly in relation to Corbyn’s unexpected ascent to power in the Labour party.
Rather than emerging slowly and organically, as was the case in the US, the British pro-Israel has had to be cobbled together hastily. Israel’s role in directing this immature lobby has been harder to hide.
Most of the UK’s Jewish leadership organisations have been poorly equipped for the task of tackling the new sympathy for Palestinian rights unleashed in the Labour party by Corbyn’s rise. The Board of Deputies, for example, has enjoyed visible ties to the ruling Conservative party. Any criticisms they make of the Labour leader are likely to be seen as having an air of partisanship and point-scoring.
So unusually in Britain’s case, the chief pro-Israel lobby group against Corbyn has emerged from within his own party – in the form of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).
The JLM is trumpeted in the British media both as a venerable Jewish group, more than a century old, and as one that is widely representative of Jewish opinion. Neither claim is true.
Revived to deal with Corbyn
The JLM likes to date its origins to the Poale Zion organisation, which was founded in 1903. A socialist society, Poale Zion affiliated itself not only with the British Labour party but also with a wide range of anti-Palestinian Zionist organisations such as the World Zionist Organisation and the Israeli Labour party. The latter carried out the ethnic cleansing of the vast majority of Palestinians in 1948 and the party’s leaders to this today publicly support the illegal settlement “blocs” that are displacing Palestinians and stealing their land.
But as the investigative journalist Asa Winstanley has shown, before the unexpected ascent of Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015, the JLM had largely fallen into dormancy.
It was briefly revived in 2004, when Israel was facing widespread criticism in Britain over its brutal efforts to crush a Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories. But the JLM only really became active again in 2015.
According to a covert recording of a private JLM event in late 2016, its then chair Jeremy Newmark said he and other activists had agreed to reform the group in September 2015 in response to “the rise of Jeremy Corbyn” and “Bernie Sanders in the States”. Corbyn has been elected Labour leader only days previously.
According to the transcript, Newmark told the other activists that it would be the “start of a struggle and a battle we will all be engaged in for months and probably years ahead of us”. He added that the JLM would be a suitable vehicle for their work because of the “rights and privileges” it enjoyed as a Labour party affiliate organisation.
Front for Israeli embassy
The motive behind the JLM’s resuscitation was also revealed by an undercover documentary made by Al-Jazeera, aired in early 2017. It showed that the JLM was acting as little more than a front for the Israeli embassy, and that the mission it set itself was to weaken Corbyn in the hope of removing him from the leadership.
Early on, the JLM and other pro-Israel lobbyists within the party realised that the most effective way to damage Corbyn, and silence solidarity with the Palestinian cause, was to weaponise the charge of anti-semitism.
Support for Palestinian rights necessarily requires severe criticism of Israel, whose popular, right wing governments have shown no interest in making concessions to the Palestinians on self-determination. In fact, while westerners have debated the need for urgent peacemaking, Israel has simply got on with grabbing vast tracts of Palestinian land as a way to destroy any hope of statehood.
But pro-Israel lobbyists in the UK have found that they can very effectively turn this issue into a zero-sum game – one that, in the context of a British public conversation oblivious to Palestinian rights, inevitably favours Israel.
Identifying with Israel
The thrust of the lobby’s argument is that almost all Jews identify with Israel, which means that attacks on Israel are also attacks on Jewish identity. That, they claim, is a modern form of anti-semitism.
This argument, if it were true, has an obvious retort: if Jews really do identify with Israel to the extent that they are prepared to ignore its systematic abuse of Palestinians, then that would make most British Jews anti-Arab racists.
Further, if Jewish identity really is deeply enmeshed in the state of Israel, that would place a moral obligation on Jews to denounce any behaviour by Israel towards Palestinians that violates human rights and international law.
And yet the very Jewish leaders claiming that Israel is at the core of their identity are also the ones who demand that Jews not be expected to take responsibility for Israel’s actions – and that to demand as much is anti-semitic.
Could there be a clearer example of having your cake and eating it?
Nonetheless, the JLM has very successfully hijacked the debate within Labour of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to silence criticism. It has worked hard to impose a highly controversial new definition of anti-semitism that conflates it with criticism of Israel. Seven on the 11 examples of anti-semitism used to illustrate the new definition relate to Israel.
Arguing, for example, that Israel is a “racist endeavour”, the view of many in the growing BDS movement and among Corbyn supporters, is now being treated as evidence of anti-semitism.
For this reason, the JLM has been able to file a complaint against Labour with the Equality and Human Rights Commission arguing that the party is “institutionally anti-semitic”.
Labour is only the second political party after the neo-Nazi British National Party to have been subjected to an investigation by the equality watchdog.
Counterweight to the JLM
Despite its claims, the JLM does not represent Jewish opinion in the Labour party. The JLM says it has 2,000 members, though that figure – if accurate – includes non-Jews. Attendance at its annual general meeting this month could be measured in the dozens.
As one Jewish critic observed: “There are some 300,000 Jews in Britain. The Jewish Labour Movement claims to represent us all. So why were there fewer people at their AGM [annual general meeting] than at my Labour Party branch AGM?”
Many Jews in the Labour party have chosen not to join the JLM, preferring instead to act as a counterweight by creating a new Jewish pressure group that backs Corbyn called Jewish Voice for Labour.
Even a new JLM membership drive publicised by former Labour leader Gordon Brown reportedly brought only a small influx of new members, suggesting that support for the JLM’s anti-Corbyn, pro-Israel agenda is very limited inside Labour.
Speaking for ‘the Jews’
The re-establishment of the JLM has one very transparent aim in mind: to push out Corbyn, using any means at its disposal. At its annual general meeting, the JLM unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn, describing him as “unfit to to be Prime Minister”. The resolution declared that “a Labour Government led by [Corbyn] would not be in the interests of British Jews”.
One Jewish commentator derisively noted the JLM’s arrogance in speaking for all British Jews at a time of Conservative government-imposed austerity:
“I would not presume to proclaim what is in the interests of ‘the Jews’, but I really cannot imagine that the person who drafted this resolution had any real experience of meeting unemployed Jews, Jewish pensioners and single mothers just scraping by, or Jews who are struggling as they use under-resourced mental health services.”
Scoring Labour candidates
In other circumstances, a group of people operating inside a major political party using underhand methods to disrupt its democratic processes would be described as entryists. Some 2,000 pro-Israel fanatics within Labour are trying to overturn the overwhelming wishes, twice expressed at the ballot box, of the Labour membership, now numbering more than 500,000.
Nonetheless, last week the JLM started to show its hand more publicly. It has been noisily threatening to disaffiliate from the Labour party. In the circumstances that would at least be an honourable – if very unlikely – thing for it to do.
Instead it announced that it would begin scoring local and national Labour politicians based on their record on anti-semitism. After the JLM’s frantic lobbying for the adoption of the new anti-semitism definition, it seems clear that such scores will relate to the vehemence of a candidate’s criticism of Israel, or possibly their ideological sympathy with Corbyn, more than overt bigotry towards Jews.
That was underscored this week when a senior Labour politician, Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, came under fire from the JLM and Board of Deputies for comments he made in 2014, during Israel’s attack on Gaza, that only recently came to light. He was recorded saying: “The enemy of the Palestinian people is not the Jewish people, the enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists.” He had previously denied making any such comment.
Mike Katz, the JLM’s new chair, responded: “Insulting a core part of their [Jewish people’s] identity and then dissembling about it is shameful behaviour from a senior frontbencher in our party, let alone someone who aspires to administer our justice system.”
According to the Labour party’s own figures, actual anti-Jewish prejudice – as opposed to criticism of Israel – is extremely marginal in its ranks, amounting to some 0.08 percent of members. It is presumably even less common among those selected to run as candidates in local and national elections.
The JLM has nonetheless prioritised this issue, threatening that the scores may be used to decide whether activists will campaign for a candidate. One might surmise that the scores could also serve as the basis for seeking to deselect candidates and replace them with politicians more to the JLM’s liking.
“We have got elections coming up but we are not going to put that effort in unless we know people are standing shoulder to shoulder with us,” said Katz.
Need for vigorous debate
Paradoxically, the JLM appears to be preparing to do openly what pro-Israel lobbyists in the US deny they do covertly: use their money and influence to harm candidates who are not seen as sympathetic enough to Israel.
Despite claims from both US and UK pro-Israel lobby groups that they speak for their own domestic Jewish populations, they clearly don’t. Individuals within Jewish communities are divided over whether they identify with Israel or not. And certainly, their identification with Israel should not be a reason to curtail vigorous debates about US and UK foreign policy and Israeli influence domestically.
Even if the vast majority of Jews in the US and UK do support Israel – not just in a symbolic or abstract way, but the actual far-right governments that now permanently rule Israel – that does not make them right about Israel or make it anti-semitic for others to be highly critical of Israel.
Chipping away at democracy
The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support a narrow spectrum of politicians, from the militaristic right to religious fundamentalists and fascists. They view Palestinians as less deserving, less human even, than Jews and as an obstacle to the realisation of Jewish rights in the whole of the “Land of Israel”, including the Palestinian territories. Does that make them right? Does their numerical dominance excuse their ugly bigotry towards Palestinians? Of course not.
And so it would be the same even were it true that most Jewish members of the Labour party supported a state that proudly upholds Jewish supremacism as its national ideology. Their sensitivities should count for nothing if they simply mask ugly racist attitudes towards Palestinians.
Lobbies of all kinds thrive in the dark, growing more powerful and less accountable when they are out of view and immune from scrutiny.
By refusing to talk frankly about the role of pro-Israel lobbies in the UK and the US, or by submitting to their intimidation, we simply invite Israel’s supporters and anti-Palestinian racists to flex their muscles more aggressively and chip away at the democratic fabric of our societies.
There are signs that insurgency politicians in the US are ready for the first time to shine a light into the recesses of a political system deeply corrupted by money. That will inevitably make life much harder for the pro-Israel lobby.
But paradoxically, it is happening just as the the UK’s Israel lobby is pushing in exactly the opposite direction. British politics is being plunged into a stifling, unhealthy silence on the longest example of mass human rights abuses, sanctioned by the west, in modern history.
• First published at Mondoweiss