The American-Jewish Community: Sea Change or Status Quo?

The recent political battle in the United States over congressional approval of the international agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program provided an interesting real-life laboratory in which to measure the balance of forces within the American-Jewish community.

Urged on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the Israeli political establishment, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), renowned in Congress as one of the nation’s most powerful and influential lobbying organizations, threw itself into a campaign to block the agreement. AIPAC was backed by most of the other major American-Jewish groups - the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and some of the more important local Jewish Federations. AIPAC alone spent roughly $14.5 million on this campaign, in addition to up to $25 million contributed by like-minded institutions, thereby vastly outspending those who favored the deal.

With the entire Republican Party already fiercely against the agreement, the goal of the campaign was to persuade 13 of the 48 Democrats in the Senate and 43 of the 188 Democrats in the House of Representatives to oppose the deal. This would have given opponents a veto-proof majority, meaning that President Obama could not have reversed their vote and the agreement would probably have collapsed.

But something surprising happened. Opponents of the agreement not only failed to reach their goal – they did not even come close. In the end, only four Democrats in the Senate and 25 in the House voted against the deal. What happened?

The times are changing

It would be a mistake to view the Iran battle and its outcome as an isolated incident. Rather, it was the culmination of a long process that has unfolded over years encompassing changes in Israel, the American-Jewish community, and the general political landscape in the United States as it pertains to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps the best portrait of the American-Jewish community in recent years was provided by a major survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and released in October 2013. The very first sentence set the tone: “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. But the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.”

It has been clear for decades that American Jews tend overwhelmingly to be politically progressive and identify with the Democratic Party. Polling over the years has shown that American Jews have voted for Democratic presidential candidates at rates of 70 percent or higher in every election since 1988. The Pew poll, like others, also found relatively progressive views toward Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians among its participants.

Just 38 percent said the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. And only 17 percent of American Jews thought that the continued building of settlements in the occupied West Bank was helpful to Israel’s security; 44 percent said that settlement construction hurt Israel’s own security interests.

However, examining the traditional and well-established institutions that have represented this community for decades, one finds a very different picture. The leaders of these organizations rarely allow criticism of Israel to surface. Instead, these institutions generally insist on unquestioning support for almost every action taken by the government of Israel. They seek to discourage debate or even questioning of Israeli policies and seek to impose blanket unanimity on the community.

Given that Israel has since 1977 mostly been ruled by coalition governments dominated by the right-wing Likud Party, which has aggressively pursued settlements in the Occupied Territories, American-Jewish organizations have actively or tacitly supported those policies. Perhaps as a result, the leadership of American-Jewish organizations has become dominated by right-wingers who feel most comfortable supporting such policies.

Netanyahu stirs partisanship

At the same time, the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have created a new political reality for the US-Israel relationship. Traditionally, support for Israel was broadly bipartisan. AIPAC worked hard to keep it that way, cultivating close relationships with office holders- both Democrats and Republicans- at the federal, state and local level. Yet Netanyahu’s clear preference for Republicans, spurred by wealthy backers like far-right Republican Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, has broken that pattern.

Netanyahu’s strained relations with President Obama began from the moment he took office in 2009. In the 2012 presidential election, Netanyahu was widely perceived as strongly preferring the Republican candidate Mitt Romney and was indeed accused of meddling in the race. Then earlier this year came his address to Congress at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, violating protocol by bypassing the White House completely. Many Democrats were deeply offended by his behavior which they considered disrespectful to the elected leader of the United States.

Netanyahu even appointed Ron Dermer, a former Repblican who worked with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, as his ambassador to Washington. We should remember that Adelson contributed some $100 million to Gingrich’s failed 2012 presidential bid. Adelson’s money singlehandedly kept Gingrich in the race well after his campaign would ordinarily have collapsed. Now, Republican presidential candidates for 2016 have been competing in the so-called “Sheldon primary” to win the endorsement and funds of the casino billionaire. Adelson is a powerful player in Israel, too, underwriting a free (and loss-making) newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, which has become the highest-circulation daily in the country and is devoted to supporting and sustaining Netanyahu’s career.

Netanyahu’s actions have undoubtedly damaged the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship. Israel is now a hot election issue and is expected to loom large in the 2016 presidential campaign. By forcing AIPAC into the Iran battle which it ultimately lost, Netanyahu has also damaged and weakened his most important US political bulwark.

These developments have created a widening chasm between the organizations that purport to represent American Jews – which have moved further and further to the right – and the community itself, the bulk of which trends strongly to the left. It was to fill that chasm that J Street was created in 2008.

J Street: Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian

J Street (the name refers to the fact that in Washington DC where streets are named after letters, there is no J Street between I Street and K Street) holds that it is possible to support Israel without also supporting the settlements and the Occupation. It believes that being pro-Israel does not automatically mean being anti-Palestinian. It believes that Israel’s future as a democracy and a Jewish homeland depends on making peace with the Palestinians through a two-state solution.

The organization’s rapid growth was a testament to the fact that it was widely perceived as filling a much-needed role by providing a political home for American Jews who previously lacked one. It quickly grew to around 200,000 supporters with offices in eight cities and chapters in over 50. It established a Rabbinical Cabinet which now has over 800 members and a student arm, J StreetU, that is the fastest-growing pro-Israel group on American campuses. J Street’s national conferences, though still much smaller than those organized by AIPAC, have now grown to become the third largest gatherings of any American-Jewish organization.

Even more importantly, J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, saw clearly from the start that the key to building support and influence that could counter the prevailing right-wing dominance of the traditional organizations lay in accumulating political power on Capitol Hill. That is why from the outset J Street developed a Political Action Committee (PAC) that raised money for candidates to Congress and a lobbying arm. J Street’s political endorsees’ list has grown with every subsequent election. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the J Street PAC distributed over $2.4 million to its 95 endorsed candidates. The current Congress has 12 Senators and 74 Representatives endorsed by J Street – and that number is expected to grow sharply after the 2016 election.

These relationships made a critical difference in the battle over the Iran nuclear agreement. J Street was not able to match the financial resources of the opposition campaign but it did raise over $5 million – enough to be heard. Most importantly, Democratic members of Congress understood that voting in favor of the deal was not an automatic death sentence for their political careers. Although such a vote might invoke the wrath of AIPAC, there was now another American-Jewish organization with the strength and ability to defend them. They understood that J Street would have their backs.

Implications of the Iran Agreement

It is too soon to measure the long-term effects of the Iran battle on the US political scene. But the importance of the event cannot be underestimated. As Elizabeth Drew wrote in the New York Review of Books, “The fight in Congress over the Iran deal will go down as one of the major foreign policy struggles in this country’s history. Legislative fights involving grave issues of the security of this nation are supposedly conducted on a higher level than more typical legislation. But never before in memory was the vitriol so strong as it was in this one.”

She went on to write: “Until this fight AIPAC was seen as a fearsome organization with the muscle and money to almost always get its way with Congress. […] Until this fight, AIPAC had acted as a bipartisan organization, but in vehemently opposing the deal it became an ally of the Republicans in a highly partisan fight.”

At the very least, AIPAC’s myth of invincibility has been shattered, as has the notion that supporting Israel requires politicians as well as the American-Jewish community to unquestioningly support the Israeli government. The way is now open to a more nuanced concept of what support of Israel can and should entail, similar to that proposed by J Street.

No State, One State, Two States?

Although there is much talk of healing the divide, bringing the community back together and binding up the wounds, the 2016 presidential election campaign promises to highlight more divisions and more hard feelings. Until now, the official political platforms of both parties have expressed support for the two-state solution. It is an open question whether the Republican platform next year will continue to do so. Adelson himself is fiercely opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and so are several of the Republican presidential candidates who now echo the rhetoric of the settlement movement arguing that the whole of the Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by God.

Of course, on the left there are also those who have given up on a two-state solution and now advocate a bi-national state. Such a scenario would spell the end of the Zionist dream of having one country in the world where Jews can express their right to self-determination and take control of their collective fate as a nation.

The recent international record of binational states indicates that the trend seems to move toward more separation, either peacefully as in the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or through war, as in the case of the former Yugoslav Republics. Even long-established states like Great Britain and Belgium are being strained by nationalist and separatist sentiment. Therefore, it seems overly optimistic- to say the least- to imagine Israelis and Palestinians coexisting peacefully in a country that belongs to neither one of them. A two-state solution remains the only workable solution because it gives both people what they want and need, namely a country and homeland of their own.

Recent trends in the US-Israeli relationship seem gravely worrisome for many Israelis who know that the United States remains their most reliable international ally. However, they may in fact pave the way for a more honest and nuanced relationship both between American Jews and Israel and US politicians and the Jewish state. Such a relationship would be based on unquestioned support for the security and safety of Israel and a commitment to the wellbeing and success of the nation. But it would not include support for the settlement movement or a permanent continuation of the Occupation.

This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here