Washington thinks pro-Israel groups are all-powerful. Few Americans agree.

November 1, 2013

President Obama speaks during the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. (Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty Images)

A just-out survey on U.S. attitudes toward American Jews, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, identifies a number of disconcerting trends. For example, a full 30 percent of respondents say that American Jews are more loyal toward Israel than they are toward the United States, an echo of bygone fears that American Catholics harbored a secret loyalty to the Vatican and thus could not be trusted.

Echoes of that view can sometimes be heard in warnings that Jewish interest groups or Jewish voters generally have "hijacked" U.S. foreign policy to make it subservient to Israeli interests, at the United States' expense. There may also be some overlap here with the 14 percent of respondents who, according to the ADL-commissioned survey, say that Jews wield "too much power in the U.S. today."

In that sense, then, there was a bit of surprising news in the study: When asked to identify which of five well-known lobby groups wields "the most influence on American government policy," only 4 percent of respondents chose the pro-Israel lobby. By this metric, Americans consider it to be far less powerful than the four other lobby groups mentioned in the survey. Here's a chart of the data from the survey:


(Anti-Defamation League)

This finding might particularly surprise foreign policy professionals here in Washington, where it's common to hear people of all ideological persuasions speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of pro-Israel lobby groups, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. It's not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East and that its powerful and deep-pocketed leaders know how to pull all the hidden levers of American power.

But, as I wrote on Wednesday, the pro-Israel lobby's reputation in D.C. as an all-powerful force does not seem to match the evidence. Earlier this year, the lobby deployed its substantial clout to generate support in Congress for limited U.S. strikes on Syria and apparently failed to move the needle even a nudge. That failure appeared even starker alongside the remarkable success of Invisible Children, a far less monied and less well-connected group, in pushing Congress and the White House to send U.S. troops to Central Africa to hunt down the warlord Joseph Kony.

Based on these survey results, the American public -- including most of the 14 percent who said that Jews "wield too much power in the U.S." and the 30 percent who said Jews are more loyal to Israel -- does not share the D.C. foreign policy community's view of the pro-Israel lobby's influence. That seems significant.

Michael Koplow, program director and a Middle East analyst at the Israel Institute, suggests that Washington overestimates AIPAC's influence by confusing its advocacy of already-popular policies with the group engineering that popularity. (Read his formal study on this phenomenon here.) In a response to my earlier article, Koplow argues that this phenomenon of overstating the pro-Israel lobby's influence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, with AIPAC's harshest critics ironically perhaps helping to boost its reach:

The irony of this is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book ["The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy"] and the loud insistence of Israel lobby truthers that AIPAC controls U.S. policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the [Anti-Defamation League] and [American Jewish Committee] invited to a private briefing at the White House out of a belief that these groups have far more power than they actually do. The bottom line is that Congress in this instance is going to do what public opinion tells it to do, and the Israel lobby’s preference that Iran sanctions be increased is not what is driving policy here in any real way.

The District of Columbia can feel like a bit of a bubble at times. That so many highly educated foreign policy professionals would have such a lofty estimation of the pro-Israel lobby's influence, beyond even the 14 percent of Americans who believe that Jews wield too much power, is a reminder that we can sometimes get a bit caught up in our own narratives.

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