Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Jewish Power
Inside the American Jewish Establishment
By J.J. Goldberg

Introduction: American Jews and Their Politics

History will record that as the twentieth century drew to a close, American Jews were facing a political crisis unprecedented in its scope and nature. For the first time in their three and a half centuries as a community in America--and perhaps for the first time since the dawn of the Jewish Diaspora, two thousand years ago--the Jews had no greater enemy than themselves.

This is not to say that Jews no longer had enemies in the late twentieth century. There still were those who clamored for the destruction of the Jewish people, as there had been for thousands of years. Anti-Semitism, sometimes called the world's oldest bigotry, was still alive and threatening in dozens of countries around the globe. Indeed, many prominent Jews, from American rabbis to Israeli politicians, warned at the end of the twentieth century that anti-Semitism was making a disturbing comeback. This came as a shock; the venomous bigotry was thought to have flamed out just a few decades earlier, in the ashes of the Second World War. Yet somehow it thrived.

Enemies continued, too, to threaten the state of Israel, created at mid-century as a haven for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and as a spiritual center for Jews everywhere. Some of Israel's bitterest enemies, led by Islamic Iran, were within reach of acquiring nuclear weaponry. That might enable them to destroy the Jewish state with the touch of a button.

No, the threats had not ended. Still, a detached, fair-minded observer of Jewish life might well have concluded that the Jewish people had achieved a historic reversal of fortune at the close of the twentieth century, in America and around the world.

After all, it was just a half-century earlier that one of the world's greatest industrial powers had set out on a mechanized campaign to murder every Jew on earth. American Jews could only stand by, helpless. It had taken a world war to stop Germany's campaign of genocide. Even then, the Jews' survival was only incidental; saving Jews had not been a principal Allied war goal.

And yet, fifty years after its greatest catastrophe, the Jewish people had dusted itself off and won a place at the table of international decision-making. Jews had achieved power.

There was, of course, the sovereign power of the state of Israel, a smallish emerging nation with an outsized military reputation. But that was not the half of it: when diplomats and journalists spoke of Jewish power in the late twentieth century, they were usually speaking of the American Jewish community. It was here that the Jews had truly emerged as a power in their own right, acknowledged and respected around the world.

From the Vatican to the Kremlin, from the White House to Capitol Hill, the world's movers and shakers view American Jewry as a force to be reckoned with. At home the Jewish community is sought out as an ally--or confronted as a worthy rival--by political parties, labor unions, churches, and interest groups as diverse as the civil rights movement and the Christian Coalition. The New York offices of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have become obligatory stops for presidents and prime ministers visiting the United Nations or passing through en route to Washington. More than a dozen foreign embassies in Washington have diplomats assigned to a semi-official "Jewish desk," in charge of maintaining friendly ties with the Jewish community.

"Part of the new mythos of American Jews is that we're not a minority anymore--we've become part of the majority, and psychologically, that means something fantastically subtle," says political scientist David Luchins, a vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and senior aide to New York's Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "We are accepted now. We have access. The president of the United States meets regularly with the Jewish leadership. There's an incredible thing. You look back on the last twenty-five or thirty years and you have to stand in awe that this really has happened--in my lifetime, it really happened. We have arrived."

As for concrete evidence of the Jewish community's clout, it is not hard to find. There is, to begin with, the $3 billion foreign-aid package sent each year to Israel. Fully one fifth of America's foreign aid has gone to a nation of barely 5 million souls, one tenth of 1 percent of the world's population. Analysts commonly credited this imbalance to the power of the Jewish lobby.

Coupled with financial aid is the familiar fact of Washington's staunch support for Israel in the diplomatic arena, at what sometimes seemed like great cost to America's own interests. And there have been threats to those in Washington who opposed Israeli policy: the senators and representatives sent down to defeat, like Charles Percy and Paul Findley, for defying the Jewish lobby.

But American Jewish power does not begin and end with Israel. Even more dramatic than foreign aid, perhaps, was the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Passed by Congress in 1974, it made U.S.-Soviet trade relations conditional on the Soviets' treatment of their Jewish minority. The amendment remained on the books even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, effectively giving the Jewish community a veto over America's commercial links with Moscow.

Jewish power is felt, too, in a wide variety of domestic spheres: immigration and refugee policy, civil rights and affirmative action, abortion rights, church-state separation issues, and much more. Local Jewish communities from New York to Los Angeles have become major players on their own turf, helping to make the rules and call the shots on matters from health care to zoning.

Yes, by the end of the twentieth century, American Jewry has come to be viewed around the globe as a serious player in the great game of politics, able to influence events, to define and achieve important goals, to reward its friends and punish its enemies.

"If you talk about power in Washington or in the United States, you should put a great emphasis on the American Jewish community," said Mohamed al-Orabi, an Egyptian diplomat who headed his embassy's Jewish desk in Washington in the early 1990s. "It is not bad thing. It is good to have people supporting you here in the United States. As an Arab country, we wish we could have the same groups supporting Egypt or Saudi Arabia."

In fact, just about everyone seems to take the Jewish community seriously. Everybody, that is, except the Jews.

To this day, American Jews remain largely oblivious to the sea change in the status of the Jewish community in the last half-century. Much of the world views American Jewry as a focused bloc of influential, determined believers, firmly entrenched in the American power structure. The average American Jew views his or her community as a scattered congregation of six million-odd individuals of similar origins and diverse beliefs, fortunate children and grandchildren of immigrant tailors and peddlers.

Politicians and diplomats point to the Jewish community as a model of success and assurance. American Jews--by a large and growing majority--consider themselves to be members of an isolated, vulnerable minority.

To the typical American Jew, the mere mention of "Jewish power" sounds like an anti-Semitic slur, as George Bush learned the hard way. "Even to remark on the relative political power of the American Jewish community--whether of the Israel lobby in Washington or of Jewish influence in domestic affairs--arouses fear in some quarters of giving ammunition to the anti-Semites," the historian David Biale wrote in his landmark 1985 study Power and "Powerlessness in Jewish History.

So glaring is the contrast between how Jews are seen and how they see themselves, that Jewish social scientists speak almost casually of the "perception gap" between reality and Jewish sensibilities. The term (coined during the 1980s by intergroup affairs expert Jerome Chanes of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council) refers to the gap between actual anti-Semitism in America, which has declined steadily over the last generation, and American Jews' fear of anti-Semitism, which has skyrocketed in the same period.

It is a fact that American anti-Semitism currently is at a historic low by most essential yardsticks. Hostility toward Jews, as measured in opinion polls, has dropped to what some social scientists consider a virtual zero point. Private discrimination against Jews in jobs, education, and housing has all but disappeared. Government action against Jews, the staple of European anti-Semitism for centuries, is almost inconceivable in this country. With a few important exceptions--the rise of some prominent anti-Jewish radicals in the black community, plus a troubling increase in anti-Jewish vandalism--anti-Semitism virtually has vanished from American public life.

By contrast, the percentage of Jews who tell pollsters that anti-Semitism is a "serious problem" in America nearly doubled during the course of the 1980s, from 45 percent in 1983 to almost 85 percent in 199O.

"The American Jewish community today is comfortable, secure, but lacking in self-confidence," the conservative social critic Irving Kristol wrote not long ago. "It shows frequent symptoms of hypochondria and neurasthenia. It is a community very vulnerable to its own repressed anxieties and self-doubt."

This hypochondria is emblematic of another, larger gap in current-day Jewish perception: the gap between the Jews' self-image of vulnerability and the reality of Jewish power.

Any serious description of American Jewish politics--the exercise of power by and within the Jewish community--must inevitably be colored by this perception gap. The gap runs like a crack through the base of the edifice called the Jewish community. Coursing up through the structure, it becomes a yawning chasm of ignorance and mutual incomprehension, dividing the Jewish community's leaders from their presumed followers.

The nature and workings of Jewish power politics are the major theme of this book. That chasm forms the minor theme: the fault line between the activists who conduct the Jewish community's business and represent its interests to the larger society, and the broader population of American Jews, who are almost entirely unaware of the work being done in their name.

Within this fault line lies the crisis of American Jewish politics. How long can leaders claim to lead when followers do not follow?

If American Jews bridle at the notion of "Jewish power," they have good reason. It is true that Jewish history for two thousand years has been told as a gloomy tale, replete with recurring themes of fear and persecution. And it is true that throughout these centuries, the image of the "powerful Jew" has figured prominently in anti-Jewish agitation.

For most of the last two millenia, Jews lived as a tiny, hated minority in Christian Europe. They were regularly restricted in their places of residence, in their work, and even in their rights of marriage and procreation. They were repeatedly accused of manipulating economies, poisoning wells, sacrificing children, and, of course, murdering God. On these pretexts they were subjected to recurring cycles of violence, mass expulsion, and mass murder.

The entire Jewish population of Germany was expelled from its native land in 1182; the same happened in England in 1290, in France in 1306 and again in 1394, in Austria in 1421, in Spain in 1492, and in Portugal in 1497. The Black Plague of 1348 touched off a continent-wide frenzy of murderous assaults on Jews. The Crusaders, en route to claim the Holy Land, slaughtered more Jews than Saracens. The Ukrainian Cossacks, rising up under Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648 to throw off their Polish overlords, killed more Jews than Poles.

Even if Adolf Hitler had never been born, anti-Semitic violence still would be one of the greatest stains on the history of Christian Europe.

Always before the violence, there were fantastic, ludicrous tales told about the Jews. It was said, repeatedly, that Jews killed Christian children and baked their blood into the ritual Passover bread. It was said, repeatedly, that Jews sneaked into churches and stabbed the holy wafers in order to make Jesus bleed again. It was said, repeatedly, that Jews were engaged in a secret plot to dominate and enslave the entire world.

This last delusion--the myth of a secret, worldwide Jewish conspiracy--has survived and flourished in the modern age. Its bible is the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which surfaced in Russia around the turn of the twentieth century. Supposedly a secret draft of the Jews' master plan for conquest, in fact it was probably forged by a mad Russian monk at the behest of the czarist secret police. The truth about the Protocols has been widely known since its fraudulent origins were disclosed in 1921 by the London Times. Incredibly, the Protocols is still in print, still being hawked on streetcorners in Teheran, Caracas, and New York City.

Across the long sweep of Jewish history, it has been only a moment since Jewish communities first acquired the ability to turn world events in their own favor. Only in the last half-century have American Jews, the largest and most powerful Jewish community in history, been able to mobilize themselves effectively and become a cohesive institution with an acknowledged policy role in Washington and other capitals.

The change is too recent, perhaps, to have entered the consciousness of most American Jews.

At this point, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that something is wrong here. A quarter-century, let alone a half-century, seems more than enough time for a population as sophisticated as American Jewry to absorb so profound a transformation. Having narrowly survived utter extermination, a despised, persecuted minority becomes the toast of Pennsylvania Avenue within a generation. How could this go unnoticed by, of all people, the subjects themselves?

The answer is complicated. American Jewry's collective myopia results from a combination of historical factors. Any one of these factors might have skewed perceptions. Together, they have produced a massive failure to communicate.

First and most important among these factors is Jewish assimilation. During the same quarter-century in which the Jewish community was transformed from weakling into powerhouse, the individual American Jew underwent a metamorphosis no less sweeping. Fewer Jews were joining synagogues or donating to Jewish charities. Growing numbers were marrying outside the faith. Community leaders interpreted the statistics in cataclysmic terms, warning that Jews were on the verge of disappearing of melting into the general American population.

As chapter 3 will demonstrate, this doomsday prediction is almost certainly wrong. It is based partly on false statistics, partly on preconceptions and misinterpretations. Year after year, the vast majority of American Jews--the ones who supposedly are disappearing--continue to attend synagogue once or twice annually, join their families for Passover and Hanukkah, and send their children for Bar and Bat Mitzvah training.

Jews are not disappearing. Why they are doing is losing interest in the institutions of organized Judaism.

Until a generation ago, Jewish attachment was a complex bundle of intense family and community ties, shared culture, and religious taboos and rituals. No longer: for most American Jews, Judaism is becoming less a religion of laws and more a personal attribute. Like so much else in American culture, Judaism is turning into a free-floating set of feelings, interests, and occasional actions, which the individual Jew feels free to adopt or discard at will.

But--this is crucial--it remains an attachment. Jews remain Jews in their own minds. And they continue to insist that it matters to them.

The current transformation of the American Jewish religious identity is affecting the Jewish political process in many significant ways. One point is essential: the fundamental impact on Jewish myopia Most American Jews are unaware of the changed public status of the American Jewish community because they no longer pay attention to organized Jewish community life. For most American Jews, Judaism has become a private matter.

No less important, a large minority of Jews is undergoing no such metamorphosis toward individualism. A sizable bloc--perhaps one fifth to one quarter of all American Jews, or 1 million to 1.5 million persons--is traveling in the opposite direction. They are becoming steadily "more Jewish" than before. More Jewish, in fact, than any large group of American Jews ever was: more traditionalist, more observant of Jewish ritual, more attentive to Jewish group interests, and steadily more alarmed over the backsliding ways of their 4 million "assimilated" brethren. And, not coincidentally, ever more suspicious of Gentile intentions toward Jews.

This "committed" minority provides much of the professional leadership for the broader Jewish community. Not surprisingly, then, the noncommunication between the Jewish leadership and the Jewish majority grows steadily more pronounced as the two subcommunities drift further apart.

There is another factor, much older than assimilation, that blinds American Jews to the reality of their own power. It is the enduring myth of Diaspora Jewish powerlessness, and the corollary myth of craven, ineffectual Jewish leadership. These myths work to make the reality of modern Jewish power invisible by rendering it simply incredible.

In traditional Jewish folklore, the Jews were helpless pawns, buffeted me'evel leyom tov--from mourning to celebration--by the vagaries of cruel despots, benign protectors, and Divine Providence itself. "Bechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu," reads the liturgy of the Passover festival: "In each generation they rise up against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand."

There was little room in this cosmology for independent Jewish political action. At best, Jews could appeal to God for salvation by "repentance, prayer, and charity," as the Yom Kippur liturgy urged them to do. But as long as they were exiled from their ancient homeland, their fate was in the hands of others.

Reality did not quite match the myth. The centuries of Diaspora produced a long line of Jewish political figures: diplomats, power brokers, and even the occasional warrior-hero. Jewish communities throughout history were nearly always autonomous, self-governing enclaves. True, they had widely varying degrees of independence and security. Most lived under severe restrictions, but some dealt with their neighbors on a near-equal basis. The great Jewish community of Babylonia was governed for a thousand years by a descendant of King David known as the exilarch, who was a minister of the royal court. The Jewish communities of medieval Poland and Lithuania elected a shtadlan, or ambassador to the Polish court, who often dealt with the nobility on a near-equal basis. Many Renaissance princes appointed "court Jews" to manage their finances; some of these appointees wielded extraordinary power on the Jewish community's behalf.

These episodes of political success left few traces on the modern Jewish memory. Few Jews today have heard of the exilarchs. Those educated American Jews who know the terms shtadlan and "court Jew" usually associate them with groveling beggars or corrupt, self-serving parvenus.

The oblivion that has overtaken the political figures of the Jewish past is due partly to their ultimate failure. Jewish life in premodern Europe enjoyed many intervals of ease, but in the end it fell into a spiral of humiliation and persecution, descending through the century-long nightmare of czarist Russia to the horrors of the Second World War. Like politicians of every time and place, the political leaders of medieval Jewry came to be tarred, in retrospect, with the final failure of the system they served.

Equally important, the Jewish political tradition came out the loser in a long struggle for historical memory. The victor was a rival power-center in Jewish life: the rabbinate. Where the Jews' political leaders confronted Jewish minority status with pragmatism and compromise, the rabbis taught resignation and prayer. Unable to offer even partial comfort here and now, they promised a glorious messianic redemption in the end of days.

In some ways, then, the power politics of modern American Jewry represents the rebirth of a Jewish tradition that has lain dormant for three hundred years, since the collapse of the medieval Polish empire.

Between then and now, under a succession of Ukrainian Cossacks, Russian czars, and Nazi stormtroopers, a durable mythology has taken root. This mythology survives today in American Jewish folk memory. In it, Jews are utterly powerless and must live by their wits. Compromise is useless or worse. Politics is made of messianic visions and apocalyptic goals. Some of these visions, like Zionism and socialism, may occasionally become reality.

In this mythology, those wealthy and powerful Jews who operate in the gray world of compromise and deal-making are only looking out for themselves. Formal spokespersons for the Jews--rabbis, shtadlans, community officials--are hapless buffoons, too dim to realize the futility of their task.

The American Jew's political myopia is rooted in an Old World tradition of dashed hopes and messianic dreams. But in the New World the Jews created mythologies of their own.

As Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg demonstrated in his illuminating 1988 historical essay, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter, the American Jewish community was founded and populated largely by the poorest and least educated Jews of Europe. Someone with a strong attachment to Jewish values did not travel halfway around the world to settle in an untamed wilderness without rules or boundaries. A good Jew stayed at home. Rebels, adventurers, and losers came to America.

Three main immigrant waves created American Jewry: Portuguese Marranos in the colonial era, German Jews in the mid-nineteenth century, and Russian Jews in the early twentieth. Each wave consisted of Jews who wanted to escape the world they knew. They were fleeing both from the Jewish community and from the Gentile society surrounding it, Hertzberg wrote. "[T]he immigrant Jews ... felt betrayed by the societies, the governments, the rabbis, and the rich Jewish leaders who had cast them out, or, at the very least, had failed to find room for them.... They would not allow the very people who had betrayed them in Europe to exercise authority in America."

To be sure, these immigrants recreated a Jewish community in America. But it was a Jewish community with a difference. This was a new world, where religion was disestablished. Churches had no legal hold over believers; likewise, the Jewish community had no hold over Jews. It was defanged. Over time, Jews developed a new mythology of an organized American Jewish community led by well-meaning bumblers.

No one ever summed up the mythic image of inept Jewish leadership better than the late author-activist Paul Jacobs. In his 1965 memoir Is Curly Jewish? he offered an imaginary crisis that captured the layperson's picture of the three best-known Jewish agencies: the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL), American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the American Jewish Congress.

"A fanciful way of describing the work of these groups," Jacobs wrote, "is that some guy walks into the toilet of a ginmill on Third Avenue, New York, and while he's standing at the urinal, he notices that someone has written `Screw the Jews' on the toilet wall." A quick phone call is made and "an ADL man rushes down to the bar" to dust the wall for fingerprints. The ADL checks the prints against its files of 2 million known anti-Semites, then publishes a photo of the wall in its next bulletin, saying it shows anti-Semitism is on the rise and "everyone should join B'nai B'rith." Next to arrive would be the representative of the American Jewish Committee, who would look around, then announce plans for a major academic study of "anti-Semitic wall-writing since Pompeii." AJC would also publish a booklet proving that a Jew had invented the martini, to be distributed in bars nationwide. Then the American Jewish Congress would arrive, throw up a picket line outside the bar, and petition the Supreme Court to bar the sale of liquor "to anyone making an anti-Semitic remark."

The most powerful myth surrounding American Jewish power is one shared by Jews and Gentiles alike. It is the mistaken equation of Jewish politics and Middle East policy: the notion that the Jewish political agenda begins and ends with Israel, and conversely, that Israel's support in Washington largely results from Jewish political power.

"Washington is a city of acronyms, and today one of the best-known in Congress is AIPAC," former Representative Paul Findley wrote in the opening of his 1985 book They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby. "The mere mention of it brings a sober, if not furtive look, to the face of anyone on Capitol Hill who deals with Middle East policy. AIPAC--the American Israel Public Affairs Committee--is now the preeminent power in Washington lobbying."

Findley's book is the most famous of a host of studies that appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, attempting to document the Israel lobby's stranglehold over American foreign policy. Others include The Fateful Triangle, by Noam Chomsky (1983); Taking Sides, by Stephen Green (1984); The Lobby, by Edward Tivnan (1987); and The Passionate Attachment, by George and Douglas Ball (1992).

What these books share is an underlying assumption that U.S. support for Israel is misguided and runs counter to American interests. By this reasoning, some force must exist that is powerful enough to subvert U.S. foreign policy according to its will. That force is the Jewish lobby; without it, the United States would not support Israel.

The Balls make their case with a summary of Jewish clout that is actually not far off the mark:

The clout that Jewish Americans exercise in American politics is far incommensurate with their population. Their power derives primarily from an active interest in public affairs and a willingness to work hard for causes in which they believe. It derives also from their flair for understanding the electoral process, their gift for efficient organization, and, most of all, from their dedication to philanthropy, reinforced by supersensitive peer pressure among members of a group forced together by a discrimination still apparent in far too many sectors of American society.

Israeli leaders have taken full advantage of these characteristics of American Jewry. They have made it crystal clear that they expect Jewish Americans to lobby for Israeli interests with members of both the executive and legislative branches, and to present and defend Israel's case to major American opinion makers.

Now, much of what the Balls say here is true. American Jews do exercise political influence out of proportion to their numbers. Their clout does derive in large part from their civic activism, their high level of philanthropic giving, and their group solidarity. And indeed Israel has tried for years, often successfully, to use the Jewish community as a wedge in Washington.

But the reality of Jewish power and its effect on America's Middle East policy is much more complicated than the simple conspiracy theory laid out by these overwrought critics. If the equation were as simple as the Balls suggest--Jewish money and activism create Jewish clout, which creates U.S. support for Israel--then U.S. support would be fairly consistent over the five-decade period since Israel became a state.

That is not the case. Washington provided little aid and no weaponry to Israel during the new nation's first and most vulnerable decade. America's ties with Israel grew slowly during the 1960s, partly because of Jewish involvement in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, partly because of Lyndon Johnson's admiration for Israel and its then-prime minister, Levi Eshkol.

In fact, the strong U.S.-Israel alliance as we now know it, with its huge arms sales and multibillion-dollar aid packages, commenced under Richard M. Nixon, a Republican president elected with almost no Jewish backing. Every president before him had attempted a posture of evenhandedness in the Middle East, maintaining friendship with both Israel and its sworn enemies. Nixon dropped the attempt at balance and declared Israel for the first time to be a "strategic asset" in the Cold War. On his watch, the United States replaced France as Israel's main arms supplier. American aid to Israel skyrocketed from $300 million to $2.2 billion per year, making Israel the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. U.S.-Israel relations became big business. That made Israel's allies important players in Washington power politics.

In the years since Nixon first engineered America's massive commitment to Israel, the Jewish lobby has grown exponentially in reputation, access, and influence. AIPAC, the Jewish community's main foreign-policy lobbying organization, has grown from a three-person office into a well-oiled organization with a staff of 150 and a budget of $15 million. Jewish membership in the U.S. Congress has tripled.

Over the last two decades, the United States has established a government office to hunt down and expel Nazi war criminals, has made Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union a central foreign-policy goal, and has overseen the exodus to freedom of ancient Jewish communities in Syria and Ethiopia. In May 1991, Washington even brokered a one-day ceasefire in the bloody Ethiopian civil war, for the sole purpose of permitting Israeli airplanes to evacuate that nation's twenty thousand Jewish tribespeople in an unprecedented twenty-four-hour airlift. And, of course, America created a Holocaust museum, a $168 million memorial to Jewish suffering in Second World War Europe, built by congressional mandate (with private money on federal land) in the midst of the Smithsonian complex on the Mall.

Did American Jewish clout create the U.S.-Israel alliance? One could as plausibly argue the opposite: that the U.S.-Israel alliance created contemporary American Jewish political power.

The real story of Jewish power is more complicated than either scenario. America under Richard Nixon moved toward Israel for its own reasons of Cold War politics and military strategy; domestic Jewish influence was only a secondary incentive.

The Jewish lobby was already in existence. It had been around for decades. Long before Nixon's presidency, it had played a leading role in reshaping the U.S. consensus on civil rights, church-state relations, immigration, and much more.

The forging of a U.S.-Israel alliance did not give birth to American Jewry's political establishment. But it thrust the Jewish establishment upward into a dizzying new political stratosphere. It transformed the Jewish community's political agenda. It forced America's most resolutely liberal constituency into an unfamiliar alliance with the mostly Gentile Cold Warriors of the national security establishment. And it made American Jewry a force on the international stage.

Other factors were working on the Jewish community at the same time, reinforcing the process of politicization and empowerment. Most important was the direct fallout of Israel's lightning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. That victory touched off a wave of nationalist passion among Jews in America and around the world.

Across the ocean, the Six-Day War sparked an unexpected and dramatic rebirth of Jewish fervor among the 2 million Jews of the Soviet Union, who defied communist repression and broke a half-century of silence. In turn, the Soviet Jews' struggle for freedom inspired a broad-based popular movement among American Jews. And the American Jewish campaign for Soviet Jewry, in turn, reinforced the newfound coziness between the Jewish community's leaders and the American right.

The political reality of Jewish community life today is that a powerful machine has arisen in the last quarter-century to advance Jewish interests. It is far more powerful than most Jews realize, though not half so powerful as their enemies fantasize. Like any big bureaucracy, it operates within clear constraints and often makes mistakes; yet it has proved itself capable of making despots quake and halting armies in their tracks. A complex mechanism, it is incongruously made up of bodies whose very names bring a condescending smile to Jewish lips: B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, United Jewish Appeal, Anti-Defamation League. Groups like these are the engines--more precisely, the wheels in the engine--of Jewish power in America today.

If the average Jew finds all this hard to believe, so do many of the leaders who wield Jewish power. Senior officials of the organized Jewish community often seem dazed by the entire phenomenon. "The Jewish community has access today, at the local level, at the national level and the international level, to a point which my grandparents would never have imagined," says ADL national director Abraham Foxman. "They could never have imagined that their grandson would be this and can go there--and all that not because I'm a lord, not because I'm a millionaire, but because I am Abe Foxman, a Jewish official."

Many suggest that their clout, real as it seems, is based largely on an illusion. "A lot of what we're doing today," said the head of of one major Jewish agency, "is the invention of [the late German-born Zionist leader] Nahum Goldmann. He was the master illusionist. All the organizations he created--the World Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents--were designed to reinforce the myth of a powerful, mysterious body called world Jewry."

ADL's Foxman agrees: "The non-Jewish world to a large extent believes in the myth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and to some extent we in the Jewish community have not disabused them."

"Look," Foxman says, "I know every time I meet with a world leader who comes to see me, he's not coming to see me because I'm Abe Foxman, the national director of the ADL. I know he's coming because he has been told, or someone sold him the concept, that the Jewish community is very strong and powerful. You know it because when you finish the conversation, they want to know what you can do for them in the media, what you can do for them in the Congress and so on."

"That's why the prime minister of Bosnia comes to see the Jewish community," Foxman continues. "That's why the prime minister of Albania comes, and the foreign minister of Bulgaria and El Salvador, Nicaragua, you name it. You've got to ask yourself, what is this about? The answer is, it's because they believe a little bit of that."

One could argue just as easily, and perhaps more plausibly, that the change is this: in the past generation, many non-Jews have come to take the Jews more seriously and give them more credit than the Jews give themselves. The result is a weird reversal of the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism. The Jewish community, after suffering countless centuries of malevolence and abuse that it did not seek and could not explain, now finds itself on the receiving end of favors that seem no less inexplicable.

And in a way, says congressional aide David Luchins, "That's political power.

"Political power is when you don't have to ask for it," Luchins says. "Political power is when your friends look out for you without you having to ask. We have an incredible amount of friends who do that--either because they believe in it, or because they think it's good politics, or because we're part of that Judeo-Christian mythos."

For example, he says, "the Congressional Black Caucus had a counter-budget that it proposed throughout the 70s and 80s, which cut spending to the bone on defense, which destroyed farm subsidies, and which kept in $3 billion for Israel. The reason was that a majority of the Black Caucus would not cut aid to Israel, despite occasional efforts by Gus Savage one year and John Conyers another year. They would not cut it because the Bill Grays and the Charlie Rangels weren't about to be tagged anti-Semites. They're not, and they wouldn't allow it.

"During the 1992 Democratic convention, the only speaker who devoted any time to the subject of Israel was poor Jesse Louis Jackson, who is doomed for the rest of his life to apologize to us every time he speaks because of some things he said against us back in the early 1980s. And why must he apologize? Because he loves us? No. It's because there's a sizable segment of the black community that insists on it. That's political power.

"Political power is that in this country, anti-Semitism is not something you're proud of. Pat Buchanan, who has offended the Jewish community on any number of issues, has to go out of his way to say he's not an anti-Semite. Even a David Duke, who used to dress up in a Nazi uniform, has to try and prove he's not an anti-Semite. They don't want to be seen as our enemies, because of who we are in America. That's political power."

The emergence of American Jewry as an independent power is not without its ironies. The basic idea of Zionism, the moving vision behind the creation of Israel, was that a Jewish state would give a voice to a voiceless people and return Jews to the stage of history after centuries of helplessness. American Jewish power has turned the Zionist idea on its head.

In August 1987, for example, when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir paid a state visit to Romania, his agenda included bilateral trade, tourism, Romanian assistance to Soviet Jewish emigres, and Romanian mediation in the Israel-Arab dispute. In return, the Jerusalem Post reported, Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu planned to ask Shamir to use his influence with the American Jewish community to improve Romania's ties with Washington.

A month later Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, met with the foreign minister of Turkey. Briefing the press afterward, Turkey's U.N. ambassador explained that Peres wanted Turkey to help Israel improve its ties in the Islamic world, and Turkey wanted Israel to put in a good word for it with the American Jewish community.

The purpose of this book is to explore the workings of Jewish power politics in contemporary America. We will examine the structure of the organized Jewish community, the issues that drive the Jewish communal agenda, the internal politics of the major Jewish organizations, and the complicated relations between the Jewish community leadership and the masses of American Jews. We will look at various sources of Jewish clout, including fund-raising and media influence.

Readers looking for confirmation of their favorite myths will likely be disappointed. They will find no meaningful Jewish control of the media or high finance, numerous though Jews may be in those industries. They will find precious little clandestine Israeli action to subvert Congress or American public opinion.

For that matter, they will find little of the glitter that graces the daily gossip columns, and surprisingly few of the celebrity names that are most often associated with American Jewish power, such as Michael Milken, Michael Ovitz, Barbara Walters, and Barbra Streisand. These are powerful people, and they are Jews, but they do not represent Jewish power in America. The power of any group is the ability of its members to work together and change the world around them to suit their needs and purposes. That is what is meant by American power or black power, the power of the tobacco industry or of the Roman Catholic Church. Some Jewish celebrities will appear in this narrative because they participate in that process. Most do not.

On the other hand, readers accustomed to examining Jewish political activity will find surprisingly little evidence of hapless, bumbling, or corrupt Jewish leaders betraying their grassroots constituencies. Instead, readers will find a community bureaucracy that is reasonably efficient and fundamentally well-meaning, as big bureaucracies go.

However, readers also will find a Jewish political system that is in trouble, shaken by the sweeping changes in the world around it. These troubles partly are the aftermath of success: in a world where embattled Israel is signing peace treaties, where oppressed Jewish communities from Moscow to Damascus are stepping into the light of freedom, what battles remain? Without threats, what will rally Jews to the flag?

At the same time, the current malaise in the Jewish community reflects the dangerous uncertainties facing all political systems today, as the world enters the uncharted waters of the twenty-first century while clinging to the outdated maps of the twentieth.

The collapse of old dictatorships and the rise of new technologies has left societies across the globe plagued by starvation in the midst of plenty, and threatened by growing ignorance despite instant communication. Political leaders can only grope for answers to the riddles of future shock.

As they grope, they find their options restricted by the growing insecurity and mistrust of the public.

In a way, the American Jewish community is a vanguard of the new chaos. In a national political system that is increasingly balkanized, dominated by feuding interest groups that seem more concerned with their own agenda than with the common good, the Jewish community can fairly claim to be the pioneer. American Jews were the first ethnic or religious minority to win power and influence within the larger body politic by trumpeting their own weakness and victimhood. More recently, they have led the outcry against balkanization of American society--even as they have advanced the science by pioneering special-interest lobbying techniques that combine street protest with targeted political giving and backroom backscratching.

More important, American Jewry's current political struggles provide a microcosm of the political unease afflicting American society as a whole: the widespread mistrust of leaders and of public service and the discrediting of compromise as an honorable way to broker agreement.

Even the spread of Jewish assimilation--the growing abdication of Jewish community life by individual Jews--differs only in degree from Americans' declining participation in the broader political process.

In the end, the workings of the Jewish community are most important to the Jews themselves. A great deal of significant work is being done in the name of America's Jews by a small minority of them. Some of it is misguided; much more of it is useful and well-intentioned; all of it is underscrutinized. Like the American political system itself, the Jewish community's political system is threatened, more than anything, by the apathy of its constituents.

In the real world, political work goes on whether or not the public takes an interest. The only difference is whether the end result reflects the public's will or the will of a small minority. For this reason alone, Jews are invited to find out what is being done in their name. And other Americans are invited to read on and find out what their neighbors are up to.

© 1996 J.J. Goldberg


Back to the top