American Jews have a complex about power, and they need to get over it.
The simple fact is that power – or more precisely, influence - is a good thing. To the extent that Jewish Americans have influence, they should nurture it and use it responsibly. But they should never minimize it, apologize for it, or be squeamish about it. And they should avoid the trap of thinking that the exercise of influence in our political system is contrary to some abstract notion of American interests; it is not.
This is a good time to consider these matters. AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, is meeting in Washington, and issues of “Jewish power” are getting a lot of attention in the media. A talking teddy bear at the Oscars suggested that Jews run Hollywood and America; in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” the lead character destroyed a nominee for Secretary of State by getting the ADL to falsely accuse him of being anti-Semitic; and a Saturday Night Live sketch that was not aired but widely viewed online mocked the opponents of Chuck Hagel for being blindly subservient to Israel’s wishes.
And there is more. The satirical publication “The Onion” recently ran an article with the headline “Israel Vows to Use Veto Power If Chuck Hagel Confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Defense.” And last year, SNL ran a spoof of Rick Santorum declaring that the presidential campaign is about “starting a war with Iran, as a favor to Israel, whether Israel asks us to or not.”
Is this playful fun or an insidious suggestion that Jews and Israel advocates have too much power in this country? American Jews have mostly expressed discomfort. Abe Foxman has pointed to the presence of anti-Semitic themes in these sketches and stories. Gal Beckerman of the Forward has wondered if Americans are buying the ideas of political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer about excessive influence by American Jews in our politics. And the many supporters of AIPAC take pains to emphasize again that AIPAC is not the “Jewish lobby” but the “pro-Israel lobby,” drawing on the participation of all Americans.
These responses are all fine. Still, the whole discussion has taken on an apologetic and even subservient tone. Popular culture is important but satire is satire; it is meant to shock and amuse by taking an element of truth and exaggerating for effect. And it is true that various Jewish groups have acquired significant influence. Blowing this influence out of proportion is sometimes funny and sometimes distressing, but it is best not to overreact.
But the real point is that the acquiring of Jewish influence is not a misfortune; it is a blessing and a cause for celebration. I applaud the fact that AIPAC—and a whole range of Jewish organizations—are respected political players on the Washington scene and that Jewish concerns—including, first and foremost, the welfare of Israel - are advanced by these groups. And while AIPAC has won the backing of many Americans, American Jews are instrumental in leading it, supporting it, and extending its influence. Again, this is a source of pride; let’s not suggest otherwise.
Some Jewish leaders point out that Jewish groups have less clout on Israel—and everything else—than is often assumed. True enough. When President Reagan wanted to sell AWAC spy planes to Saudi Arabia, the combined efforts of the Jewish community could not stop him, and so has it been with every President since Israel’s founding. But false modesty is neither becoming nor appropriate. On many issues, Jewish groups make a difference, and they want more influence rather than less. The way to get it is not to downplay what they do out of exaggerated concern that the anti-Semites may raise their ugly heads.
In the Federalist Papers (No. 10), James Madison noted that in the Constitution, American interests are not predetermined; various interest groups work against each other, pursuing their different concerns until the common good emerges. American Jews, through careful organization and moral appeals to their fellow citizens, embrace that tradition—exactly as teachers, oil companies, government workers, and gun advocates do. As American Jews, we fight for the things that we care about. If we have more influence than our numbers in the population might suggest, that is to our credit.
We live at a moment when there are important issues of policy for American Jews to consider. The American government is committed to preventing a nuclear Iran and to encouraging a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. I want all American Jews to be debating how these two things can best be done. What I don’t want is a phony, artificial debate about perceptions of Jewish power—which is mostly about our own insecurities.
Memo to American Jews: AIPAC should be an inspiration here because it understands power like no one else and because it gets things done for Israel and the Jewish people. This is a time to admire and learn from AIPAC (even if you don’t completely agree with every word that it says). This is a time to put aside Oscar night jokes and SNL skits, and to focus on how to best wield influence in this dangerous world in which we live.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.
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