Why Don’t American Jewish Groups Represent American Jews on Iran?

Peter Beinart
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Dennis Ross, April 26, 1998.Credit: AP
Peter Beinart

A century ago, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and Rabbi Stephen Wise set out to democratize American Jewish life. Angry that an “American Jewish peerage”— composed mostly of wealthy, patrician, non-Zionist German Jews—spoke for an American Jewish community it did not represent, they formed the American Jewish Congress to represent the mass of poor, voiceless, largely Zionist immigrants from Eastern Europe. “The time is come,” Wise declared, “for a leadership by us to be chosen, a leadership that shall democratically and wisely lead rather than autocratically command.”

That time has come again. Whether or not you support the Iran nuclear agreement, it has laid bare a profound gulf between American Jews and the organizations that purport to represent them. Last Thursday, the Jewish Journal released the only independent poll of American Jews on the Iran deal. It found that they support it by a margin of 20 percentage points. (J Street, which supports the deal, also released a poll showing that American Jews support it by 20 points. The Israel Project, which opposes the agreement, released a poll showing American Jews oppose it by three points.)

American Jewish support for the Iran agreement was entirely predictable. In 2013, an American Jewish Committee survey found that American Jews approved “of the way President Obama is handling Iran’s nuclear program” by 26 points. A Pew Research Center poll that same year found that American Jews supported Obama’s Iran policy by 17 points. Most importantly, American Jews twice backed U.S President Barack Obama—by margins of 58 and 39 points respectively—in elections in which his Republican opponents tried to woo them by claiming he was soft on Iran. 

Despite this, the most powerful American Jewish group, AIPAC, not only opposes the Iran nuclear deal, but is waging a massive lobbying campaign against it. AIPAC, one might argue, has no obligation to represent American Jews writ large. It needs answer only to its own members. 

But in opposing the agreement, AIPAC has been joined by organizations that do explicitly claim to represent American Jews as a whole. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which according to its website, “leads the [Jewish] community” in LA, has come out against the Iran deal. So has the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which claims to “fulfill the most important needs and aspirations of our community.” So has the Jewish Federation of Houston, which calls itself “the consensus builder for stakeholders throughout the community.” Overall, eight local Federations have denounced the Iran deal. None has endorsed it

Then there’s the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which claims on its website that it “advances the interests of the American Jewish community”—a community that mostly supports the Iran deal. Yet the Conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, has condemned it, declaring that “the bottom line of this deal” is that “Iran in ten years will be a nuclear threshold state,” and that as a result, “Future generations may well hold us to account for this accord.”

How can organizations that purport to speak for American Jews disregard American Jewish opinion on an issue of this magnitude? Because today, like a century ago, the principle that structures organized American Jewish life is not democracy. It is plutocracy.

As the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer has observed, American Jewish groups have “become ever more reliant on a small base of wealthy donors.” That’s partly because assimilation has left fewer American Jews engaged in Jewish organizations and partly because America’s new gilded age has left more wealth in fewer hands. 

Thus, in the days after the Iran deal, American Jewish leaders didn’t wait for polls of American Jews. Nor is there any public evidence that the eight Federations that came out against the deal surveyed Jews in their cities first. So how did Jewish leaders make their decision? When I asked an influential Jewish communal official, he said simply: “They consulted their boards.” In other words, they consulted their large donors.

These donors don’t act in a vacuum. The Israeli government vehemently opposes the nuclear deal and groups like AIPAC, the Federations and the Conference of Presidents almost never publicly oppose Israeli foreign policy. One reason they don’t is fundraising. Among the most valuable things large donors to establishment Jewish organizations get for their donations are trips to Israel where they meet Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials. “How do you get the money? By bringing donors to the seat of power, to give them access they would otherwise not get,” a former official at the Anti-Defamation League once told me. Alienate the Israeli government and those meetings don’t happen, which makes fundraising harder. As the polls show, most American Jews are willing to buck the Netanyahu government on Iran. But an organization whose fundraising strategy depends in part on good relations with the Netanyahu government cannot.

In explaining its decision to oppose the nuclear agreement, the Miami Federation said it had “heed[ed] the large, diverse and growing number of independent and nonpartisan experts and organizations who have raised serious concerns since the release of the text of the agreement.” The head of the LA Federation said he too had consulted with “outside experts.”  

Who are these experts? Here’s a clue. On July 23, the Jewish Federations of North America hosted a webcast on the Iran deal with Dr. Robert Satloff. In its statement opposing the Iran deal, the Phoenix Federation cited a briefing by Michael Singh. On July 28, the Philadelphia Federation sponsored an “insider’s briefing” on the deal with Ambassador Dennis Ross. Satloff, Ross and Singh are smart people who know a lot about the Middle East. But they all work at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by former AIPAC staffers and donors. And while there’s much to admire about the Washington Institute’s research, its top officials will not bluntly oppose an Israeli prime minister on an issue as big as the Iran deal. It’s contrary to the organization’s DNA.

So when Federation leaders respond to the Iran deal by consulting experts from the Washington Institute, they’re rigging the game. They’re consulting experts they know won’t tell them to explicitly endorse the agreement. That’s how American Jewish plutocracy works. It’s composed of decent, sincere people but it’s designed to reflect the wishes of large donors and of Benjamin Netanyahu, not of American Jews overall.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The American Jewish community is part of America. And we are living through an age of American plutocracy. As Hillary Clinton recently noted, the richest 25 hedge fund managers earn more than every kindergarten teacher in the country, combined. Single individuals donate tens of millions of dollars to presidential candidates, thus single-handedly determining who can seriously compete. Casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson reportedly spent $150 million on the 2012 campaign.  Last year, after Chris Christie called the West Bank “the occupied territories” in Adelson’s presence, the New Jersey Governor requested a private meeting to apologize. 

It was similar one hundred years ago, when Brandeis, Wise and Frankfurter struggled not only to democratize the American Jewish community but to break up the corporate monopolies that had corrupted American government. “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” Brandeis famously said. “But we can’t have both.” 

It was true then, and it’s true now. When will democracy conquer plutocracy in the American Jewish community? When democracy prevails in America itself.

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