Once again, a poll recently released by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) (1) has confirmed that on some questions of major significance there are vast differences between the opinion of the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations and the mass of American Jews. On questions of the Iraq war, the escalation of US military forces in Iraq (the ‘Surge’) and military action against Iran, most Jewish Americans differ from the leaders of the major American Jewish organizations.
Most liberal, progressive or radical Jewish commentators have emphasized these differences to argue, “most American Jews resoundingly reject the Middle East militarism and GOP foreign policy championed by right-wing Jewish factions.”(2) This progressive interpretation however avoids an even more fundamental question: How is it that a majority of US Jews who, according to the AJC poll (and several others going back over two decades) differ with the principal American Jewish organizations, have not or do not challenge the position of the dominant Jewish organization, have virtually no impact on the US Congress, the Executive and the mass media in comparison to the Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations?
The issue of the ‘silent majority’ is questionable since all Jewish and non-Jewish commentators point to the highly vocal and disproportionate rates of participation of American Jews in the political process, from electoral campaigns to civil society movements. Not is it clear that the progressive majority lacks the high incomes of the reactionary ‘minority’. There are some Jewish millionaires and even a few billionaires who hold views opposing the leadership of the major Jewish organizations. There are several probable explanations that account for the power of Jewish leaders in shaping US Middle East policy and the relative impotence of the majority of American Jews.
The Poll: A Re-Analysis
The poll results highlighted by progressive Jewish analysts point to the 59% to 31% majority of Jews disapproving the way the US is handling the ‘campaign against terror.” The problem with using the answers to this question to indicate progressive opinion is that a number of Zionist ideologues and their followers also oppose the ‘handling of the campaign’ because it is not sufficiently brutal, authoritarian and arbitrary. Other findings cited include a 67% to 27% majority currently believing that the US should have stayed out of Iraq, a 76% to 23% majority who believe the war is going ‘somewhat’ or ‘very badly’ in Iraq, a 68% to 30% majority believing that the ‘surge’ has either made things worse or has no impact.
Even more important, a large majority (57% to 35%) of American Jews oppose the United States launching a pre-emptive military attack against Iran, even if it were taken ‘to prevent (Iran) from developing nuclear weapons.” The progressive analysts then cite the polls finding that most American Jews are ‘some shade of liberal’ rather than ‘conservative’ (42% to 25%) and overwhelmingly identified as Democrats rather than Republicans by 58% to 15%. Most Jews believe that Democrats will make the ‘right decisions on the war in Iraq (61% to 21%). Finally, the progressives have very favorable views of the top three Democratic presidential candidates.
On the surface these polling results would suggest that American Jews would be at the cutting edge of the congressional anti-war movements, arousing their fellow Jews to join and resurrect the moribund peace movement. Nothing of the sort has occurred.
One reason for the gap between the ‘progressive’ polling results and the actual pro-war behavior of the major American Jewish Organizations is found in several of the opinions not cited by progressive analysts but emphasized by the 52 leaders of the major communal organizations (Daily Alert, December 13, 2007). Over eighty percent (82%) of American Jews agree that ‘the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel’. Only 12% of Jews disagree. And 55% to 37% do not believe Israel and its Arab neighbors will settle their differences and live in peace. On the key issue of a compromise on the key issue of Jerusalem, by 58% to 36% American Jews reject an Israeli compromise to insure a framework for permanent peace.
Given the high salience of being pro-Israel for the majority of American Jews and the fact that the source of their identity stems more from their loyalty to Israel than to the Talmud or religious myths and rituals, then it is clear that both the ‘progressive, majority of Jews and the reactionary minority who head up all the major American Jewish organizations have a fundamental point of agreement and convergence: Support and identity with Israel and its anti-Arab prejudices, its expansion and the dispossession of Palestine. This overriding convergence allows the reactionary Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations in America to speak for the Jewish community with virtually no opposition from the progressive majority either within or without their organizations. By raising the Israeli flag, repeating clichés about the ‘existential threat’ to Israel at each and every convenient moment, the majority of Jews have bowed their heads and acquiesced or, worst, subordinated their other ‘progressive’ opinions to actively backing the leaders ‘identity’ with Israel. Their franchise on being the recognized Jewish spokespeople intimidates and/or forces progressive Jews to publicly abide to the line that ‘Israel (sic) knows what is best for Israel’ and by extension for all American Jews who identify with Israel.
A second important factor in undermining progressive American Jewish activity against US-Israeli war policy in the Middle East (Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Palestine) is the influence of Israeli public opinion. A Haaretz report (December 9, 2007) documents a civil rights poll showing that ‘Israel has reached new heights of racism…’, citing a 26% rise in anti-Arab incidents (Association for Civil Rights in Israel Annual Report for 2007). The report cites the doubling of the number of Jews expressing feelings of hatred to Arabs. Fifty percent of Israeli Jews oppose equal rights for their Arab compatriots. According to a Haifa University study, 74% of Jewish youth in Israel think that Arabs are ‘unclean’.
Progressive American Jews, identifying with a racist colonial state, face a dilemma: Whether to act against their primary identity in favor of their progressive opinions or whether to back Israel and submit to its American franchise holders and recognized leaders.
Given these issues, a serious analyst clearly must distinguish between ‘opinions’ and ‘commitment’. While a majority of American Jews may voice private progressive opinions, their commitments based on their identity as Jews rests with the State of Israel and its principal mouthpieces in the US.
This probably explains the unwillingness of progressive Jews to criticize the principal reactionary Jewish leaders and their mass organizations, even worse to attack and slander any critics of the pro-Israel power configuration. Progressive Jews have subordinated their progressive opinions to their loyalty and identity with Israel. Organizationally this has meant that the majority of major American Jewish organizations are still led and controlled by pro-war, pro-Israel leaders. Progressive Jewish organizations are on the fringe of the organizational map, with virtually no influence in the Congress or Presidency and backers of a pro-war Democratic Party and Congress.
Progressive analysts who cite overwhelming Jewish support for the Democratic Party, its top three Presidential candidates and their preference for the liberal label as differentiating them from the leaders of the major organizations, commit an elementary logical and substantive fallacy. Liberals, like the Clintons, supported the wars against Iraq and are among the driving forces promoting a military attack on Iran. The Democratic majority in Congress has backed every military appropriation demanded by the Republicans and the White House. Being Democrat and ‘liberal’ is no indicator of being ‘progressive’ using any foreign policy indicator, from the Middle East wars to destabilizations efforts in Venezuela.
The apparent paradox of progressive anti-war Jews contributing big bucks to pro-war Democrats is based on the latter’s unconditional support for Israel which trumps any ‘dissonance’ that might exist in the head of progressive Jewish political activists.
With the American Pro-Israel Power Configuration leading the way to savaging the National Intelligence Estimate study, released in December 2007, on the absence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, progressive Jewish opinion is silent or complicit. Worse still, progressive liberal and radical Jewish peace activists have acted as gate-keepers in the anti-war movement – prohibiting any criticism of Israel and labeling individuals or citizen activists critical of the pro-war Zionist lobby as ‘anti-Semites’.
The AJC opinion poll on the high proportion of American Jewish with more progressive opinions than the leadership of all the major mainstream organizations would be officially welcomed if it led to something else besides private opinions compromised by Israeli identities.
2. Glen Greenwald, “New Poll Reveals How Unrepresentative Neo-Con Jewish Groups Are”, on salon.com
James Petras is the author of The Power of Israel in the United States (Clarity Press 2006); The Rulers and the Ruled in the US Empire: Bankers, Zionists and Militants (Clarity Press 2007)
He is a specialist on US Zionist politics and a close reader of the Israeli and American Jewish Press.
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