interesting times

How Should We Talk About the Israel Lobby’s Power?

Rep. Ilhan Omar during a news conference on prescription drugs in January. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way first: Using the phrases “all about the Benjamins” and “allegiance to a foreign country” when referring to the Israel lobby in D.C., as freshman Democratic representative Ilhan Omar recently did, is anti-Semitic. It should be possible to criticize Washington’s relationship with Israel without deploying crude and freighted language like this. But it got me wondering: Is it possible to write honestly about the Israel lobby’s power in D.C. without using any anti-Semitic “tropes” at all?

The basic facts are not really in dispute. A very powerful lobby deploys the money and passions of its members to ensure that a foreign country gets very, very special treatment from the U.S. Many of its supporters are Evangelical Protestants who want to accelerate the Second Coming. Others spring from an older and very American form of Christian Zionism. Many others are also American Jews with a commitment to Israel that has its roots both in the Torah and in a vow never to allow a second Holocaust.

I find basing foreign policy on apocalyptic predictions from dubious parts of the Bible dangerous, but, hey, Christianists are going to Christianist. And the zeal of many Jewish Americans for Israel is completely understandable. After the Holocaust, no Jew need apologize for a millisecond for having Israel’s back. When you see the rising, rancid tide of open anti-Semitism in Europe, the capture of the British opposition party by this poisonous hatred, and the sharp rise in hate crimes against Jews, even in New York City, defending Israel is a core interest of not only Jews but all of us in what’s left of the West.

The question, it seems to me, is one of proportion.

Take foreign aid. The U.S. provides the Jewish state with $3.8 billion a year in aid, and has committed to doing so for each of the next ten years. Compare that with what the U.S. gives other allies who are as wealthy as Israel: The U.K. got $150,000 in 2017; South Korea got $775,000. The average aid for high-income countries like Israel, according to USAID, is $79 million a year. Israel gets 48 times more.

Per capita, the disparity is close to absurd. Israel gets $436 in U.S. aid a year; dirt-poor Afghanistan $154; post-war Iraq $91; Egypt $14. By any measure, this is extreme exceptionalism. Yes, Israel faces military threats. But so does South Korea. And, unlike South Korea, Israel has nuclear weapons (illegally acquired) and its enemies don’t. The IDF and the Mossad stride the region with unparalleled military capacity and a vast technological edge. Israel is not David any more. It’s Goliath. And even if you believe the U.S. should somehow be aiding a country as wealthy as Israel, you’ve got to admit the scale of it is off the charts.

You might expect that in return for all that money and military protection, the Israeli government would be eager to please the U.S., help buttress American foreign policy diplomatically, or respond swiftly when the U.S. asks the Jewish state not to violate international law, launch wars that kill a lot of civilians, or construct a brutal and corrosive apartheid state on the West Bank. But after you’ve spent a while in Washington, you begin to realize that’s not exactly how this works. In return for giving Israel $3.8 billion a year … the U.S. is expected to consent to anything and everything Israel wants. When you look at this from a distance, it is really quite amazing.

It has, for example, been long-standing U.S. policy that the settlements in the West Bank are terribly counterproductive to any future peace. For decades, American presidents of both parties have asked the Israelis to stop, pause, or reverse this — and Israel has essentially told each of them to go fuck himself. Yes, they bob and weave a bit, but every year, the project of repopulating the West Bank with more and more fundamentalist Jews continues apace, in open violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and in a manner that effectively removes any chance for the conquered and perpetually humiliated Palestinians to build their own state. In fact, under Trump, the pace of population and settlement growth is surging.

Then we had the spectacle of how Israel undermined the last American president. The Jewish state and its powerful lobby went to war with Obama over his attempt to get Iran to curtail its nuclear program. You might imagine that Israel would be relieved that its major sponsor and ally was prepared to remove or at least restrain the greatest threat to Israel’s security. But no. Israel would prefer that the U.S. go to war with Iran, or militarily cripple its nuclear facilities. From the very get-go, Israel and AIPAC did everything they could to kill one of the core goals and achievements of Obama’s presidency. It was not enough to constrain Iran; the U.S. had to wage war on it.

The lowest moment was when the Evangelical-dominated GOP invited Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress to rant against the president’s policy in a final, bitter act of spite. The president wasn’t even notified of the invitation. I ask you: Can you imagine any other leader of any other ally who would treat the president of the United States this way? And it’s hard to forget that Oval Office press chat when Netanyahu simply lectured Obama and treated him with what can only be called contempt. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And, of course, Israel won in the end. Under Trump, Israel has achieved almost every goal it aimed for: the scrapping of the Iran deal, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a surge in settlements, and an intensification of the abuse of the Palestinians. Every form of U.S. aid to Palestinians in the West Bank has ended. We’re now the only country to have no diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, and just defunded the U.N. agencies that serve Palestinian refugees. Again you might ask: What did the U.S. get in return for all this from Israel? And again the answer is: Nothing.

Actually, worse than nothing. The U.S. suffers internationally from this alliance. Don’t take it from me. Here’s General James Mattis: “I paid a military price every day as the commander at CentCom because the Americans were perceived as biased toward Israel and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us.” Or David Petraeus: “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of American favoritism toward Israel.” I would defend the alliance despite this, because of my core belief in a Jewish state. But I cannot tolerate the way Israel abuses the alliance and the Palestinians in return.

Now observe the public discourse in Washington. Here is Nancy Pelosi last year: “If this capitol crumbled to the ground, the one thing that would remain would be our commitment to aid — I won’t even call it aid — our cooperation with Israel.” Chew on that a minute. If the United States were to collapse, its one objective would be to aid a foreign country. Here’s Chuck Schumer: “The view of Palestinians is simple, the Europeans treated the Jews badly culminating in the Holocaust and they gave them our land as compensation. Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace.” If only Palestinians would convert to Judaism, all would be well!

Then this truly surreal phenomenon: The first bill introduced into the Senate in this Congress was one that made it illegal for any American to boycott goods from the West Bank, without suffering real economic consequences from their own government. It’s a federal bill designed to buttress several state bans on Americans’ right to boycott Israeli goods. Now here’s a clear case of conflict between the free speech rights of Americans and Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank. And the Senate voted for Israel’s occupation over the rights of its own citizens by a margin of 77– 23. One recalls what a former AIPAC head, Steve Rosen, said to Jeffrey Goldberg over lunch in 2005: “‘You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.” He was too modest.

I think this grotesque distortion of U.S. foreign policy deserves a much wider debate, but is constrained by cheap accusations of anti-Semitism. To give an example, if a critic of Israel were to use the exact same words as Steve Rosen, and argue that AIPAC is so powerful it could snap its fingers and have 70 senators’ signatures on a bill within 24 hours, he’d likely be deemed a bigot. And that is part of the Israel lobby’s power: its capacity to punish anyone for opposing it. It seems to me that it is simply a fact that the Israel lobby uses money, passion, and persuasion to warp this country’s foreign policy in favor of another country — out of all proportion to what Israel can do for the U.S. That comes perilously close to anti-Semitic tropes, but it’s also the truth. AIPAC, like the NRA, is a uniquely American phenomenon, and again like the NRA, full of an intense fanaticism that sometimes beggars belief. In many ways, this passionate intensity is understandable. History matters. But it’s not a rational way for a great power to conduct foreign policy. The one-way street has also corrupted Israel, wrecked its moral standing, and enabled the country to keep ratcheting toward the far right in self-destructive ways.

Can our current controversy lead to a less inhibited debate? I sure hope so. Will that actually happen? All I can say is that AIPAC will wield all the power it can muster to prevent it.

The Emergency Is Real

I hate to break it to you, but there really is an emergency at the southern border.

This year, there has been a massive surge in migrants with children arriving at the border applying for asylum. They are showing up at the usual ports of entry but also in more remote areas where border control is completely overwhelmed. Last month, 76,000 men, women, and children arrived — an 11-year high. This year is on course for potentially 700,000 arriving — close to the highest peaks in the Bush years. The numbers are up 97 percent from the previous fiscal year. If seasonal trends continue, we could be closing in on 100,000 migrants in detention by the end of this month.

The pace also seems to be accelerating: Where it once took weeks for many Central American migrants to get through Mexico to the U.S. border, many are now getting on buses and reaching the border in as little as four to seven days “on a very consistent basis,” Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection told reporters last Tuesday. The reason seems quite simple: Migrants now know that the U.S. border system is overwhelmed. More to the point, they now know that if they bring their children with them, they will not be abruptly sent back, and cannot be detained for longer than 20 days, after which they will be free to go and work anywhere in the country. That incentive is much stronger now than it was a year ago. Medical care for migrants is overwhelmed, as are detention centers. Charity groups providing shelter and care are in crisis:

“We had never seen these kinds of numbers,” Ruben Garcia, the director of the organization called Annunciation House. He said that during one week in February, immigration authorities had released more than 3,600 migrants to his organization, the highest number in any single week since the group’s founding in 1978.

What has happened in Guatemala to produce such a growing mass of asylum seekers? The truth appears to be some food insecurity after a failed harvest — but mostly the news that the U.S. border is effectively open, and if you bring your kids and show up, you’re home free. Nick Miroff reports in the Washington Post that “the Central American families — called ‘give-ups’ because they surrender instead of trying to sneak in — have left frustrated U.S. agents viewing their own role as little more than the facilitators for the last stage of the migrants’ journey. They are rescuing families with small children from river currents, irrigation canals, medical emergencies and freezing winter temperatures.” God bless them for this work, but the more migrants successfully get to America, the more will surely be incentivized to come.

What is the Trump administration doing? The good news is that the latest border deal provides $415 million to improve conditions in detention. The bad news is that it’s too late if this surge continues at this pace. The wall is irrelevant. It doesn’t help prevent asylum seekers. And attempts to scale up medical care, detention facilities, or ICE processing cannot cope with the sheer numbers at the rate they’re coming.

The Democrats for their part keep saying that there is no crisis at all, berate the administration for insufficient care or tougher enforcement at ports of entry, and actually attempted to restrict the number of beds assigned for detention in their last negotiation with the president (it didn’t happen). At some point, they’re going to have to grapple with this genuine emergency.

Miroff interviewed the father of a young son:

Across rural Guatemala, Martinez said, word has spread that those who travel with a child can expect to be released from U.S. custody. Smugglers were offering two-for-one pricing, knowing they just needed to deliver clients to the border — not across it — for an easy surrender to U.S. agents. “If this continues, I don’t think there will be anyone left in Guatemala,” Martinez joked. The men from his village near the town of Chiquimula were all leaving, he said, bringing a child with them.

This is not a joke. This is fraudulent mass asylum-seeking — a development very few foresaw. And under current law, I see no limiting principle. The president’s executive actions have been stymied by the courts, and rightly deemed immoral. But how do we stop this? Congress has to act to change the law that enables this. Asylum, traditionally understood, was once for those fleeing political or ethnic persecution. It wasn’t a catch-all for any economic migrant, who can be coached to say the right words to the right official. It’s a vast loophole in the immigration system — and if it isn’t fixed legislatively soon, the current massive wave will keep building.

If you think that won’t empower more nativist demagogues and help reelect Trump, you’re dreaming.

Too Liberal to Be Tolerant

Here’s a sign of the times: White liberals now believe there is more racism in America than African-Americans do. A 2017 Pew study, cited by the invaluable Tom Edsall, found the that “among white liberals … 79.2 percent agreed that ‘racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.’ 18.8 percent agreed that ‘blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition. … Among blacks, 59.9 percent identified discrimination as the main deterrent to upward mobility for African-Americans, and 32.0 percent said blacks were responsible for their condition.”

On gender, sexual orientation, and identity, white liberals have also shifted dramatically in recent years, while blacks are pretty much where they were, according to a 2017 Gallup poll: “Whereas just 39 percent of white Democrats said they were liberal on social issues back in 2001–2005, that has risen to 61 percent since 2015–2017. By contrast, blacks’ views have hardly changed: 34 percent in the 2001–2005 period vs. 37 percent in 2015–2017.” Around the same proportion of black Democrats describe themselves as conservative as those who identify as liberals.

These white super-liberals are also, according to a fascinating survey featured in The Atlantic, the most blinkered. Money quote: “The most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves … They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.”

It rings true to me. The survey found that the city most intolerant of other people’s views was Boston, specifically around Cambridge. The most tolerant — Watertown, New York. What’s the difference? Watertown is “a very white place, but it’s also fairly young, largely suburban and rural, and not particularly highly educated.” This most tolerant town is in a county that voted for Trump by a 20-point margin. Let’s absorb that fact for a while, shall we?

I have to say that’s the first bit of good news I’ve read in a while. There are still places where you can be friends with those of another party or ideology, and experience a real diversity of opinion in your life. But the results suggest a damning verdict on American higher education. My alma mater Harvard, a university where free speech, ideological differences, and competing arguments should flourish is, in fact, a nest of smug intolerance. Our elite colleges may be the most “diverse” ever. But they have also become machines for closing students’ minds.

See you next Friday.

How Should We Talk About the Israel Lobby’s Power?