At Thanksgiving, a friend took me aside and said,
How does Israel get away with this? They are wiping these people out, you can see it before your eyes. But people here are losing their jobs if they say anything against it on social media. Health care workers have lost their jobs at hospitals.
My friend is not alone. The upside of our government’s greenlight to Israel’s unending massacre and destruction in Gaza, with disease and famine looming, is that many are asking the same questions. Why is Joe Biden incapable of doing what any decent person would do, and any leader—of saying, Stop this madness now!
An overwhelming majority of countries in the region and world have condemned the brutal military offensive—what BBC describes as “apocalyptic,” and one high UN official says is “the worst” destruction he’s ever seen. (“They stopped counting the number of women and children killed… It’s complete and utter carnage.”)
And the progressive Democratic base is appalled. And there have been resignations at the State Department and at mainstream media. Even as Israelis regularly appear on our broadcasts, thanking Biden for his unwavering support.
The answer to this puzzle is that Biden fears the domestic political cost: the loss of the Israel lobby inside the Democratic Party. Biden fears the disaffection of the Jewish establishment that has for over 50 years dedicated itself to the principle that there must be no daylight between the U.S. and Israeli governments, even as war crimes are blasted over the airwaves.
This dynamic is rarely discussed in our media because it is thought to foster antisemitic theories of Jewish control. Even addressing the Israel lobby is labeled a conspiracy theory with lawless consequences–such as the reported vandalism of the Los Angeles home of the head of the Israel lobby group AIPAC, with red paint flung on his property as protesters shouted, Baby killer.
There is plenty of evidence for the idea that the lobby’s support is what weighs on Biden’s mind.
Jews are an important part of Biden’s Democratic base. 70 percent of Jews say they are Democrats. And the Jewish community appears to be overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, just as it was during other historical crises—with notable and honorable exceptions. We are “working around the clock to bring urgent relief to the people of Israel,” the Jewish Federations announces in its regular ad on WNYC, the NPR station I listen to.
The dissent of liberal Zionists is over—J Street is back with the rightwing pro-Israel groups in backing Israel’s “right to defend itself” and in opposing a ceasefire.
Zionists are flexing their political muscle in plain sight. AIPAC is said to be planning a multi-million-dollar offensive to pick off Squad members in Congress who have been critical of Israel. A progressive senatorial candidate in Michigan has reportedly been offered $20 million in campaign contributions from a former AIPAC donor to drop his bid and take on Rep. Rashida Tlaib instead. Big donors have withdrawn gifts from universities or threatened to do so in anger over anti-Zionist demonstrations and faculty statements. One Forbes headline said a “Jewish billionaire” was pulling his money from Columbia; and craven remarks equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism from Harvard’s president and Columbia’s too appear to be responses to donor pressure. Columbia’s banning of pro-Palestinian groups has the backing of the president and former president and has sent chills through the academic community.
The media are under similar top-down pressure from Israel supporters. “We are horrified and deeply saddened by the brutal attack on Israel,” the chairman of Comcast/MSNBC (who once participated in the Israeli Maccabee games) said last month, even as Israel was already pounding the Gaza Strip.
The CEO of Warner/CNN, David Zaslav, also issued a statement of support for Israel after it experienced “one of the deadliest [days] in Jewish history since the Holocaust.” Later Zaslav was reported to be considering taking part in a $50 million publicity campaign to “define Hamas to the American people as a terrorist organization.”
CNN’s coverage has been distinctly pro-Israel, as has MSNBC’s. While both networks have aired reports that portray the Palestinian nightmare of the last seven weeks, generally the coverage has been from the Israeli point of view, often with a propaganda-like tone. Israeli government spokespeople are frequent guests, and the Zionist ideology is happily ensconced throughout liberal media. Wolf Blitzer once worked for AIPAC; the Atlantic’s editor once was an Israeli prison guard; and Tom Friedman told a Jewish audience in 2021 that “Israel had me at hello,” and “Don’t worry. In times of crisis, I know where I will be. When the Jewish state is under threat.” Joe Scarborough regularly equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
Our official political culture is Zionist. Joe Biden calls himself a Zionist. Last summer House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries took 22 first-year Democratic congresspeople on a tour of Israel and stood at Netanyahu’s side, alongside the head of AIPAC (whose house is the target of demonstrations).
Biden and Jeffries are surely concerned about Democratic fundraising. Israel supporters use campaign contributions to make sure that the policy debate in the U.S. “remains extremely narrow,” as Nathan Thrall wrote in the New York Times in 2019.
“Despite pointed critiques of American support for Israel by representatives like Betty McCollum of Minnesota, [Rashida] Tlaib and [Ilhan] Omar, there is little willingness among Democrats to argue publicly for substantially changing longstanding policy toward Israel,” Thrall said.
In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of megadonors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors. This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction.
Yes, it’s about “Jewish donors.” At J Street in 2016 political experts described the “gigantic” and “shocking” magnitude of Jewish donors in Democratic Party campaigns—who are perceived to be pro-Israel. A former finance director for many Democratic congressional campaigns said she had always gone to AIPAC for a position paper on Israel before undertaking to raise money from the Jewish community.
To understand what Joe Biden is thinking, it is worth reviewing presidential history, to remind ourselves how significant the Israel lobby is as a force. A few key moments:
- Truman overrode his own State Department and his own opposition to the idea of a religious state to back Israel’s establishment and then turn a blind eye to its expansions. John Judis wrote in his history, “Genesis,” that Truman did so because he needed $100,000 from political donors Abe Feinberg and Ed Kaufmann—a huge sum in 1948—for a whistlestop campaign trip through the midwest when his campaign was broke and Thomas Dewey was threatening to make him a one-termer.
- Both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush lost their bids for a second term in the White House, and it is said that both politicians saw the Israel lobby as a factor in those losses.
Carter repeatedly challenged Israel over its settlements and believed that taking on Israel and its American lobby cost him his job. “From the New York primary [in March 1980] onward, I believe Carter was left with the view that New York Jews had not only defeated him in the primary but were also a factor in his loss in November,” Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat writes.
Bush also hammered Israel over settlements, “because I think this is what the American people want,” he said. But Bill Clinton ran to Bush’s right in 1992 with the support of the Israel lobby and defeated him. Tom Friedman summarized the lesson:
President Bush the first stood outside the White House one day and said I’m one lonely man standing up against the Israel lobby. What happened as a result of that… is that Republicans post Bush I, and manifested most in his son Bush 2, took a strategic decision, they will never be out pro-Israel’d again. That they believe cost them electorally a lot.
- Obama made the same calculation. His need for the endorsement of Haim Saban and other “major Jewish donors” caused him to give in on Israel’s unending landgrabs, Judis writes. And Obama aide Ben Rhodes confirms that view. When Obama and Netanyahu clashed the year before Obama’s reelection campaign, Rhodes had to call “a list of leading Jewish donors… to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides.”
Obama waited for his second term to take Israel on over the Iran deal in 2015. In a major speech, he said that Israel was the only country in the world that opposed the deal. And while Benjamin Netanyahu is completely “sincere” in his opposition, Obama said, “As president of the United States, it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty” to defer to Israel’s wishes on this matter.
- Trump of course abrogated his duty. He did whatever Israel wanted including trashing the Iran deal and moving the embassy and seeking to legalize illegal settlements—all to maintain the support of his largest donor Sheldon Adelson, who gave 100s of millions to Republicans.
This is the history that counts for Joe Biden. He is going to go by the playbook that has evolved over his lifetime–regardless of the growing sympathy for Palestinians in the Democratic base that is evident in poll after poll.
The good thing about today’s crisis is that the lobby’s influence is naked. “Sleepy Joe has a new nickname—Genocide Joe,” cracked another friend at Thanksgiving. It is impossible to imagine Biden ignoring the world’s calls for ceasefire or his own base’s outrage over the images of slaughtered Palestinian families and children—impossible to imagine that without the influence of the organized Jewish community, which patently does not care about these victims, or when it does mention them says that Hamas is to blame.
Another good effect of this crisis is that it has provided a different picture of the Jewish community from blind support for Israel: the vigorous opposition to Israel’s militarism among young and progressive Jews. Witness the incredible cease-fire demonstrations organized by IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. The growth of anti-Zionism will transform (and redeem) the Jewish community. And be a major factor in transforming U.S. policy, as well.