The following is a review of Dan Fleshler’s Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2009) by Dr. Thomas Mitchell:
First of all my credentials for reading the book are that I worked as an intern researcher at AIPAC during the spring of 1995 on the Iran sanctions legislation. I worked under Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two ex-AIPAC staffers who just had the espionage case against them dropped by the Dept. of Justice. I’m also three years younger than Dan, so I’m of the same generation and although I’m not Jewish, I socialized with a lot of American Jews in Israel and to a lesser extent in the U.S. I also was able to con Dan into sending me a review copy.
I must confess that I—like most American Jews—never read the book on the lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I had read the journal article that it was based on and thought it was factually inaccurate and wrong on a number of points—especially on the origins of the Iraq war—but was not anti-Semitic. Fortunately this was not much of a handicap in reviewing Dan’s book as it is not a refutation of the Mearsheimer and Walt book, but rather a different look at what Mearsheimer and Walt loosely define as the Israel lobby.
The introduction included a short personal narrative by Dan, which I found interesting as I’ve never met him. The first chapter is on AIPAC. The thrust is that AIPAC deliberately exaggerates its own power in order to intimidate its opponent and increase its fundraising potential.
This was an open secret within AIPAC. Dan publishes a list of campaign contributions from a congressman and a senator during the 2004 election cycle to illustrate that pro-Israel contributions are relatively modest compared with other industries. And he lists a ranking of overall industry lobby contributions to illustrate the same point—the overall Israel lobby ranks 17th in the top twenty. The second chapter is a road map of the organized American Jewish community. Dan makes the very important point that almost half of all Jews are completely unaffiliated. I’m sure that many more are only loosely affiliated with Reform and Conservative synagogues and show up only during high holy days. I found the chart of the various organizations by basic ideology to be very helpful. For the next edition he might want to mark by asterix those organizations that are primarily religious.
The third chapter discusses the efficacy of AIPAC and other Jewish lobbying on behalf of Israel of both the legislative and executive branches. This, as is the entire book, is based mainly on an extensive set of interviews with former administration and congressional officials/aides, Jewish activists, former AIPAC staffers, and Israelis. The bottom line is that if the president feels strongly about something he prevails over the lobby; if he does not feel strongly he lets it win. Examples of the former are Reagan and the Saudi AWACS deal in 1981 and Bush 41 and the loan guarantees issue and the Madrid Conference. An example of the latter is Nixon telling the Meir government that he would not try to force the Rogers plan on Israel in 1969. I could add to the former category Reagan’s ultimatums to Begin and Sharon in 1982 during the IDF invasion of Lebanon.
The fourth chapter is an explanation on why Jews have traditionally remained quiet rather than openly criticize Israel. It should be noted that Dan is discussing the organized Jews and not the Woody Allens. The fifth chapter is a discussion of the war with Iraq. Here Dan does challenge the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis that protecting Israel was the primary reason behind the war. I know from my own reading of the Israeli press at the time that Israelis were, and still are, much more concerned about Iran as a threat than about Iraq. But Dan argues that Jewish perceptions of Saddam Hussein as a real threat to Israel if not another Hitler figure, colored Jewish reaction to the war. The sixth chapter is an overview of the pro-peace church and pro-peace Arab communities, similar in organization to the second chapter.
The seventh chapter is a discussion with a number of Israelis from the peace camp, just to illustrate that debate is more vigorous within Israel than within the organized American Jewish community. The eighth chapter is a discussion of Jewish self-censorship and why Jewish activists resist using the e-word (evenhanded) and the p-word (pressure). It is a call for Jewish peace activists to be more open and less guarded and muted in their criticisms of Israel. The ninth chapter is a discussion of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on the left. Apparently for the left, fat people are not the last group that it is permitted to mock and criticize openly. Considering that Stalin was a notorious anti-Semite and that many of the leading figures on the international left are anti-Semitic, I don’t think that this should surprise anyone. It was once said that anti-Semitism was the idiot’s socialism, and there seem to still be a lot of idiots on the left. The concluding chapter is a broad summary and exhortation on building a pro-peace Israel lobby.
The last decade has involved a number of people in the American Jewish community attempting to build a pro-peace lobby as a necessary part of the Middle East jigsaw puzzle. I see it as one of four major structural obstacles to peace on the Israeli side. The other three are: 1) Israeli settlements in the West Bank; 2) the Israeli electoral system; and 3) the collapse of the electoral peace camp in Israel. I believe that reconstructing the Israel lobby may be the key to the other three. If the lobby is fixed and a more honest Middle East discussion can take place than maybe the U.S. can begin pressuring Israel over settlement construction and expansion. That will solve both problems one and three. Then America can maybe tackle problem no. 2.
I have two main criticisms of the book. First, rather than attempting to get the U.S. to be a solo evenhanded mediator, the object should be to get to where America’s natural pro-Israel bias can be balanced by Europe’s pro-Arab bias. The model for this should be the joint Anglo-Irish diplomacy in Northern Ireland. This goes along with Obama’s principle of cooperative diplomacy rather than American monopoly. The second is that there is too much emphasis on converting the loony left. This website has played host to a few of their number. These people will never be converted as they are not open to rational argument and evidence.
The book does not really address what constitutes fair criticism of Israel and what is unfair. A blanket unnuanced comparison of Israel or Israelis to Nazis or Nazi Germany falls in the latter category. I don’t care if someone wants to compare IDF armored tactics in 1967 with German blitzkrieg tactics in North Africa or France. After all, Sharon did study the North African war and read about Rommel extensively while in Britain as a student officer. And blanket comparisons with South Africa or apartheid are in the same category. Now a careful comparison and contrast with South Africa is something else. I have done this and continue to do this. But labeling Israel an apartheid state is not what I mean by the latter. But saying that Israel’s dual system of laws on the West Bank as a form of apartheid is something else. The first is an example of delegitimization. The second is a matter of comparison and analysis. I personally find South Africa casts less light on Israel than do Northern Ireland and antebellum America.
I highly recommend this book for pro-peace pro-Israel activists. Especially for younger activists it explains why things are the way they are. The Breira controversy is important to know about as is the attitude of American Jewry towards Zionism before World War II. This book can be a starting point for making alliances with others in pro-peace Christian and Muslim groups in the United States, although the potential for the latter should not be overstated. Dan’s previous occupation as an English instructor is evident in the writing in the book (even if he had to rely on his brother for help with MS Word.)