Iran, American Jews, and ‘dual loyalty’

Jack Ross Author, Rabbi Outcast
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The Washington Free Beacon, seconded by Commentary, has pathetically played the thoroughly tattered “anti-Semitism” card in seeking to delegitimize supporters of diplomacy and rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

When the well-respected foreign policy journalist Laura Rozen tweeted, “I do not think Israel is being well served by people they have picked on US side to promote their talking points,” the Free Beacon insisted “Rozen’s suggestion that a Jewish expert is secretly representing the interests of the Israeli government is reminiscent of the longstanding anti-Semitic allegation that Jews have dual loyalties.” Jonathan Tobin at Commentary went further: “The notion that the only reason why someone would oppose administration policy on Iran is that they were ‘picked’ by Israel to ‘promote their talking points’ is one that is dangerously close to the toxic Walt-Mearsheimer ‘Israel Lobby’ thesis that also sought to delegitimize supporters of the Jewish state.”

One need look no further than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself to point out the absurdity of this dissembling. In just the last two weeks, the Prime Minister addressed a gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and admonished them, in a tone one could easily be forgiven for interpreting as marching orders, that it was their duty to prevent the United States from reaching a diplomatic accord with Iran. Any protest by such scribblers that their primary concern is not the State of Israel, which they frankly and openly profess to be their “homeland,” by now rings as hollow as an American Communist protesting after 1950 that his principal loyalty was not to the Soviet Union.

Indeed, it is the leaders of Israel and the Ameican Jewish establishment – and in fact, to a great extent, even the very existence of the latter – that has held as a sacred first principle the “dual loyalty” of American Jews to the State of Israel. American Judaism, in the main, does not regard itself as a religion in the sense that the term is understood in the modern world. American Jews, in this discourse, are less a religious community than a polity. All of the major denominations of American Judaism are affiliated with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which regards itself as the governing body of the whole American community and has essentially no other purpose than to advocate for the State of Israel. Said “community,” in turn, is regarded to be nothing more than an appendage of the transnational polity called “the Jewish people” of which, according to the official ideology of the State of Israel, the nation is the collectively held possession as opposed to a state of all its citizens.

When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, it was vulnerable to predictable lurid charges in part because it was not just aimed at the powerful American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). The authors also insisted on documenting a much wider phenomenon, and their use of the somewhat vague term “Israel lobby” did not properly elaborate that AIPAC, and scores of other politically powerful non-religious Jewish organizations like it, are all affiliates of the larger Conference of Presidents. Peter Beinart’s later essay in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” spoke more directly to this reality and provided the more apt and precise term “American Jewish Establishment” of which the Israel lobby is merely a part.

The history of this establishment goes back to even before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Throughout the 1930s, the politically ambitious Rabbi Stephen Wise had been seeking to achieve the political consolidation of the American Jewish community through his World Jewish Congress, claiming it would be a “democratic” expression of the will of American Jewry as opposed to the elitist American Jewish Committee, founded by wealthy German Jews in 1906. From August 30 to September 1, 1943, an “American Jewish Conference” was convened which for the first time presumed to speak as a representative body of all American Jewry, and which constitutionally committed them to the Zionist program. This conference was not convened by Wise, however, but by the American Zionist Emergency Council – the direct ancestor of AIPAC – which by 1958 had become the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

Dissent from the presumptions of the American Jewish Conference at the time was considerable. Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, was one of the most outspoken opponents. The Jewish Labor Committee, founded a decade earlier by veterans of the anti-Zionist Jewish Socialist Bund, was also highly critical of the conference. And while the leadership of Reform Judaism was increasingly dominated by acolytes of Stephen Wise, several rabbis of the classical school formed the American Council for Judaism, which would be the most active resistance organization to the new American Jewish establishment for the next generation.

In 1957, Rabbi Elmer Berger of the American Council for Judaism wrote to his friend Norman Thomas, the venerable American Socialist leader, “I am very much afraid that through a process of erosion of which most Jews today seem to reflect no consciousness whatsoever, Zionism is gradually ‘proving’ most of the allegations which have, at one time or another, been used by the most vicious anti-Semites.” This consciousness finally began to assert itself in the events leading up to the American invasion of Iraq, when AIPAC and others could for the first time be directly implicated in launching a foreign war, as opposed to their more limited demands of the preceding generation such as military aid and vetoing UN resolutions.

The American Jewish establishment only doubled down with its maniacal obsession with attacking Iran, an obsession that simply cannot be explained in rational terms. While one could certainly point to the more lurid (if not always scrupulously translated) statements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it should be recognized that Iran, the civilization that invented both chess and backgammon, has been all too successful in provoking a blustering and self-destructive response from the war party amassed against it for the last decade.

Examining these pathologies of the American Jewish establishment is not only timely with the hopeful developments toward American rapprochement with Iran, but also in connection to the other major story rocking American Jewry in recent weeks – the publication of a comprehensive survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center, demonstrating that American Judaism has been by no means immune from the recent sharp decline of religion in American life.

It is certainly questionable whether under any circumstances the emerging decline of American Jewry could have been averted. But there can be no doubt that a principal factor, if not the only factor, has been disenchantment with the doctrinaire foreign nationalism propagated by the American Jewish establishment, especially since the beginning of this new century. Even today, many rabbis will insist that “Jewish life is impossible without Israel at its core,” but an Israel-centered American Jewish life has plainly failed as much or more than any conceivable alternative to ensure a vibrant future for American Judaism.

Thus, when the ideologues at such redoubts as Commentary and Washington Free Beacon snipe about those who would raise the “dual loyalty” canard against American Jews, as in so many other instances, it is a case of bald projection. They only wish that it were so.