American Jews Do Not Put Israel First

I received an email last month that I want to respond to publicly. It reads as follows:

I agree with you 100% about the Israel lobby's baneful effects on our democracy. Like you (and Tom Friedman), I was appalled when those Congressmen and Senators gave Netanyahu a standing ovation and when they support his policies not because they agree with him but out of fear. I also agree that the lobby is damaging to the interests of the United States and Israel as well.

However, I seriously question if it is wise for you to point these things out. Don't you fear that the things you write are grist for the people who don't like Jews? No doubt people hostile to Jews in general, not mere critics of Israel, quote the things you write and say, "you see, even a Jewish guy who formerly worked at AIPAC says that it controls U.S. policy toward the Middle East." Doesn't that worry you?" I think it should.

That is just an excerpt. But I only want to address his main point: is it "wise" for me to continually write about the lobby when my work can be used by people in ways that I certainly would not approve.

The answer is that this question does concern me. I know how easily it is to take the phrase "the lobby" or "Israel Firsters" and apply them to all Jews.

However, I don't see that happening. The people who hold racial or religious animus against Jews do not need the lobby issue (or even Israel itself) as grist for their bigotry mill. A certain segment of the population does not like Jews, just like others (or the same) segments of the population do not like African-Americans, or Muslims, or gay people, or whatever. These people have always been out there but, fortunately, at least in the case of Jews, they have always been a tiny and politically insignificant part of the population. They are unlikely to go away and they are unlikely to ever do much damage. They never have.

At the same time, I do worry that the lobby issue could damage Jews if the perception that Jews are more concerned, or even equally concerned, with a foreign country as with the United States takes hold.

However, it certainly doesn't take me to reveal that politicians in this country pander to the pro-Israel lobby more than to any other lobby dedicated to securing the interests of a foreign country (in fact, the Israel lobby has no close competition in that regard).

When Prime Minister Netanyahu gets a more powerful ovation in Congress than any president of either party, when Governor Romney flies off to Israel to hold a fundraising event there, when speaker after speaker at both conventions effusively salute Israel from the podium (but no other foreign country) it hardly takes my commentary to make people notice the unique place the lobby and Israel itself hold in American politics.

Nor am I responsible for putting the AIPAC convention on C-Span each year so Americans can see their highest leaders (often including the president and always the congressional leadership) stand in front of U.S. and Israeli flags to proclaim devotion to the Jewish state and to whatever policy (lately it has been sanctions on Iran) that AIPAC is pushing.

Nor am I responsible for the likes of Sheldon Adelson on the Republican side and Haim Saban on the Democratic who combine their massive campaign contributions with assurances that their particular choice will be the most pro-Israel president ever.

I didn't create the parties cutout organization (the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council) which are dedicated to rounding up support for its respective candidate on the basis of Israel and its supposed needs.

As for Congress, everyone knows about the power of the lobby and that Members of the House and Senate do not deviate from the AIPAC line out of fear of offending an organization with close ties to key donors.

This isn't news.

It may be news, however, that the lobby does not speak for most Jews who, while most are pro-Israel, are not particularly Israel-centered.

The last fairly definitive poll we have on that score came in 2008 during the presidential campaign when the American Jewish Committee found that just 3 percent of Jews vote with an eye on Israel issues.

The rest cast their ballots based on American domestic issues and, on those issues, Jews are overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic (Barack Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008). Their commitment to domestic liberalism is why Jews have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1928 and why it is unlikely that will change any time soon.

We are Americans and vote based on American interests. AIPAC represents its 100,000 members and, more significantly, the donors associated with it. It does not speak for the community as a whole, not by a long shot. The same applies to the other Jewish organizations in AIPAC's orbit.

It is critical that Americans understand that, because the perception that American Jews are so attached to Israel that they put its interests above their own country's could negatively influence Americans who have never been biased against Jews.

And that is why I think it is "wise" for me and others like me to speak out and say: I'm a Jew and the lobby does not speak for me. I care about Israel but the interests of my own country will always come first. I understand that the interests of the United States and Israel are not identical and, when they conflict, my default position is to stand with my president not Israel's prime minister. (Lobby activists never criticize Israeli prime minister, but only the U.S. president, whether Democratic or Republican, when the two countries diverge).

I also think it is "good for the Jews" for Muslims and Arabs to know that the lobby speaks only for the lobby and not for all Jews or even for all pro-Israel Jews. How can it be beneficial for a tiny minority to be viewed as hostile to the infinitely larger Arab and Muslim world? It isn't, and we're not.

The bottom line is that it is not writing about the lobby that could potentially harm Jews. It is rather the perception that the lobby speaks for all of us. My mission is to say "oh no, it doesn't" and to do everything I can to make sure my fellow Americans understand it. For Americans to think otherwise is, as the phrase goes, "bad for the Jews." And for America, the safest haven Jews have ever had.

This post has been modified since its original publication.