Jeffrey Blankfort: Breaking the Silence on the Israel Lobby

By Jeffrey Blankfort

On a Saturday in mid-February a little less than a year ago, I had two experiences, one very positive and encouraging –the other negative and disturbing. The first was at the Marin Community Center in Mill Valley, across the Bay from San Francisco, where more than 200 (210 signed in) people, and not what we refer to as "the choir" or "the usual suspects," turned up to hear Palestinian legal scholar Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian professor Jess Ghannam, Stanford-based Israeli scholar Yael Ben-Zvi and myself speak on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The event was sponsored by a relatively new organization, "If Americans Knew." Initiated by Alison Weir, a Marin county resident who had been stimulated into action in behalf of the Palestinians after a visit to Israeli-occupied Gaza the year before.

All of the presentations were well received but the enthusiastic reception for mine, in particular, was significant because my subject was the pro- Israel lobby and its negative influence on the American body politic.

I placed much of the blame for the escalation of violence in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict on the actions of the organized American Jewish community and by individual Jews working independently who over the years have successfully stifled, intimidated, and marginalized critics of Israeli policies.

I expected uproar from the audience because, from my experience, Marin had always been another "occupied territory," but even among the many Jews there, none challenged by premise or my evidence.

What they heard and saw was factual and visual evidence of the power of Israel’s supporters over Congress and politicians at every political level and. equally damning, their effectiveness in preventing the various anti-war and anti-intervention coalitions over the years from taking any position that might touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even one as mild as, "US Out of the Middle East."

After I spoke and after the applause, a number of people, Jews and non-Jews, and several students came up to me wanting more information.

Then I went over to Berkeley to the second day of a three-day conference organized by Students for Justice in Palestine where the issue of the Israel Lobby was nowhere on the agenda.

I arrived during Phyllis Bennis’s presentation. Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based liberal think tank, is one of the left’s more well known talking heads on the Israel-Palestine conflict and can frequently be heard on KPFA and other Pacifica stations. Over the years, like most of the other "experts, from the "left," with the notable exceptions of Columnist Alexander Cockburn and Prof. Ed Herman, she has never recognized, let alone been willing to discuss, the power of the Israel Lobby over US policy in the Middle East, despite overwhelming and indisputable evidence of its existence and of its influence.

What happened when I arrived in the auditorium was astonishing. Seeing me in the back of the auditorium where I was sitting with a friend, totally out of the blue and raising her voice, she interrupted her talk to blurt out, "Congress is not Israeli Occupied Territory!"

I assumed she was referring to an article that I had written 10 years earlier that was published in the 1992 edition of the City Lights Review, entitled, "Occupied Territory: Congress, the Israel Lobby and Jewish Responsibility." In the article I had criticized the left supporters of the Palestinian movement for their failure to deal with the issue of the Israel lobby.

My response to Bennis was immediate "Yes, it is!, " I said aloud. "No it isn’t!" she shot back, sharply, rather displeased, and went on to describe an effort that some members of the Congressional Black Caucus were making regarding the illegal use of US arms by the Israelis. against Palestinian civilians..

In the question period, it became obvious that she didn’t want me to get the floor. While answering a question as to what actions people should take to help the Palestinian cause, she seemed to be filibustering as if she was hoping the question period would draw to a close.

What would she have activists do? Believe it or not: write letters to the editor once a week. The system’s safety valve. As far as contacting members of Congress or protesting their support for Israel, the Washington-based Bennis said nary a word.

Finally, despite what was an obvious effort on her part to get the moderator- -who had promised me the next question, to give it to someone else–I finally got the floor. I proceeded to describe four situations in which the Israel lobby clearly demonstrated its power over Congress and explained how "the lobby" had run those black congressmembers who criticized Israel out of office and were trying to do the same with the main critic at that time, Atlanta’s Cynthia McKinney.

This was, of course, several months before she and Albama’s Ear; Hilliard went down to defeat thanks largely to funds sent by Jews from outside of Georgia and a smear campaign within her district engineered by the Israel lobby.

Then I took the anti-war movement to task. Like every other political sector of US society, I said that pro-Israel Jews within its ranks and others who are fearful that raising the issue of the pro-Israel lobby would provoke "anti-Semitism, have not only kept the lid on that issue, but have kept the Palestinian cause isolated from the movement’s overall agenda..

Whatever the reason, I emphasized, there are no excuses for the silence of the movement on the issue of the lobby nor for it’s genuflecting to "Jewish sensibilities" regarding the overall struggle.

Neither Bennis nor her co-panelist, a Jewish professor, said a word when I finished. After the program, I went down to say hello to her, and jokingly mentioned that she still had not yet understood the role of the Israel Lobby.

She was neither friendly or amused. "The issue is dead and has been dead.." End of conversation.

What is disturbing is that her position regarding the Israel lobby is that long held by Noam Chomsky, as well, as by professors Joel Beinin of Stanford and Stephen Zunes of USF. Bennis’s position is puzzling since she is based in Washington, where, for the politically aware, "the lobby’s" power is a given.

To their credit, all of them, and Chomsky in particular, have, through their writing and speaking, have exposed American audiences to the history of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, but their refusal to acknowledge the critical domestic aspects of the struggle are indefensible and can no longer be left unchallenged..

(In 1989, Zunes wrote an excellent piece on the power of the pro-Israel lobby for The Progressive, but he soon changed his position, perhaps when he realized that "blaming the Jews" is the fastest way to get marginalized in US academia. The facts and the quotes in his article, however, did not change.

In his recent book, Tinderbox, he writes that Arabs have mistakenly blamed Israel for its problems and that Israel is actually a victim of US policies. He would have us believe that Israel is forced to play the same role for the United States that Jews played under feudalism when they were the middlepersons between the lords and the serfs.

This analysis would have us believe that Israel and its Jewish supporters today are somehow in the precarious position that European Jews found themselves in several hundred years ago This is absurd. The first situation represented Jewish weakness. Today, Jews have more than at any time in their history.

Zunes ignores the fact that Jewish supporters of Israel are far and away the leading contributors to the Democratic Party and dominate every sector of the media: movies, TV., radio, and the press.

Since 1978, the amount of money contributed by pro-Israel PACs alone is over $34 million, as compared to Enron whose $6 million over 10 years given to many of the same politicians is held up as an example of an abuse of the system.

That $34 million does not account for soft money and contributions from wealthy Jews such as the $1.1 million given by real estate mogul Nat Landow to Al Gore nor the $1.5 given to Joe Biden some years back by Walter Shorenstein, the biggest commercial property owner in San Francisco, the sometime head of the state Democratic Party Central Committee and a member of the AIPAC Board of Directors.

On the Mother Jones magazine website <www.motherjones.com> one finds the leading individual contributors to both political parties in the 1999-2000 cycle. Eight of the top ten are Jews who contributed, with one exception, exclusively to the Democratic Party. That one exception was Chiquita Banana’s Carl Lindner who contributed to the Republicans as well.

One of those top ten was Haim Saban, currently a regent of the University of California, appointed to that post by Gov. Gray Davis, in February, 2001. Saban, an Egyptian-born Israeli Jew, contributed $1,250,500 in that cycle to the Democrats which put him in fifth place. This year, his contribution to the Democrats of $7 million established a party record.

Saban, who made his fortune by creating Fox TV’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, has also built the Haim Saban Center in Washington which this summer hosted a meeting of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), Israel’s officially registered lobby with Jewish college students from around the country. Their focus: How to counteract pro-Palestinian activity on college campuses and combat the divestment campaigns that target Israel such as that initiated by the Students for Justice in Palestine.

In every other political and social struggle in this country we learn who is funding the other side and the identity of their lobbies in Washington, e.g., the oil lobby, armaments lobby, the tobacco lobby, the gun lobby, the insurance and banking lobbies, the hospital and mecical lobbies, the airline and transportation, etc.

Why is the Israel Lobby a taboo subject among the left and the anti-war movements? Why was it not on the agenda of the conference in Berkeley that weekend? There were three days of meetings so its organizers had plenty of time.

Why was there no discussion on the failure of the peace and anti-war movements to integrate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the over-all anti-war movement?

These questions need to be asked and we need to get answers. Those who shine us off with the same kind of comment that Phyllis Bennis gave to me that day have to be challenged to explain themselves and be willing to debate the question of the lobby’s role in determining not only policy in Washington but the agenda of the peace movement.

As for Bennis, I was later told by an activist against sanctions in Iraq, that earlier in the day she had spoken in support of military sanctions against Iraq to prevent it from building "weapons of mass destruction."

(This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in February, 2002.)

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