Who is the Israel lobby? It’s religious fanatics, to be sure, but maybe not the ones you think.
The HBO series “Vice” hit it out of the park again recently with its examination of how the rabid support of Israel by Christian fundamentalists here in the United States is undermining prospects for peace in the Middle East. For those rationalists here in America and abroad, this religious connection between America and Israel is an unfortunate, terrifying reality of the modern world.
The truth here in the States is that unqualified, maximalist support for the state of Israel is the sine non qua of domestic politics at the national level. The force behind this reality is, in turn, often referred to as the Israel lobby — a powerful group that can seemingly derail the election of anyone remotely interested in higher office if they do not toe the line on Israel and our aggressive policy in the Middle East.
The lobby does this in a number of ways — much as other lobbies do — typically via the channeling of money and influence toward those that support Israel and away from those who don’t. So far, that’s par for the course in American politics — there is nothing unusual about that and it is reflective of the tactics used by every other organized lobby in the country. This lobby, in particular, is very good at what it does and if you oppose it, then the proper response is to counter-organize, contribute, lobby, and vote — just as the Israel lobby does. That’s how democracy works.
A bit more nefariously, however, is the degree to which the lobby also often resorts to ad hominem charges of anti-Semitism against critics with little, if anything, to substantiate those allegations. Indeed, the most recent example of this was the not-so-subtle campaign to smear Chuck Hagel as an anti-Semite prior to his appointment to head the Pentagon as President Obama’s defense secretary. Since being considered an anti-Semite is akin to being called a Nazi — who everyone hates — the mere threat of being so smeared can be a powerful deterrent to criticizing Israel.
Thus, not only is the lobby rich and sophisticated — as its political contributions and activity both attest — it also often uses spurious charges of racism that conveniently shut down any and all discussions of U.S. attitudes toward and support for Israel. Ironically, this is a tactic that many American conservatives who rank themselves as some of Israel’s biggest supporters accuse blacks of using when they call out conservatives on their own latent racism. So, to put it simply, the Israel lobby is like a combination of a big ethnic lobby and a big corporate lobby rolled into one — no wonder they win so often.
American Jews and the Israel lobby
Taken as a whole, money, influence and the risk of being smeared as an anti-Semite are usually enough to deter almost anyone from challenging U.S. support for Israel, which is why so few of our elected officials do so. The problem with this thesis of the overwhelming power of the lobby, however, is the strange way it works, even in areas where there are few, if any, American Jews around to propel it. It turns out the Israel lobby as a whole is not exactly who you think it might be.
This is because American Jews, who many of the uninformed take as the driving force behind the Israel lobby, are actually a rather small part of the American population, while the money pro-Israel American Jews funnel to politicians is a trivial amount compared to the vast sums spent elsewhere in our politics. True, the odd Sheldon Adelson may be able to wield undue influence among Republicans due to his money, but this does not explain why the likes of Jeb Bush — already wealthy and able to tap vast amounts of conservative cash — needs to kowtow to this extremist casino magnate who wants America to use atom bombs against Iran.
American Jews themselves are also increasingly not of one mind when it comes to Israel, and a growing portion of them do not see Israel through the Holocaust-blinkered eyes of their elders. This new trend among Jewish-American youth, which has been documented at length by Peter Beinart in his excellent book The Crisis of Zionism, is a much more skeptical take on Israel that calls out the Jewish state on its 60-year occupation of the West Bank, its strangling of Palestinian life, its growing tendency toward a theocratic, fundamentalist form of Judaism and its blatant racism toward Arabs — even those counted as Israeli citizens.
While this new, more critical group of American Jews does not yet have the power or influence of American Israel Public Affairs Committee right-wingers like Adelson, they are nonetheless challenging the unquestioned pro-Israel position our politicians so often take by questioning the narrative proffered by the Jewish-American far right. Moreover, they are doing so from an unassailable ethnic position that is deeply in tune with the values of the larger, more secular American society they are part of. It is, after all, easy to paint outsiders as bigots, but similar criticisms are much more difficult to brush off when it’s coming from one’s own side.
The weight of Biblical prophecy
So, when considering the power of the Israel lobby one should remember that it is not synonymous with American Jews, nor are American Jews synonymous with the lobby. Indeed, going forward this is going to be a distinction ever more prevalent in America’s debate about our support for the Jewish state, simply due to demographic changes within the American Jewish community itself. If this is so, then where does the political fuel powering America’s unquestioned pro-Israel stance come from if not from American Jews, who are increasingly divided even among themselves?
This, as observers of American cultural politics and Israel have long known, comes largely from American Christianity — especially the fundamentalist, Protestant variety common in the American Bible Belt. As “Vice”’s wonderful piece so adroitly demonstrates, the real crux upon which the power of the lobby relies is the religious connection that America’s fundamentalist Christians believe exists between the state of Israel and their own interpretations of Biblical prophecy. Terrifyingly, millions of American Christians sincerely believe that Israel’s establishment is prophesied as signaling the beginning of the so-called “End Times,” a period of history that will end with the second coming of Christ.
Before that glorious day — or maybe after, as they differ on the details — the true-blue Christian faithful — Main Street Methodists, backwoods Baptists and the low-born denizens of Pentecostal revival tents — will be raptured into heaven and the Antichrist will rule the world through a global body like the United Nations or European Union. What’s more, slightly sinful Christians — Catholic Papists, most likely — will be left behind to be persecuted like the Jews were in Germany.
While all this is happening, people everywhere will be marked with electronic brands called the Mark of the Beast. Without these brands, they will be unable to engage in commerce. Israel, meanwhile, will be invaded by a massive multinational army led by the Antichrist. This army, Scripture says, will cross the plains of Megiddo at the Battle of Armageddon only to be destroyed along with most of Israel’s Jewish population by divine retaliation by the King of Hosts. The remaining Jews will joyfully convert to Christianity and the survivors of this so-called “Time of Tribulation” will be as one with the Lord.
This — and it bears repeating because it is so obviously insane to anyone not reared on and steeped in this nonsensical swill — is what these people really do believe. If you doubt it, go ask them — perhaps on the Holy Land pilgrimages they take to see the sites where this prophesied future is supposed to take place. Or read the Left Behind series, a novelization of this prophecy that has sold millions of copies. It is madness, of course, and eerily reflects Shiite Islam’s own bizarre prophecy about the return of the Mahdi — the Twelfth Imam who is allegedly in hiding and similarly awaiting the end of the world. Combine this prophecy with the one before and you really get on the clown car to crazy town.
Ironically, Shiite prophecy says the Mahdi is supposed to join with Jesus to fight Satan and the Antichrist, something that America’s rabid Christian Zionists don’t seem to believe will happen because, to them, all of Islam is heretical and heathen. Indeed, Christians who are at all aware of the prophecy seem to believe that the returned Mahdi will actually be the Antichrist they are all supposed to help Israel fight or at least be in league with him.
So, take heart, friends — holy writ in much of Iran and America apparently believes that not only will a great, cataclysmic battle be fought over Israel, but vast numbers of fundamentalist Christians also believe the Antichrist they are supposed to fight may, in fact, be Iranian. And they believe the glorious destruction of millions of Israelis in a religious war is not only foreordained, but is to be celebrated as a signal of Christ’s glorious victory over his evil, apparently Persian, doppelganger.
If this insanity hasn’t unnerved you yet, consider that in 2009 French President Jacques Chirac confirmed that in 2003 then-President George W. Bush used just this Biblical prophecy as part of his larger justification for going to war in Iraq.
Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. … The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. … This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins
This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”
After the 2003 call, the puzzled French leader didn’t comply with Bush’s request. Instead, his staff asked Thomas Romer, a theologian at the University of Lausanne, to analyze the weird appeal.
Read that again and try to understand what it means. Horrifyingly, it suggests that George W. Bush believed a U.S. war against Iraq was Biblically ordained. In other words, it means the greatest foreign policy debacle in living memory — a war that left tens of thousands dead and unleashed chaos right in the heart of the Middle East — was ordained by God, and Bush believed he was being used as God’s instrument in ordering it to happen.
“The hand of God in every bomb blast”
This nails to a cross the reason why the Israel lobby is so powerful. It’s not because of America’s pro-Israel Jews, though many are wealthy and politically influential. Instead, it’s due mostly to the religious fanaticism of a huge portion of American Christians — one of whom was in a position of great power and saw his religious beliefs come to actual fruition by his own doing. Wealth and influence are powerful factors in politics, to be sure, but to gin up a war out of whole cloth like what happened in Iraq, you need fanaticism — either in the form of nationalism or religion.
More frightening still is that this link between America’s fundamentalist voters and politicians and Israel and the goings-on in the greater Middle East still exist and are going strong. It works to stymie every American effort to look at Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arabs, Iranians or Muslims in anything close to an objective matter, and in so doing, it perpetuates the very conflicts their half-baked prophecies talk about. They do all this, moreover, not due to any material raw interest, but out of a set of core, irrefutable religious beliefs that see the hand of God in every bomb blast, missile strike, political revolution or outbreak of armed conflict that occurs in that sad, benighted region.
So, when you turn on the TV and become worried by the latest scenes of fighting in Syria, bomb blasts in Iraq or the never-ending oppression of the Palestinian people by an Israel supported so heavily by your own country, don’t cast your eyes in frustration at the local synagogue or even the nearest Israeli consulate. At best, they are minor players. The true culprit in our support for much of this is closer to home and bears a cross, not the Star of David.