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The Israel Lobby’s GOP Past

Jewish voters are a reliable Democratic bloc. But the Republican Party established the first platform on Israel—and brought the Democrats along.

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Advertisement by the New Zionist Organization of America in the New York Times, 1943. (Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies)
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Robert D. Kaplan’s deification of John J. Mearsheimer in The Atlantic last week shows that the authors of The Israel Lobby are winning

The influence of the late Benzion Netanyahu over his son Benjamin, the prime minister of Israel, is perhaps the most over-discussed Oedipal theme in the psycho-history of international affairs. But as it turns out, the late Netanyahu’s political influence seems to extend much further than his immediate heirs. According to a new book, Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel, by Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff, the scholar who is now being remembered for writing one of the 20th-century’s most significant works of history was also a practical man of political action who helped pioneer Washington’s Jewish lobby.

In the early 1940s, Benzion Netanyahu met with members of Congress and other political players to solicit American support for Jewish causes, including the creation of a Jewish state. He became such an important figure on Capitol Hill that in helping to draft the Republican political platform in the 1944 presidential campaign, he forced the other party—the one led by FDR—to match it and thereby created a bipartisan consensus on what was at the time called the “Palestine issue.”

“He had meetings with Hoover, Robert Taft, Claire Boothe Luce, Alf Landon,” said co-author Rafael Medoff. But Netanyahu’s reasons for reaching out to GOP figures had little to do with strict ideological alignment. Mainstream Jewish leaders who had built up close relations with Roosevelt avoided cultivating relationships with the president’s political rivals out of loyalty, sympathy for his domestic policies, and in many cases disdain for the Republicans. Netanyahu made no bones about targeting the Republicans. To him, it made obvious political sense. “The key element of Netanyahu’s political strategy was to form relationships on both sides of the aisle,” Medoff told me. “It’s conventional wisdom to do it now, but it wasn’t back then.”

Netanyahu arrived in Washington in 1940 as part of an entourage headed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who would die in August of that year in New York. The Revisionist Zionist leader had come to the United States to promote the idea of a Jewish military unit that would fight alongside the allies, as the Jewish Legion he inspired did during World War I, and to plead for the rescue of European Jews from the Nazis and for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The Revisionists feared that the Roosevelt Administration felt no sense of urgency in addressing their issues—and worse, that the Jewish leaders who controlled access to the White House were loath to pressure the president. Mainstream American Jewish leaders like Rabbi Stephen Wise had built close relationships with FDR’s White House and didn’t want to damage their standing with a man who, by 1940, had already been president for eight years. And so rather than pressure the president, they effectively insulated him from criticism.

For instance, according to Herbert Hoover and the Jews, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the United States in 1943, the New Zionist Organization of America—the American wing of the Revisionist movement, where Netanyahu was executive director—ran a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding that “since the British had failed to fulfill the Balfour Declaration’s promise to facilitate creation of a Jewish national home, they should surrender their mandate over Palestine.” Wise and others, according to Medoff and Wentling’s book, were appalled; FDR and Churchill were apparently enraged.

Not surprisingly, the GOP found Netanyahu and his cause a useful instrument with which to beat up on their Democratic rivals and perhaps strip some of the Jewish vote away from the Democrats—a tactic today’s GOP still uses, only with Netanyahu’s son. Nonetheless, as Medoff and Wentling explain in the book, “in addition to the hope of attracting Jewish votes for their party’s candidates, Hoover, Taft and the other Republicans who proved receptive to Zionist appeals appear to have genuinely believed in the merits of the cause.”

Republicans’ reasons for doing so haven’t changed much over the last 60-plus years. Some were moved by pity or guilt over the West’s failure to prevent the Holocaust; others, perhaps a majority, embraced Zionism because of their Christian faith; and yet others, as the authors interestingly explain, believed “that a Jewish state would serve a pro-American bulwark against Soviet penetration in the Middle East.”

This last is worth noting in comparison to one of the many rationales given by American policymakers at the time for not supporting the creation of a Jewish state. For example, Gen. George Marshall, Truman’s secretary of State, feared a Jewish state would serve as a pro-Soviet outpost in the region. “It’s ironic that people like Marshall, who helped run the U.S. alliance with Stalin, should assume that anyone getting practical help from the Soviets was going to be a communist,” said Douglas Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and previous under-secretary of defense for policy under George W. Bush.

As Feith explained, that justification for not supporting the creation of Israel was likely just cover for more fundamental reasons. The State Department put a lot of stock in the fact that there are more Arabs than Jews—and the former have oil. Some State Department staffers, especially among the Arabists, were just plain anti-Semitic. Still, it’s worth wondering how much the Republicans’ early connections with Netanyahu and the Revisionist movement would influence their later appreciation of Israel as a strategic ally.

While many American liberals, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, mourn for the Israel of their childhood, a plucky quasi-socialist underdog governed wholly by Labor Zionists, and lament the rise of a right-wing leadership constantly at war with its neighbors, U.S. conservatives see something else in the current Jewish state. What Republicans prize is a hard-charging, militarily superior liberal democracy with a thriving economy driven by a high-tech industry and a public that can always be counted on to support the United States. In other words, what Republicans like about Israel is based largely on Jabotinsky’s vision of the Jewish state: hawkish, free-market driven, and oriented toward the West.

If the Republicans seem to cherish Jabotinsky’s vision, that’s also due to the efforts of Benzion’s son, Benjamin. “The current phenomenon of GOP support for Israel got a major boost when Bibi became prime minister in 1996,” said Feith. “He came to the U.S. and gave a speech before a joint session of Congress calling for Israel to get weaned off of U.S. economic aid, and Republicans swooned. Jesse Helms said something along the lines of: That was the best speech a foreign leader had given to congress since Churchill. This built up Israel’s image as tough and self-reliant.”

And yet Medoff points out that Netanyahu’s appeal isn’t limited to Republicans. He notes Bibi’s latest speech to Congress last May and the dozens of ovations awarded him by Republicans and Democrats.

“In my many interviews with Benzion Netanyahu,” says Medoff, “he never commented on policies of his son. But it’s safe to assume that his sons learned much of their politics at the father’s knee, and you can see a certain parallel. You look for friends and political allies anywhere and everywhere.”

It’s conventional wisdom that it’s the Democrats who have always been the Jews’ greatest allies and most ably represent their views, from domestic policy to foreign affairs. And with good reason: The Democrats certainly get the majority of Jewish votes, without fail. But as Herbert Hoover and the Jews reminds us, it was the Republicans who got there first in helping to establish a formal Israel platform.


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Why does support for Israel have to be a partisan issue?  This is a Republican invention. I never heard Democrats campaign on the premise that they are greater supporters of Israel because Harry Truman recognized Israel or they never wielded financial aid as a weapon to change internal Israeli Politics, like George W. Bush and James Baker did. Republicans did not tout Richard Nixon’s aid to Israel in 1973. 
Partisanship on Israel  is an invention of former Trotskyites and Stalinists who atone for their sins by becoming neocons and turning respectable journals like Commentary into rightwing screeds. Lee Smith and his ilk disgust me, and will be responsible for the apathy of the college age generation of America Jews towards Israel in the future, no matter how many Disneyland tours of  Israel Sheldon Adelson pays for.

Interesting article.  I will also note that in the most recent AJC survey… 70% of American Jews approved of Bibi’s handling of Israel US relations.  He is remarkably popular among American Jews.

emunadate says:

If Israel was established with the help of the republican party, why are so many jews democrats?

debralbe says:

It’s too bad the “wonderful Republicans” don’t like Jews for the sake that they are jews, but for selfish reasons.  Next time Tablet Magazine, why don’t you try to write a non-partisan article about Jews and America!!

    debralbe, you’re a silly little man.  Escape from your West Side bubble and come out to meet real Americans.  You’ll find that conservative Republicans love us especially because we are Jews.

      Potlemac says:

      Ehuda4, conservative republicans love Jews because they are so eager to baptize them before the rapture!

      Potlemac says:

      Ehuda4, conservative republicans love Jews because they are so eager to baptize them before the rapture!

PhillipNagle says:

Unfortunately though he knew of the Holocaust, FDR did nothing, and those fawning Jews refused to say anything.  For a while, when Israel was ruled by socialists (and was an economic basket case) the Left admired Israel.  Now that Israel has abandoned socialism and prospered they are hated by the Left which now idolizes some of the most repressive regimes on earth.  The current White House has shown itself to be anti-Israel until they need Jewish money.  I thought we Jews were supposed to be smart but we still vote Democrat.

jmm64 says:

    If  Jimmy Carter ran again as the Democratic candidate against Moses as the Republican candidate, the majority of American Jews would vote for Jimmy Carter. It’s very sad that Israel is not higher up on their list of voting priorities.

    Patriot493 says:

    It is precisely because Israel is high on their list of priorities that Jews vote Democratic. The overwhelming majority of American Jews do not approve of the GOP’s “whatever Netanyahu says goes” approach to determining our foreign policy.

    It’s a tough call.  Moses’ war crimes were more serious than Jimmy Carter’s.

hume1934 says:

I recall vividley that day my father took me to the port to see the St Louis that was anchered in  Havana Cuba. What a tragedy happend to this ship full of Jewish refugies when FDR was
president I was only about 8-9 years old. As I grew older an eventually moved  to the USA I feel that we stand alone, can’t trust the present white house and we have all learned the lesson. Must jewish people have the idea that FDR was a jew lover. What a joke. Just remember on election day

71JD32 says:

Move a Chicagoan to San Diego and soon he’ll forget the wind, sleet and snow and start complaining when the temperature drops below 60 degrees.

Relations between Israel and the United States are warmer under President Obama than under previous administrations, yet we hear that the President has a “Jewish problem.” The problem is not Obama, but us: In only three years, we’ve lost historic perspective. We’re criticizing Obama for what would have gone unnoticed in other administrations.Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger threatened to “reassess” America’s relationship with Israel. Obama has declared that America’s bond with Israel is “unbreakable,” and Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak credited Obama for the strongest relationship between the two countries ever.Ronald Reagan suspended arms shipments to Israel and supported a UN resolution criticizing Israel for bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Obama secretly sold Israel the bunker busting bombs it requested during the Bush administration and cast the only UN veto of his administration against the one-sided anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution on settlements.George W. Bush pressured Israel to allow Hamas to participate in Gaza elections and made little progress in stopping Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons. Obama has not negotiated with Hamas. He has mobilized the international community to impose the toughest sanctions ever against Iran and flat-out declared that that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, saying no options are off the table.Obama’s pro-Israel accomplishments compare favorably with any Republican president. Yet we keep complaining.We say he hasn’t visited Israel as president, forgetting that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are the only two presidents who visited Israel during their first terms in office. George W. Bush did not visit Israel until his seventh year as president. Ronald Reagan never visited in his entire life. Obama went to Israel as recently as 2006 and 2008.We complain that the Obama administration criticizes Israel’s settlement policy, forgetting that every administration since 1967 has criticized Israel’s settlement policy. But unlike George H.W. Bush, Obama never threatened to withhold U.S. aid to Israel because of settlement activity; instead, Obama has taken U.S. financial assistance to Israel to record levels.We complain about imagined slights to Prime Minister Netanyahu, forgetting that when the chips were down, Obama came through for Israel and Netanyahu. When Israel asked for help fighting the Carmel forest fires, President Obama’s response was “get Israel whatever it needs. Now.”In September 2011, when the late-night call came from Israel to Obama asking for help in rescuing the Israelis trapped in the Egyptian embassy, Netanyahu himself called it a “decisive and fateful moment,” recalling that Obama “said ‘I will do everything I can.’ And he did.”The list goes on and on. Obama opposed the Goldstone Report, stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla, boycotted Durban II and Durban III, and successfully derailed Palestinian attempts to unilaterally declare statehood at the UN. He’s done more than any president to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.Yet despite the facts, despite the historic perspective, it’s almost as if some of us want Obama to be anti-Israel because that would validate our worst fears. Attacking Obama on Israel is like attacking John Kerry on his personal military record. The Swift Boat campaign worked because Kerry and his supporters were too slow to take it seriously and fight fiction with facts. The result was four more years of George W. Bush.Maybe it’s our nature to complain. But President Obama’s words and deeds prove that he is not only a strong friend of Israel, but that he is willing to stand up for Israel publicly and behind the scenes. That’s what matters, and that’s why most Jews will again vote for Obama in 2012.

Florida Jewish Journal10:17 am EST, January 11, 2012

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The Israel Lobby’s GOP Past

Jewish voters are a reliable Democratic bloc. But the Republican Party established the first platform on Israel—and brought the Democrats along.

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