Jewish Power in America: Myth and Reality

By Galchinsky, Michael | American Jewish History, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Jewish Power in America: Myth and Reality


Galchinsky, Michael, American Jewish History


Jewish Power in America: Myth and Reality. By Henry L. Feingold. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008. xiv + 164 pp.

In 2007, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer published The Israel Lobby, claiming that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its neoconservative allies were misshaping American foreign policy in accordance with Israeli interests. In Jewish Power in America, Henry L. Feingold, an elder statesman among historians of the American Jewish experience, offers a counter-polemic. He identifies the belief in American Jews' outsized influence with the age-old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews constitute a demonic cabal. Through case studies of American Jews' historical attempts to exercise political power, Feingold demonstrates that the conspiracy theory misunderstands the nature of Jews' power and the extent of their influence. He argues that American Jews have been able, to a limited extent, to exercise "ideational" or "soft" power--basically, moral suasion carried out through effective organization and public relations campaigns. Yet their soft power has succeeded only when there has been a "confluence of interests" between Jewish goals and American national priorities (36). Where such a confluence did not exist, American Jews' best efforts have failed to gain their political ends.

American Jews have succeeded at times in influencing the political process, he argues, because they have mastered the skills of democratic organizing, training generations of activists coming up through the intricate system of communal affairs. Groups like the National Conference for Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) were successful, for example, in convincing the American people that the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate would be a key sign of the success of American Cold War politics, consonant with the nation's values and interests. This public relations success enabled NCSJ to work with Richard Perle, a member of Senator Henry Jackson's staff and a key figure among the neoconservatives, to draft and gain support for the Jackson-Vanik amendment linking Jewish emigration to the U.S.S.R.'s obtaining Most Favored Nation trade status.

Influence depends on confluence. Hence, American Jews' success is conditional. Despite some Jews' high profile positions in the Roosevelt administration and the community's disproportionate support for the social welfare state--called by antisemitic wags at the time the "Jew Deal"--Jews' soft power was ineffective during World War II in persuading Roosevelt to enter the war earlier to stop the Holocaust. Roosevelt did not believe most Americans would see intervening in Europe to save Jews as a reason to go to war. Even during the Soviet Jewry campaign, American Jews' influence was limited; during the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger argued that pressing the U.S.S.R. on Jews' human rights interfered with the detente policy. Again, while the Israel lobby has used the American political process effectively to advocate for aid, political cover, and weaponry, it has never been as effective as the exaggerated narrative suggests. Jews were unable to prevent the sale of AWACs technology to Saudi Arabia or Hawk missiles to Jordan or to convince the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital (73). Feingold points to recent flare-ups between US and Israeli officials with regard to the war in Iraq (Israelis thought the focus should have been on Iran) and the West Bank settlements to suggest that the alliance of mutual interests is not unassailable. …

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