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The Christians Who Fuel AIPAC’s Political Engine

During a recent presentation at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reflected on new Iranian diplomatic initiatives under President Rowhani.  The general conclusion was that Rowhani is serious about wanting to negotiate a deal that would end the economic sanctions that are crippling Iran while satisfying the United States, Israel, and others that Iran will not use its nuclear program to build weapons.  The real question, according to these two distinguished experts, is whether the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds ultimate power, will grant Rowhani the space to negotiate.  A further critical question is whether the Congress will grant President Obama space to negotiate a solution.  When asked specifically what that meant, Ms. Mathews said, “Someone in Jerusalem – namely, Benjamin Netanyahu – needs to tell AIPAC to back off!”

Of course AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – has not backed off.  As the advance guard for the Israeli Prime Minister, AIPAC quickly began using its passionate constituency to sow seeds of suspicion about Iran’s intentions and mobilize its political allies to thwart even the beginning of negotiations. Anyone who has ever ventured to publicly criticize the government of Israel for its policies in the Occupied Territories, myself included, knows that AIPAC’s wrath is usually swift and ugly.  So it is no surprise that hardline positions were staked out even before the President had his famous phone call with Rowhani.  A willingness to enter into direct negotiations with Iran after decades of demonization does not imply naivete.  Hopefully the President will stand up to the rhetoric and politics of intimidation this time around with the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, politics at home, for both Obama and Rowhani, may prove to be as daunting an obstacle to an agreement as anything between them on the negotiating table.

One of the unfortunate results of AIPAC’s extreme rhetoric and its own tactics of intimidation is its tendency to deepen alienation between Jews and progressive Christians around issues related to Israel whether it be the on-going Occupation and settlement policies or how to respond to Iran.  This alienation is not representative of all Christians and Jews, of course, but at least at the organizational levels tensions have grown over the years to the point where many senior church leaders and the leaders of Jewish defense organizations have a hard time conducting any constructive dialogue.  AIPAC is skilled at driving the wedge ever deeper.

But in reality AIPAC is more representative of right wing partisan politics among both Jews and Christians than it is of mainstream Judiasm in the U.S.  This point is made in an interesting new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which surveys a host of issues in its “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” including their connection with and attitudes toward Israel.  It is no surprise that seven in ten Jews in America claim to be either “very” or “somewhat” emotionally attached to Israel. It’s natural to expect that most American Jews would be supportive of Israel and concerned for its security.  But that doesn’t mean that their views on Israeli policies are hegemonic.  The study shows considerable diversity of opinion on things like settlement policies, the commitment of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to peace, the prospects of a two state solution, U.S. policy toward Israel, etc. 

Tucked in the midst of the report is one particularly fascinating piece of information that tells us much not only about a more nuanced view of American Jews and Israel, but also about the real source of the passion that AIPAC marshals for its political agenda.  When asked whether they believe God gave the land that comprises the current state of Israel to the Jewish people, only four in ten Jews answered yes.  In other words, Jewish support for Israel is not overwhelmingly driven by theological or ideological passion or the religious fundamentalism that brooks no compromise or self-critique.  As a result, American Jewish opinion in general is far more receptive to pragmatic solutions than groups like AIPAC tend to portray.  On the other hand, Pew reports in other studies that 55% of Christians believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people, including 82% of white evangelical Protestants. Given the size of the Christian and Jewish population in the US, the clear balance of ideologically based support for Israel that drives so much of US policy tips heavily to the Christian right rather than to the Jewish community itself.

Why is this important?  For Christians who want to challenge Israeli policies they believe thwart opportunities for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian state, or who support the latest initiatives toward negotiations with Iran, it means that the debate is not primarily with American Jews but with other Christians.  It means that on these issues American Jews are far more diverse than groups like AIPAC would want us to believe.  And it means that the diplomatic subtlety, pragmatism, and creativity required for real solutions is undermined far more by ideologically driven Christians reading the Bible in narrow, literalistic ways, than by American Jews.  The real problem is in our own house.  And until we can break the unhealthy link between right wing theology and right wing politics among US Christians, the space required for peacemaking will always be in jeopardy.

John H. Thomas
October 3, 2013

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  • Guest (Leon Goodson)

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    I believe John Thomas has AIPAC figured out just right. AIPAC is doing far more harm than good.

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