Skip To Content

Israel’s Role: The ‘Elephant’ They’re Talking About

“It is the proverbial elephant in the room,” wrote liberal columnist Michael Kinsley in the October 24, 2002, edition of the online journal Slate. “Everybody sees it, no one mentions it.”

Kinsley was referring to a debate, once only whispered in back rooms but lately splashed in bold characters across the mainstream media, over Jewish and Israeli influence in shaping American foreign policy.

In recent weeks, in fact, the Israeli-Jewish elephant has been on a rampage, trampling across the airwaves and front pages of respected media outlets, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, the American Prospect, the Washington Times, the Economist, the New York Review of Books, CNN and MSNBC. For its encore, the proverbial pachyderm plopped itself down last weekend smack in the middle of “Meet the Press,” NBC’s top-rated Sunday morning news program.

Many of these articles project an image of President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon working in tandem to promote war against Iraq. Several of them described an administration packed with conservatives motivated primarily, if not solely, by a dedication to defending Israel. A few respected voices have even touched openly on the role of American Jewish organizations in the equation, suggesting a significant shift to the right on Middle East issues and an intense loyalty to Sharon. Still others raise the notion of Jewish and Israeli influence only to attack it as antisemitism.

The key moment on “Meet the Press” came when host Tim Russert read from a February 14 column by the editor at large of the Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who argued that the “strategic objective” of senior Bush administration officials was to secure Israel’s borders by launching a crusade to democratize the Arab world. Next, Russert turned to one of his guests, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a key advisory panel to the Pentagon.

“Can you assure American viewers across our country that we’re in this situation against Saddam Hussein and his removal for American security interests?” Russert asked.

“And what would be the link in terms of Israel?”

It was a startling question, especially when directed at Perle, the poster boy — along with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith — for antisemitic critics who insist the United States is being pulled into war by pro-Likud Jewish advisers on orders from Jerusalem. But Russert is no David Duke, nor even a Patrick Buchanan. He is generally regarded as a balanced, first-rate journalist in sync with the zeitgeist of Washington’s media and political elite. If Russert is asking the question on national television, then the toothpaste is out of the tube: The question has entered the discourse in elite Washington circles and is now a legitimate query to be floated in polite company.

In three recent opinion articles, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd fired off one-liners claiming that Bush’s conservative aides were guided simply by the need to defend Israel. MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews insisted that Israeli hawks are “in bed” with hardliners at the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and suggested that at times Sharon essentially dictates Bush’s speeches.

The Washington Post supplied a less glib, more systematic attempt to demonstrate an unprecedented political partnership between Sharon and Bush, in a 2,100-word front-page story February 9 by Robert Kaiser, headlined “ Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical On Mideast Policy.” The story also included a paragraph outlining a supposed rightward shift among American Jewish organizations.

“Over the past dozen years or more, supporters of Sharon’s Likud Party have moved into leadership roles in most of the American Jewish organizations that provide financial and political support for Israel,” Kaiser wrote.

Just a few weeks earlier, in its January 25 issue, the Economist published a lead editorial urging Bush to ignore “so-called friends of Israel who will accuse Mr. Bush of ‘appeasement’ the moment he pushes hard for territorial compromise.”

The barrage of commentary on supposed Israeli interests in an invasion of Iraq has triggered a powerful backlash of sorts: a parallel barrage of commentary on the bounds of legitimate criticism of Jerusalem, American Jews and Jewish officials working in the White House. Several Jewish commentators have recently written articles warning that subtle and not-so-subtle antisemitic undertones permeate the new wave of anti-war criticism. In turn, critics have charged these writers with unfairly playing the antisemitic card in hopes of silencing opposition to the war.

So far, the main event in the parallel clash started with an opinion article by Lawrence Kaplan, senior editor of the New Republic, that appeared February 18 in the Washington Post. The article suggested that the insinuations of Jewish and Israeli pro-war pressure were reminiscent of Buchanan’s claims in 1990 that only soldiers with non-Jewish names would be killed in a war being pushed solely by Israel and its American “amen corner.”

Kaplan, in turn, was promptly slammed by Slate’s Mickey Kaus, who argued that Kaplan had unfairly tarred critics of administration policy.

Kaus offers some convincing critiques. For example: Although Kaplan acknowledged that it is “legitimate” to debate “how the Bush administration has arrived at the brink of war with Saddam Hussein, and to what extent Israeli influence has brought it there,” he failed to articulate a clear sense of how and when.

Of course, Kaus could just as easily be faulted for failing to address adequately the potential damage done by pundits, intellectually sloppy even if well meaning, who rush to break down longstanding taboos on bigotry even as antisemitic conspiracy theories run rampant across the Internet and the Muslim world. Without crying antisemitism, one could easily find serious shortcomings in several of the articles panned by Kaplan or defended by Kaus. For example, Kaiser’s shorthand evaluation of Jewish organizations glosses over a commonly overlooked point: American Jews and Jewish groups overwhelmingly supported the Oslo process prior to the outbreak of the intifada.

The muddled, undefined debate was on full display last week, when Kaplan squared off February 20 on CNN’s “Crossfire” against the conservative columnist Robert Novak, a longtime critic of Israel. Novak attempted to repel Kaplan’s criticisms by arguing that he had never used the word “Jewish” or invoked questions of “dual loyalty” when criticizing pro-Israel conservatives. Kaplan countered that — contrary to Novak’s claim — he never used the term “antisemite” in his Washington Post column. Their respective responses were the same: You meant it.

Attempting to sort out the tangle, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, in an interview with the Forward, outlined what seemed to be a more constructive approach to the issue.

The first point, he said, is to accept as legitimate questions concerning the pro-Israel leanings of administration officials — so long as such criticisms recognize that the hawkish camp includes significant Jewish and non-Jewish players. And, Foxman said, while it is certainly legitimate to question where the Sharon government or American Jewish groups stand on the war, the thin line is crossed by those who portray these entities as a shadowy Jewish conspiracy that controls American foreign policy.

Others have noted that many Jewish hawks with ties to the administration, including Perle, have advocated aggressive American action in defense of democracy far beyond the Middle East, from Latin America to Southeast Asia.

In the end, Foxman said, while American Jews are sometimes too quick to assume that antisemitism is at play, history has offered plenty of reasons to be wary of debates over their influence on foreign policy.

“It is an old canard that Jews control America and American foreign policy,” Foxman said. “During both world wars, antisemites said that Jews manipulated America into war. So when you being to hear it again, there is good reason for us to be aware of it and sensitive to it.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.