Influencing America: Jewish Political Influence

October 1, 2004
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David Teutsch

AIPAC, the primary pro-Israel lobby in Washington, may be the most powerful single lobby in the United States. Many of its detractors and supporters share this view. Much of the discussion about Jewish political influence focuses on AIPAC because of its visibility and the centrality of Israel concerns in many Jewish communal organizations.

The Jewish impact in American politics, however, is much broader than one lobbying group. The impact becomes clearer if we consider both the actions of organizations and the efforts of individual Jews. As volunteers, professionals, and donors, Jews are engaged in far more political activity than their numbers would suggest.

This activity takes many forms. For example, the Jewish impact on the issue of women’s reproductive rights has been considerable because of the energies of both religiously affiliated and unaffiliated Jews and of those working through both secular and Jewish organizations.

Lobbying is effective when it is accompanied by the capacity to deliver a substantial number of votes in key upcoming elections, when it is able to show that following recommended policies will have desirable human and policy outcomes, and when it is accompanied by past or potential campaign funding, as well as additional personal benefits (e.g. junkets) for politicians. Through PACs and individual giving, and through very effective efforts to get out the Jewish vote, Jews have wielded several of these methods ethically and effectively.

One of the ethical challenges raised is whether to “go soft” on some issues in order to curry favor on others. Some of those in the Jewish community who have been happy with the Bush administration’s approach to Middle East affairs because they perceive it as benefiting Israel, for example, have avoided conflicts on issues of disagreement such as stem cell research and funding for education.This raises complex moral issues: How should Jews balance their concern for all Americans with narrower Jewish interests? And how should conflicts among Jewish groups and individuals about such strategic and moral questions be resolved?While there are often behind-the-scenes negotiations, essential differences remain.

Motivated by Jewish concern for justice ( tsedek ), concern for human needs ( hesed ), and safety and civil liberties, more Jews participate in political courses through secular organizations than Jewish ones.

Jews have the highest average educational level and one of the highest average income levels of any ethnic or religious group in the country. Our resources, organizational activism, and engagement with political processes combine to create a substantial impact. That is enhanced by the Jewish population concentration in several electorally important states, including New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California, Florida, and Illinois.

Jews are far from unified in what they support. American Friends of Shalom Achshav dissents from AIPAC policies in significant ways. Jewish neo-conservatives like Norman Podhoretz and Paul Wolfowitz differ sharply from such liberals as Leonard Fein and Senator Carl Levin. While our opinions diverge on many issues, our impact as a group has increased the quality and quantity of political discourse and modeled the powerful potential of organizational and personal political engagement.

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