J.J. Goldberg's book, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment shows how American Jews have become a national political force since the end of World War II. There are approximately 5 million Jews in the United States today, who immigrated in three waves: Portuguese Marranos in the colonial era, Germans in the mid nineteenth century, and East Europeans in the early 1920s. Goldberg analyzes the background of how a minority that is less than 2.5 percent of the general population came to wield such power.
He explains the paradoxical insecurity many American Jews feel despite the dramatic changes in their status over the past 50 years. This perception contrasts with how strong their power is considered to be in this country and abroad. The term itself, Jewish power, triggers fears among Jews. In European Jewish communities, the negative myths throughout two millennia and the associated acts of antisemitism brought about episodic violence and brutality culminating in the Holocaust. Expressions of anti-Semitic sentiment were respectable in the United States as well. After 1940, Jewish political efforts resulted in enforcing the constitutional separation of religion and the state and became the foundation of national laws prohibiting discrimination based on race and religion.
This disconnect about their power, which others view incredulously, Goldberg attributes to a concurrent fear of Jewish assimilation and disappearance in America. What is happening is that an estimated 80 percent of American Jews are leaving the organizations and institutions their community. Despite this waning interest, what remains is a feeling of attachment to being Jewish. The other 20 percent are going in the opposite direction, moving to more militant and particularistic positions associated with the right. This group makes up most of the small number of Americans Jews who immigrate to Israel; and they often pop up as spokesmen for extremist and ultranationalist settler movements there.
The author goes on to explore the inner workings of Jewish communal organizations and their internal politics. He examines the sources of their power including patterns of fund-raising and media access. Today there are about 300 national Jewish organizations and some 200 local federations. The two most prominent political organizations are the Conference of Presidents and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
The Conference represents a wide range of opinions and adheres to a tradition of establishing a consensus before taking public positions. Its member organizations are barred from partisan politics based on their legal status as not-for-profits. This no-politics "rule" applies to Israel as well. The policy of not questioning the Israeli government is connected to a faith in its democratic electoral process. American Jews, who don't live there, don't vote, and don't serve in the military should not presume to interfere (publicly) with the results of that process. The unquestioning support continued until the defeat of the Labor government and its replacement by the Likud government under Menachem Begin. His policies, which were much more overtly nationalistic, created strains upon keeping the internal consensus in place among American Jews.
Aid for Israel grew exponentially during the Nixon years, from $300 million to $2.2 billion. In the escalating Cold War struggle, Israel assumed a new position as a U.S. strategic asset. It was in these times that the Jewish lobby expanded its power and shifted its focus. Previously, the lobby had focused on domestic issues, civil rights, church-state relations, immigration status, etc. AIPAC evolved into a preeminent force in Washington power politics. A relatively liberal Jewish constituency found themselves uncomfortably allied with national-security hawks.
After describing their losing fight over selling AWACS to the Saudis, Goldberg asserts that AIPAC won spurs in 1981 by assisting the Reagan administration in winning congressional Democrats' support for his policies from Central America to Iran. Unpopular foreign-aid appropriations were sustained, with an increasing share of the budget going to Israel. A major challenge for AIPAC occurred in 1992 with the election of a Labor government. Conforming to the loyalty tradition was particularly difficult for the four major donors who effectively exert control over AIPAC. In fact, one of these individuals personally lobbied in Congress for legislation that directly contradicted the American and Israeli government agreements with respect to the peace process.
The chapter on "Jews and Public Office" examines the role of several prominent Jews, including Arthur Goldberg at the United Nations and his efforts to secure ambiguous wording for U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. There are descriptions of the pivotal contributions of others, like Henry Kissinger, who recast Israel into a "strategic asset," and Dennis Ross and his Policy Planning team at the State Department.
Patterns of consultation and differences among Jews serving in the U.S. Congress are covered here. The author explains the controversy about AIPAC (which is not legally constituted as a political action committee) targeting political donations from some 60 pro Israel PACs. Although funding patterns appear too uniform to be random, the allegations were not upheld. The fear of AIPAC's power over contributions for election campaigns has an impact on many members of Congress. Goldberg estimates that Jewish donors give about 50 percent of the total contributions to the Democratic National Committee and 20 percent to the Republican National Committee. The vicissitudes of campaign fund-raising and the influence of the contributors extend deep into American politics.
The remaining chapters cover the Jewish population's voting patterns, Jewish-Black relations, Jews and the media, and American Jews' relationship with Israel. As the circumstances that propelled the development of Jewish political power are changing, there is apathy among American Jews. It mirrors the apathy of the general public. Both have become cynical and passive in scrutinizing what leaders are doing in their name. Politics goes on whether or not the population participates. He questions whether the political work reflects the public's will or the fervor of an unrepresentative minority who are self-appointed leaders. For example, Goldberg reports that nine of every ten American Jews support the Oslo accords. In contrast, polls among those who are activists reveal that one in four oppose them.
The tradition of public loyalty to the Israeli government is weakening. As an example, in 1988, Prime Minister Shamir 's dalliance with his Orthodox coalition on the "who is a Jew?" controversy ran into a brick wall. The Israeli Orthodox establishment seeking to delegitimize Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, touched a sensitive place among the 90 percent of Americans who are members of such congregations. Those who remained silent about Shamir's recalcitrant position on Arab-Israel relations were vehemently outspoken about his alignment with forces that threatened to deny their Jewish identity. The result was that Shamir dissolved his political coalition in the Knesset and entered a Unity government with Shimon Peres.
Although history never repeats itself, there may be a similar scenario approaching with the current Likud government under Netanyahu. The specter of "who is a Jew?" legislation has been revived. How it may affect relationships with American Jews is as yet unknown, but a noteworthy development occurred in December 1997, when members of the Conference of Presidents were unable to reach a consensus of support for Netanyahu in his political disagreements with Clinton. The silence of this group of American Jewish leaders reflects the deep splits in the population they represent. Whether this expression of American Jewish power and its dissent will have any impact on the government of Israel remains to be seen.