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Your money where your heart is

Guess what I found out? Campaign donations are crucial to spreading the pro-Israel message.

No, I wasn’t reading Tom Friedman. I was reading the web page of NORPAC, the pro-Israel political action committee in northern New Jersey.

According to NORPAC: “Funding is often of critical importance to the ultimate success of a candidate’s campaign.” NORPAC regularly hosts fund-raisers for politicians. In the past month alone, there have been events for Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.).

Of course, NORPAC doesn’t merely raise campaign donations. Its other roles include “educating candidates on important issues, connecting like-minded members of Congress on a particular project, and simply assuring that a public position taken is appreciated within our community.”

But let’s face it — nothing says “thank you” like a nice check. We do ourselves no favors pretending otherwise.

Let me say at this point that I agree with the many Jewish groups and individuals who objected to Tom Friedman’s column asserting that congressional support for Israel is “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” In the middle of a typical (for him) column on troublesome anti-democratic trends in Israel, Friedman waded right into Walt and Mearsheimer territory, parroting the two academic obsessives who insist that Congress is blindly loyal to Israel because of the money and influence of the “Israel lobby.”

Indeed, Walt welcomed Friedman into the fold, in a blog post charging that “politicians are ignoring the will of the people [on Israel] because a well-organized minority (comprised of some but not all American Jews and some but not all Christian evangelicals) is making its support conditional on support for its hardline views.”

As many have pointed out, the phrase “bought and paid for” dredges up a host of anti-Semitic connotations, while hinting that America is working against its own, and Israel’s, interests at the whims of a powerful minority.

Friedman, who is Jewish, later admitted he misfired; indeed, while he is often critical of Israel, it is from a solid Left-Labor perspective any Israeli would recognize. I’m guessing that’s what worried his critics, even beyond the odiousness of the phrase. Friedman may be tough on Israel, but at least he spoke within the pro-Israel spectrum. With “bought and paid for,” he jumped the shark.

There are other signs that the notion of an all-powerful “Israel lobby” is crossing over from the fringe to the mainstream. In an essay for Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf posits “The 14 biggest lies of 2011.” Here’s number 14: “I love Israel.”

According to Rothkopf, “Everybody in U.S. politics says it. Most of those who say it however, mean, ‘I want American Jews to think I love Israel enough to vote for me and give me money.’”

Like Friedman, Rothkopf touches on a truth: Politicians court pro-Israel donors. It is also true, as Rothkopf writes, that politicians sometimes overstate their degree of support, especially when it comes to things like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

But there is little evidence that U.S. politicians are insincere in their support for Israel, or that U.S. policy on Israel would turn on a dime if not for Jewish money.

As JTA’s Ron Kampeas points out, not only is Congress inclined to support Israel even without the influence of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, but the pro-Israel lobby has occasionally lost influence over legislators who actually are more hawkish on Israel than some Jewish groups.

The truth is, the pro-Israel lobby is successful not just because Jews are enthusiastic campaign contributors (which they are), but because American voters are inclined to take Israel’s side in most disputes — and for good reason. AIPAC harnesses this good will across party lines.

The wide support that Israel enjoys should not be taken for granted. That’s where money comes in. One of the singular accomplishments of the Jewish community over the past half-century was building an influential national constituency on behalf of our own interests as a minority. Elderly Jews still remember an era when Jewish leaders were powerless to stop the annihilation of a vast Jewish community.

The right response to Friedman is to remind readers of the popularity of Israel and all that it shares with the United States as a Western democracy. We should assert our right to engage legally and effectively in influencing Washington. And we should celebrate the diversity of views within the Jewish community. Critics of the “Israel lobby” like to portray support for Israeli policies as monolithic. We can counter this by pointing out and welcoming the range of pro-Israel views.

The wrong response is to deny the effectiveness of — or need for — organized pro-Israel donors. NORPAC does just that, in a letter it wrote to The New York Times and distributed to supporters. “Support for the Jewish homeland speaks to the heart of the American people and their representatives,” they write. “It’s not the money, stupid, it’s the issue.”

But it’s a little bit about the money — otherwise, why would we need pro-Israel PACs?

We need not apologize for the influence we have gained using the tools available to us and to any group that would care to pick them up.

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