Much is said and written about the role of Jews in American politics, but remarkably few books have attempted to examine the subject with any intellectual rigor. This collection of essays joins that small category of books that presents more facts than supposition, and quantifies the Jewish contribution rather than simply offer subjective judgments.
The book covers an impressive breadth of the political scene, everything from presidential appointments to Jewish Supreme Court Justices to Jewish voting behavior. Among the numerous appendices are listings of every Jew who served in the House and Senate, the Supreme Court, and even the District and Appeals Courts. The book also includes a lengthy compendium of short profiles of prominent, and not so prominent American Jews.
The exhaustive research and quantification of Jewish participation is the book’s strength, but also its weakness. So much energy is devoted to listing every Jew of consequence in American politics and discussing their backgrounds that little space is left for analysis of their actual influence on the political scene. As a result, some important information is left out, the relative importance of certain organizations and individuals is contestable, and the nuances of when, where, and how Jews influence the political process is not given as much attention as it merits.
One element that struck me was the extensive, and deserving treatment of President Roosevelt’s policies and his role in shifting Jewish voting patterns toward the Democratic Party. This is well documented; it would have been more interesting to delve into why this occurred given the widespread view that FDR did not do enough to rescue the Jews of Europe during World War II.
This book, like a number of others on the subject, also seems to misrepresent the relative importance of various Jewish organizations. In Benjamin Ginsberg’s essay, “Identity and Politics,” for example, he lists the most important organizations in one paragraph. He includes the American Jewish Congress, whose influence today is nil, but left out perhaps the most powerful organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Ginsberg also exaggerates the influence of the Holocaust, particularly on Jews in the 1970s, and completely misjudges support for Israel after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Jerome Chanes does discuss AIPAC in his essay, “Who Does What?” but gets some basic facts wrong such as the date the organization was founded (it was 1951 not 1950) and the connection between the organization and its newsletter, Near East Report (it’s not autonomous, it’s a house organ — and I was the editor for three years). Chanes’ essay is one of the few that does attempt to analyze the pro-Israel lobby, but does a very poor job, focusing primarily on the now distant 1981 fight over the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia. He calls this “the most significant event in pro-Israel advocacy,” which is ironic since the lobby lost the fight. He nevertheless says this was when the community “overcame its fears of vulnerability.” This was not the first fight over an arms sale, but actually the last, and while the lobby did not shrink in fear, it has been very conscious of vulnerability, which was most evident in the later battle of loan guarantees when the lobby abandoned its commitment to prevent the guarantees from being linked to the settlement issue because of threats from the White House to publicly attack the lobby for threatening the national interest.
Another criticism is that the book does not spend much time on the role of Jews in the Republican Party and the suggestions that there is a slow shift taking place away from the Democrats. This is not surprising, however, given that the book was initiated by the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, whose director is one of the editors. To say that more could have been said about Jewish Republicans is not to suggest the book is biased, because it is not. Another of its strengths is that it is not only well-written, but balanced.
Sources: Mitchel Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise