Reference is often made to the
Jewish lobby to describe Jewish political influence in the United States. This term is both vague and inadequate. While it is true that American Jews are sometimes represented by lobbyists, such direct efforts to influence policy-makers are but a small part of the lobby’s ability to shape policy.
Organized groups do attempt to affect legislation directly. One of these, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is a registered lobby. Other groups do not generally engage in direct lobbying (e.g., B’nai B’rith and Hadassah) but disseminate information and encourage their members to become involved in the political process. They also sometimes lobby on specific issues. Though they have rarely influenced policy, Christian groups have also frequently weighed in on Israel's behalf, and several pro-Israel organizations are comprised entirely of non-Jews. These organizations comprise the formal lobby.
U.S. Middle East policy is further shaped by Jewish voting behavior and American public opinion. These indirect means of influence are the informal lobby.
The formal and informal components intersect at several points, so the distinction is not always clear-cut. Together, however, they form the Israeli (or pro-Israel) lobby. This is a more accurate label than
Jewish lobby because a large proportion of the lobby is made up of non-Jews. This term also reflects the lobby’s objective. The Israeli lobby can then be defined as those formal and informal actors directly and indirectly influencing American policy to support Israel.
The Israeli lobby does not have the field to itself. On any given issue, it may be opposed by a variety of interest groups unrelated to the Middle East (e.g., conservative groups that have nothing against Israel but oppose foreign aid on principle). Still, its main rival is the Arab lobby, which similarly consists of those formal and informal actors that attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy to support the interests of the Arab states in the Middle East.
American Jews recognize the importance of support for Israel because of the dire consequences that could follow from the alternative. Even though Israel is often referred to now as the fourth most powerful country in the world, the perceived threat to Israel is not military defeat but annihilation. At the same time, American Jews are frightened of what might happen in the United States if they do not have political power.
As a result, Jews have devoted themselves to politics with almost religious fervor. This is reflected by the fact that Jews have the highest percentage of voter turnout of any ethnic group. The Jewish vote also matters because the population is concentrated in key states. Though the Jewish population in the United States is only about six million (about 2.3% of the total U.S. population), the ten states with the highest concentration of Jews are worth 244 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect the president. If you add the non-Jews shown by opinion polls to be as pro-Israel as Jews, it is clear Israel has the support of one of the largest veto groups in the country.
Most supporters of Israel are not single-issue voters. As a Jewish Federation official said of voters in Florida: “They won’t vote for a candidate who is openly hostile toward Israel, but once a candidate passes the basic threshold of supporting Israel, the voters turn to other priorities – and most of them find Democrats more in line with their values.”1
The political activism of Jews forces members of Congress with presidential ambitions to consider what a mixed voting record on Israel-related issues may mean in the political future. There are no benefits to candidates taking an openly anti-Israel stance and considerable costs in losing campaign contributions and votes from Jews and non-Jews alike. Potential candidates, therefore, have an incentive to be pro-Israel; this reinforces support for Israel in Congress. Actual candidates must be sensitive to the concerns of Jewish voters; it follows that the successful candidate’s foreign policy will be influenced, although not bound, by the promises that had to be made during the campaign.
One way lobbyists attempt to educate politicians is by taking them to Israel on study missions. Once officials have direct exposure to the country, its leaders, geography, and security dilemmas, they typically return more sympathetic to Israel. Politicians also sometimes travel to Israel specifically to demonstrate their interest in Israel to the lobby. Thus, for example, George W. Bush made his only trip to Israel before deciding to run for President in what was widely viewed as an effort to win pro-Israel voters’ support. While there, he also was educated and was particularly influenced by a helicopter tour given to him by a man he would later work with as a fellow head of state — Ariel Sharon. In 2005 alone, more than 100 members of Congress visited Israel, some multiple times.2
Jewish members of Congress are naturally expected to support Israel, and this is true except for occasional odd votes. Historically, however, few Jews have held elective office or primary positions of power, even though they have always been politically active. In the past decade, however, this has gradually begun to change. Today, Jews occupy more positions of influence than ever before. For example, in the 116th Congress, 9 Senators are Jewish (9 percent), while Jewish members comprise almost 6 percent of the House.
Bill Clinton nominated two Supreme Court Justices, both Jewish. He had several Jewish Cabinet members, including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and dozens of Jews held other key Administration posts. Bastions of bureaucratic opposition and sometimes outright anti-Semitism, such as the CIA and State Department, now employ Jews at the highest levels. For almost a decade, a Jew (Dennis Ross) was America’s principal Mideast negotiator, and Bill Clinton appointed the first Jewish Ambassador to Israel (Martin Indyk). The George W. Bush Administration also included many Jews in high-profile subcabinet positions. Under the Trump administration, several officials were Jewish, including the three principals involved in developing a peace plan – Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt. The Biden administration is similarly represented by Jews in high-profile positions, including Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The disproportionate influence of the American Jewish population is in direct contrast with the electoral involvement of Arab-Americans. Approximately 1.2 million people of Arab descent live in the United States, and roughly 38 percent of them are Lebanese, primarily Christians, who tend to be unsympathetic to the Arab lobby's goals. This reflects another major problem for the Arab lobby -- inter-Arab disunity. This disunity is reinforced by the general discord of the Arab world, which has twenty-one states with competing interests. The Arab lobby is thus precluded from representing "the Arabs."
Only about 83,000 Palestinians (5 percent of all Arab-Americans) live in the United States, but their views have received disproportionate attention because of their political activism. Similarly, a great deal of attention has focused on the allegedly growing political strength of Muslims in the United States, but fewer than one-fourth of all Arab-Americans are Muslims according to the Arab-American Institute.3
About half of the Arab population is concentrated in five states — California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York — that are all key to the electoral college. Still, the Arab population is dwarfed by that of the Jews in every one of these states except Michigan.
Jewish and Arab Populations in Key States4
Arab Population (2019)
Percentage of Total State Population
Jewish Population (2020)
Percentage of Total State Population
An early example of the pro-Israel lobby’s clout in congressional elections occurred during the high-profile effort to unseat Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois, a frequent critic of Israel. When he was defeated, critics claimed it was because he was targeted by the pro-Israel community, but his defeat could have been attributed to the fact his district suffered from a high unemployment rate and had been gerrymandered to his disadvantage.
The Arab lobby took its first active and visible role in the 1984 election when it decided to support the opponents of seventy-six-year-old Maryland Democrat Clarence Long. As chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Long was a driving force behind increasing aid to Israel, was targeted by the Arab lobby “to serve notice to members of Congress that the Arab lobby is ready and able to make life uncomfortable for Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill.” As was the case in Findley’s defeat, however, Long’s defeat was rooted in politics unrelated to the Middle East –redistricting took away a large percentage of his constituency and, after a narrow victory in 1982, he became a high-priority target of the Republican National Committee. In 1984, the Arab lobby found, for the first time, a presidential candidate receptive to their interests. Jesse Jackson had a long record of support for the Arab cause and was particularly outspoken in support of Palestinian rights, having met with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat when it was considered politically taboo. As a result of his stands, Jackson received substantial financial support from members of the Arab lobby. The divisions of the lobby were again apparent, however, when the American Lebanese League president said Jackson turned his constituents off: “He seems interested in the welfare of Arab countries but not Lebanon or the United States.” Not surprisingly, he did not receive support from the pro-Israel community.
The absence of a large voting bloc requires the Arab lobby to develop sympathies among the general public if it is to use public opinion or the electoral process to influence U.S. policy. The lobby has tried to support sympathetic American groups, such as Third World organizations, and cultivate friendships in the academic and business realms, but, as opinion polls have consistently shown, there is relatively little popular support for the Arab cause.
Since 1967, polls have found that sympathy for Israel varied between 32 and 69 percent, averaging 50 percent, while sympathy for the Arabs has oscillated between 1 and 30 percent and averaged only 13 percent. In the last several years, support for the Arabs has increased slightly, but this has not affected sympathies toward Israel.
The Arab lobby has been unable to increase its standing significantly with the public and has failed to convince the American people that the Israeli lobby controls U.S. Middle East policy. Polls indicate the public sees the Arab lobby as more of a threat than the Israeli lobby. For example, in a poll conducted several weeks after the Senate vote on the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, 53 percent of the public agreed Israel has "too much influence" on American foreign policy, but only 11 percent felt the same way about American Jews. By contrast, 64 percent said Saudi Arabia had too much influence, and 70 percent believed oil companies were too influential. A March 1983 poll asking which groups have "too much" political influence found that only 10 percent of those asked said "Jews." Business corporations and unions were considered too powerful by more than 40 percent of the respondents, with Arab interests next at 24 percent.
Thus, the Arab lobby's problem is twofold; it suffers from a negative image, and Israel enjoys a positive image. This has gradually begun to change. To combat negative Arab stereotypes, former Senator James Abourezk founded the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 1980. The ADC is modeled after the Anti-Defamation League but is considerably smaller and weaker.
The organization that directly lobbies the U.S. government on behalf of the Israeli lobby is AIPAC. Initially called the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs, the lobby was founded in 1951 by I.L. (Sy) Kenen to appeal directly to Congress for legislation to provide aid to Israel to circumvent State Department opposition. As recently as the late 1960s, the organization now considered the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington was essentially a one-person operation run by Kenen. In the late 1970s, AIPAC still had only a handful of staff based in Washington. Today, it has more than 100 employees with 17 offices in 10 regions and a budget of more than $100 million and lobbies the Executive Branch and the Legislative. Because of its name, AIPAC is sometimes mistakenly thought to be a political action committee (PAC), but the organization does not rate, endorse or finance candidates.
AIPAC was not the first domestic lobby to concern itself with foreign affairs, but it is regarded as the most powerful. In 1998 and 1999, for example, Fortune Magazine named AIPAC the second most powerful lobby in Washington after the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP). The lobby strives to remain nonpartisan and thereby keeps friends in both parties. By framing the issues in terms of the national interest, AIPAC can attract broader support than would ever be possible if it was perceived to represent only the interests of Israel. This does not mean AIPAC does not have a close relationship with Israeli officials, it does, albeit unofficially. Even so, the lobby sometimes disagrees with the Israeli government. One of the most blatant examples occurred when AIPAC’s Executive Director Thomas Dine was quoted on the front page of the New York Times as saying the 1982 Reagan peace plan had some good points (and many bad ones) after the Israeli government had rejected the plan in toto. Despite such disagreements, the Israeli lobby reflects Israeli government policy fairly closely. Though its influence is limited primarily to issues where Congress has a say, in particular, economic matters, the organization also serves as a watchdog to deter anti-Israel policies from being adopted.
Lobbyists usually roam the halls of Congress trying to get the attention of legislators so they can explain their positions. AIPAC has the luxury of calling its allies in Congress to pass along information, leaving much of the work of writing bills and gathering cosponsors to the legislative staff. The lobbyists are mostly Capitol Hill veterans who know how to operate the levers of power.
Since it does not use stereotypical lobbying tactics, the Israeli lobby depends on the network it has developed to galvanize the Jewish community to take some form of political action. The network consists of at least seventy-five different organizations that support Israel in one way or another. Most cannot legally engage in lobbying (or a limited amount) but are represented on the Board of Directors of AIPAC, so they can provide input into the lobby's decision-making process. Equally important is the bureaucratic machinery of these organizations, which enables them to disseminate information to their members and facilitate a rapid response to legislative activity.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is a second coordinating body. It comprises leaders of 55 different organizations and is responsible for formulating and articulating the "Jewish position" on most foreign policy matters. The conference allows the lobby to speak with one voice in a way its opponents cannot. The Conference is the primary contact between the Jewish community and the executive branch, while AIPAC tends to be the conduit with the legislative branch.
Even with the Jewish population concentrated in crucial states, there is still only a total of about six million Jews; therefore, the Israeli lobby is dependent on the support of non-Jewish groups and actively works to form coalitions with broad segments of American society. The lobby has successfully built alliances consisting of unions, entertainers, clergy members, scholars, and Black leaders. The coalitions allow the lobby to demonstrate a broad public consensus for a pro-Israel policy.
For years, the pro-Israel community largely ignored the Hispanic community even as it grew in political influence. AIPAC became more active in engaging Hispanics and began to have sessions at its Policy Conference discussing mutual interests.
Fuente Latina, a pro-Israel Spanish-language media group, launched The Latin-Jewish Media and Entertainment Alliance in 2022 to engage journalists and influencers who reach Spanish-speaking audiences to accurately portray Israel and the Jewish world. More than 180 Latin-American media and entertainment industry professionals endorsed the initiative, including actors, telenovela stars, podcasters, TV hosts, producers, and directors.
Fuente Latino founder and CEO Leah Soibel told JTA, “We see firsthand how state-funded Spanish-language media networks like Iran’s HispanTV and Russia Today en Español invest millions of dollars to purposely spread disinformation that fuels division, mistrust, and anti-Semitism among Latinos worldwide.” She added, “In recent years, both Hispanics and Jews have been the targets of disinformation and discrimination campaigns in both legacy media and online platforms,” she said. “Digital animosity often escalates into deadly attacks.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition was founded in 1985. Its mission is “to foster and enhance ties between the American Jewish community and Republican decision-makers…while articulating and advocating Republican ideas and policies within the Jewish community.” The group lobbies officials at the state and federal levels, while its political action committee supports candidates who share their priorities and principles.
The RJC supports a pro-Israel foreign policy but also supports some conventional Republican positions such as “a low tax, free enterprise, competitive economic system,” reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and the belief that America “must lead the world in standing for the cause of freedom and democracy.” It does not take positions on controversial social issues.
The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) was formed in 1990 to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by educating and providing funding to Democratic candidates. Its annual Washington conference typically attracted Democratic presidential candidates and other public officials. NJDC worked to turn out Jewish voters and provided them with guides about the candidates and issues. The group began to lose donors and was forced to defend itself against a defamation lawsuit filed by Republican donor Sheldon Adelson.
The group was essentially replaced in 2017 by the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), which calls itself “the voice of Jewish Democrats and socially progressive, pro-Israel values that Jewish voters hold dear.” Like NJDC, the JDCA “supports candidates and elected officials who share our policy positions and advocates for policies that reflect Jewish and Democratic values.”
In January 2019, a group of well-known Jewish Democrats formed the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) in response to what some liberal Jews saw as a dangerous tilt to the anti-Israel far left by some Democratic office holders and candidates. Founded by pollster Mark Mellman, the group “works to maintain and strengthen support for the U.S.-Israel alliance by educating elected officials, candidates, and the public, while advocating for other progressive policies.” DFMI believes the Israeli people should “determine their own future without outside parties imposing solutions.”
DFMI’s mission is to “work to ensure Israel has the resources to defend herself, by herself, to ensure Israeli citizens — Jews and non-Jews — can live in peace and security.” It also pledges to “fight efforts to isolate, stigmatize or delegitimize Israel” and promote a two-state solution with the Palestinians “achieved through direct bilateral negotiations.” Some on the left have criticized the group for its close but informal relationship with AIPAC.
DMFI took a strong and controversial position opposing Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the presidency. Sanders was a vitriolic critic of Israel long before the campaign and became even more vocal in 2020, repeatedly condemning Israeli policy and going so far as to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist.”
DFMI was further alarmed by the mutual embrace of Sanders and Democrats who supported the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and made other remarks that many viewed as anti-Semitic. Most prominent were Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and women’s movement leader Linda Sarsour.
Mellman said DMFI found it “deeply disturbing” that Sanders had surrounded himself with “endorsers who hate Israel.” When DFMI approached Sanders with their concerns, “the only responses we have received from the Senator are more hostile choices on his part.”
With Sanders, the clear leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, DFMI and other pro-Israel groups were put on the defensive. That did not stop them from going on offense as well, notably when DFMI sent out a fundraising solicitation with the subject line “This Poll Has Me Worried” after Sanders’ standing rose before the Iowa caucuses. The resulting furor raised the group’s visibility. DMFI later released an attack ad before the Nevada primary that did not mention his positions on Israel but instead questioned Sanders’ health and suggested he could not beat Trump because he was a socialist.
As Sanders seemed to be the frontrunner, Mellman said, “There are unambiguous signs that our party could nominate the candidate we believe is least capable of winning in November and most likely to adopt a hostile attitude toward Israel.”
After being accused of being behind the attacks on Sanders, AIPAC distanced itself from DMFI and, following a backlash, the group announced it would not run any more anti-Sanders ads.
The Arab lobby in the United States is at least as old, perhaps older than the Israeli lobby. It is composed of what I.L. Kenen called the petro-diplomatic complex consisting of the oil industry, missionaries, and diplomats (often referred to as
Arabists). According to Kenen, there was no need for a formal Arab lobby because the petro-diplomatic complex did the Arabs' work for them.
One of the earliest activities of the petro-diplomatic complex began in 1951 when King Saud of Saudi Arabia asked U.S. diplomats to finance a pro-Arab lobby to counter the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (later the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -AIPAC). The Arab lobby became an official, active, and visible spokesman for the Arab cause in the wake of the oil embargo. "The day of the Arab-American is here," boasted National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA) founder Richard Shadyac, "the reason is oil."
From the beginning, the Arab lobby has faced a disadvantage in electoral politics and organization. There are several politically oriented groups, but many of these are one-person operations with little financial or popular support. Americans for Justice in the Middle East was formed by a group of Americans at the American University in Beirut after the 1967 war to combat "Zionism's virulent thirty-year campaign of hate and vindictiveness." Two anti-Zionist Jews were longtime supporters of the Arab lobby: Elmer Berger, who founded American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, and Alfred Lilienthal, who published the Middle East Perspectives newsletter.
There are several larger and more representative groups, including the aforementioned NAAA and ADC, the Middle East Research and Information Project; the Middle East Affairs Council, Americans for Near East Refugee Aid, the Arab American Institute, and the American Palestine Committee. Typically, these organizations have boards of directors composed of prominent retired government officials. Board members have included former Ambassador to Jordan, L. Dean Brown, Herman Eilts, former Ambassador to Syria and Egypt; Parker T. Hart, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and several others.
The formal Arab lobby is the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA), a registered domestic lobby founded in 1972 by Richard Shadyac. The NAAA was consciously patterned after its counterpart, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Shadyac believed the power and wealth of the Arab countries stemming from their oil reserves, would allow the Arab lobby to take advantage of the political process in the same way the Jews have been thought to. Like AIPAC, the NAAA makes its case on the basis of U.S. national interests, arguing a pro-Israel policy harms those interests. Aid to Israel is criticized as a waste of taxpayers' money, and the potential benefits of a closer relationship with the Arab states is emphasized.
The highlight of the NAAA's early efforts was a meeting between President Ford and twelve NAAA officials in 1975. Since then, the NAAA has participated in meetings with each president and obtained access to top government officials. In 1977, for example, after Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, the Arab lobby made its displeasure over United States support for the initiative known to President Carter, who wrote in his diary:
They [Arab-Americans] have given all the staff, Brzezinski, Warren Christopher, and others, a hard time. Although the lobby's concerns began to reach the highest levels of government, there were no perceptible changes in United States policy.
It is not only Arab-Americans who have made the lobby's case; the Arab lobby, like the Israeli lobby, has successfully built coalitions with other interest groups. As noted earlier, the pedro-diplomatic complex was the lobby until 1972, when the NAAA was formed. Even today, arguably, it is the most influential component of the lobby. Nevertheless, most of the nation's major corporations have not supported the Arab lobby. In fact, prior to the AWACS sale, oil companies were about the only corporations willing to openly identify with Arab interests. The reason is that most corporations prefer to stay out of foreign policy debates; moreover, corporations may feel constrained by the implicit threat of some form of retaliation by the Israeli lobby.
The major oil companies feel no such constraints. Exxon, Standard Oil of California (SoCal), Mobil, and Texaco have long sought to manipulate public opinion and foreign policy on the Middle East. These companies as a group comprise the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Participation in the public relations campaign amounted to the price of doing business in the oil-producing nations.
The campaign began after the 1967 War when ARAMCO established a fund to help present the Arab side of the conflict. In May 1970, ARAMCO representatives met with Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco and warned him American military sales to Israel would hurt U.S.-Arab relations and jeopardize U.S. oil supplies. The former chairman of ARAMCO testified before Congress that the United States' pro-Israel policies were harming U.S. business interests. In 1972, at Kuwait's urging, Gulf Oil joined the campaign, providing $50,000 to create a public relations firm to promote the Arab side.
The campaign took on greater urgency in 1973 after Frank Jungers, then Chairman of the Board of ARAMCO, met with Saudi King Faisal, and was pressured to take a more active role in creating a sympathetic attitude toward the Arab nations. In June, a month after the Jungers meeting, Mobil published its first advertisement/editorial in the New York Times. In July, SoCal's chairman sent out a letter to the company's 40,000 employees and 262,000 stockholders asking them to pressure Washington to support "the aspirations of the Arab people." The chairman of Texaco called for a reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy. When the October 1973 War broke out, the chairmen of the ARAMCO partners sent a memorandum to the White House warning against increasing military aid to Israel. Since 1973, ARAMCO has maintained its public relations campaign and become involved in occasional legislative fights, such as the AWACS sale, but, on the whole, the campaign has had no observable impact on U.S. policy.
Other companies outside the oil industry are involved in the Arab lobby, the most well-known being the international engineering firm Bechtel, but the Arab and Israeli lobbies have had virtually no confrontations since the AWACS fight in 1981, in part because the Israeli lobby hasn't opposed any major arms sales or other economic investments in the region that threatened U.S. corporate interests.
A relatively ignored component of the
Arab lobby is found among the Christian community, most notably, the National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC is composed of thirty-two Protestant denominations, including virtually all major church bodies. The Council has taken consistently anti-Israel stands, and its 1980 policy statement on the Middle East called for the creation of a PLO state. Besides passing anti-Israel resolutions, the NCC puts on seminars, radio shows, and conferences. From 1972 to 1977, it published the ARAMCO financed SWASIA (Southwest Asia) newsletter. When SWASIA ceased publication, the NCC established an Islamic desk to "enable American Christians to understand Arab Christian and Muslim attitudes." The relationship between the NCC and other Arab lobby organizations is primarily informal, with NCC leaders serving on many of their boards.
When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” (@IlhanMN, February 10, 2019), it reinforced an anti-Semitic trope suggesting that U.S. politicians support Israel because they are bribed to do so. In reality, American support for Israel is rooted in our shared values and interests, and the overwhelming support of the public. This does not mean, however, that money has no influence on politics; otherwise, no one would make political contributions. When it comes to campaign contributions, the pro-Israel community, which includes many non-Jews, plays by the same rules as everyone else.
It is difficult to assess the impact of campaign giving on legislative outcomes, particularly with regard to Israel-related issues, where support or opposition may be a consequence of non-monetary factors. In addition, one does not know if a candidate is pro-Israel because of receiving a contribution, or receives a donation as a result of taking a position in support of Israel. In the past, Jewish contributions were less structured and targeted than other interest groups, but this has changed dramatically as Israel-related political action committees (PACs) have proliferated.
Initially, the Jewish community feared that post-Watergate election campaign financing reforms would reduce their influence, but the evidence so far suggests the opposite. If anything, the changes stimulated greater political activism in the Jewish community.
It is not easy to identify the pro-Israel political action committees, or PACs (despite its name, AIPAC is not a PAC), since many have innocuous names such as the Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens or the Desert Caucus. The first pro-Israel PAC was formed in 1978, but there was little activity until 1982 when thirty-three pro-Israel PACs contributed $1.87 million to congressional candidates. Like other PACs, most of this money was given to incumbents and, because of the long association of Jews with the Democratic party, nearly 80 percent went to Democrats. The number of PACs more than doubled in 1984 as did their contributions. It was estimated that more than seventy pro-Israel PACs spent a little more than $4 million in 1984. By 1988, the figure was nearly $5 million.
DMFI formed a political action committee in 2020 to raise funds for candidates. Its first foray into campaign financing did not succeed as hoped. One of Israel’s best friends in the House, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY), lost badly to a far-left critic despite the support of DMFI and other pro-Israel donors. The group also failed to mobilize sufficient support to defeat Tlaib and Omar in their primaries.
DMFI’s funding is mysterious. According to Armin Rosen, the group received six-figure sums from Americans for Tomorrow’s Future, which he said had no apparent infrastructure. Mellman told Rosen AFTF is “a bipartisan PAC that’s set up to help pro-Israel candidates.”
The Center for Responsive Politics tracks campaign expenditures, and categorized a total of 82 as pro-Israel PACs that have given money in at least one election cycle starting in 1990; 16 have contributed in every cycle, and 25 have done so since 2010.
In 1990, 51 pro-Israel PACs contributed a little over $4 million; in 2020, 29 pro-Israel PACs and individuals doled out more than $8.7 million. Spending over 16 election cycles averaged more than $4.7 million. While PACs get a lot of attention, they have contributed a declining proportion of total giving. Annual PAC contributions have averaged about $3 million, but the relative amount contributed by PACs shrank to 19% in 2018, while contributions by individuals has steadily grown.
These amounts may seem significant in the abstract; however, they are paltry compared to the biggest spenders. On a ranking of top interest groups giving to members of Congress in the 2020 cycle, the pro-Israel category ranked 28th, contributing less than $18 million, compared to the top-ranked category of retired groups, which gave more than $356 million.
In the broader category of “Pro-Israel PACs, Individuals, & Soft Money,” pro-Israel donors have given a total of $177 million since 1990, an average of $11.1 million per cycle. Contributions more than doubled from $15.3 million in 2018 to $33.4 million in 2020.
Given the disproportionate number of Jews who are Democrats, it may be surprising to learn the distribution of funds is not more lopsided, with 60% going to Democrats and 38% to Republicans. This is partly explained by the fact that not all pro-Israel givers are Jews, and that nearly 80% of the contributions go to support incumbents regardless of party.
These figures have been distorted by J Street since it began to contribute to campaigns. Most of its giving is by individuals rather than through its PAC. J Street’s first expenditures were in the 2008 cycle. Its contributions have increased from just under $400,000 in that election to almost $4.1 million in 2018.
What is even more striking is J Street’s share of overall pro-Israel contributions, which grew from 28% in 2008 to 49% in 2018. It dropped to 31% in 2020. Even more remarkable is that J Street has contributed in only 7 out of 16 cycles dating to 1990, and still accounts for 19% ($14.5 million) of the $75 million spent by all 51 groups. By comparison, National PAC participated in every cycle and its total expenditures were $4.6 million. NorPAC giving started in the 1994 cycle and is the second largest cumulative donor at about $6.5 million.
J Street also gives all its money to Democrats (with the exception of two Republicans in 2014), which means the percentage of Republican recipients would be higher (approximately 43%) if J Street contributions were excluded.
For decades AIPAC made a point of distinguishing itself from political action committees (PACs) that make campaign contributions. AIPAC always said it does not rate or endorse candidates even though it was no secret who the organization supported and its supporters made their donations accordingly. Then, in 2022, AIPAC’s president announced a plan to launch two bipartisan PACS – a federal PAC and a Super PAC – “to make us more effective in fulfilling our mission in the current political environment.”
The decision was likely reaction to the hostility toward Israel of newer members of Congress and the need to provide financial support to pro-Israel members and candidates. AIPAC was also responding to the campaign fundraising activities of J Street, which contributed more to candidates in the 2020 election cycle than any “pro-Israel PAC” – nearly $2.7 million.
Given that AIPAC raises more than $100 million for its organizational budget, and claims more than 1.5 million members, including many major donors to political campaigns, its PACs can be expected to become the most significant contributors to pro-Israel candidates. The new AIPAC PAC can give up to $5,000 to a candidate, which is not likely to influence any race. The Super PAC, however, may donate an unlimited amount of money to support or oppose candidates but none directly to them.
When AIPACannounced its first 120 endorsements, it attracted scorn because the list included 37 Republicans who voted against certifying Joe Biden as president. The organization’s response to critics was that it is a one-issue lobby, and anything unrelated to the U.S.-Israel relationship is irrelevant to its mission. AIPAC also stresses the importance of bipartisanship in U.S.-Israel policy while J Street contributes all its money to Democrats.
AIPAC insists that the pro-Israel community cannot be too selective about its friends. It’s a choice between doing what is necessary to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, and standing against unsavory politicians and those whose policies on other issues are objectionable.
“Why are we so single-minded?” AIPAC’s leaders asked in an email to supporters. “Because no one else is. There will always be major issues that divide Americans. Israel’s enemies don’t wait for America to sort out our politics. They didn’t wait in 1948, nor in 1973, nor to this day. Israel needs America in its corner, always.”
AIPAC stoked more consternation by endorsing 27 politicians who supported the Iran nuclear deal. Even many of AIPAC’s supporters were stupefied that AIPAC would contribute to Congress members who were on the wrong side of the most important issue on its agenda and the Israeli government’s top priority. This isn’t surprising, however, given that many of the people who voted for the original 2015 nuclear deal did so to support their party’s leader at the time: President Barack Obama. Those members have otherwise been very pro-Israel. Support for these candidates shows that AIPAC is not expecting blind loyalty from its friends, as it is often accused.
Still, liberal critics such as Senator Bernie Sanders attacked Israel for opposing progressive candidates. “This is a war,” Mr. Sanders told the New York Times, “for the future of the Democratic Party.” Referring to AIPAC’s opposition to a progressive candidate in Pittsburgh during the 2022 primary, Sanders said, “Why would an organization go around criticizing someone like Summer Lee for not being a strong enough Democrat when they themselves have endorsed extreme right-wing Republicans?”
Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, responded that the group “will not be intimidated in our efforts to elect pro-Israel candidates — including scores of pro-Israel progressives.” He added, “It is very revealing that some who don’t take issue with super PAC support for anti-Israel candidates get indignant when pro-Israel activists use the same tools.”
Israel’s detractors are frustrated by their lack of influence for a host of reasons. Most important is that the public and its elected officials do not agree that Israel as the root of all evil in the Middle East; they are not as sympathetic toward the Palestinians as they are to Israel; they do not support the agenda to destroy Israel associated with the BDS movement and some elements of the lobby; and they don’t have a following to match the pro-Israel community’s involvement in the political process.
The Arab states have almost no constituency. For example, there are probably few Americans of Saudi descent who vote based on their interest in strengthening U.S.-Saudi relations. The Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, and other Arab states exert most of their influence behind the scenes. They dwarf the contributions of the pro-Israel community by paying tens of millions of dollars to lobbyists who represent the interests of their clients, not those of the United States.
Supporters of the Palestinians have multiple disadvantages. Americans of Palestinian descent make up a tiny fraction of all Arab-Americans. A much larger percentage are Lebanese Christians, whose experience with Palestinians in their homeland makes many hostile toward the Palestinian agenda. The Center has no record of any lobbyists working on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf (in 2012, DLA Piper received $90,000 to lobby for the Palestine Investment Fund, which is focused on economics rather than politics). In addition, very few people will contribute money or vote based on a candidate’s support for the Palestinians.
In 2018, only six political action committees identified as pro-Arab/Muslim. Altogether, they contributed $263,500 — and $203,950 of that amount was from the Free Syria PAC, which is “interested in finding a lasting end to Syria’s conflict.”
Since 1992, 17 pro-Arab/Muslim PACs participated in elections. The Arab American Leadership PAC is the only one to contribute in every election cycle since 1996. It is also the largest contributor over that time — $677,718. The next biggest spender is the Iranian American PAC — $335,000. The amount Free Syria gave in 2018 was the largest expenditure in any cycle. Overall, in the last 14 cycles, pro-Israel groups outspent pro-Arab/Muslim ones by 40 to 1 ($62.7 million to $1.6 million). Interestingly, the amounts given to Democrats and Republicans is nearly identical to the overall proportions contributed by the pro-Israel PACs — 64% to Democrats and 36% to Republicans.
Americans who support Israel do invest significant sums in political campaigns; however, the largest organizational contributor, J Street, has a very different agenda than the mainstream pro-Israel community. It is probably the closest thing to a pro-Palestinian PAC. If you count J Street as part of the pro-Arab/Muslim lobby, the pro-Israel side was outspent in 2018 and its overall advantage in the last six cycles drops to 2 to 1. Those figures would narrow further if they included contributions by individuals through the S Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is not listed by the Center as either pro-Israel or pro-Arab but, like J Street, leans more toward the latter with regard to the Palestinian issue. It contributed more than $4 million to candidates since 1996 (nearly half in 2012 alone but nothing in 2018).
Overall, the comparative impact of the two lobbies on elections was probably best summed up by Harry Truman in his frequently repeated statement to Paul Porter, a Washington attorney appointed as the ambassador to the Arab-Israeli peace talks in Geneva in 1948: “I won’t tell you what to do or how to vote, but I will only say this. In all of my political experience I don’t ever recall the Arab vote swinging a close election.”
At least two major differences distinguish the Arab and Israeli lobbies. First, the Arab lobby almost always lobbies negatively; i.e., against pro-Israel legislation rather than for pro-Arab legislation. In 2004, for example, members of Congress were graded on a number of issues, including: opposition to the war with Iraq; opposition to resolutions that condemned terrorism inflicted on Israel, that supported President Bush's letter supporting Israel, that called for a halt to Saudi support for terrorism and Syrian accountability, and that supported Israel's construction of a security fence; opposition to a letter calling for the Palestinians to meet certain obligations; and a resolution expressing sympathy for an American woman who was accidentally killed protesting Israeli house demolitions.5
The other major difference between the two lobbies is the use of paid foreign agents by the Arab lobby. Pro-Arab U.S. government officials can look forward to lucrative positions as lobbyists, spokesmen, and consultants for the Arab cause. For example, the outspoken critic of the Israeli lobby, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright, was hired by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. It was the Saudis' agent, Fred Dutton, a former Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs and special assistant to President Kennedy, who spearheaded the AWACS campaign and reputedly conceived the "Reagan vs. Begin" angle. Other top officials who have provided their services to the Arab lobby include: Clark Clifford, President Johnson's Defense Secretary; Richard Kleindienst, President Nixon's Attorney General; and William Rogers, Nixon's Secretary of State.
Overall, the Israeli lobby is effective because it enjoys advantages in every area considered relevant to interest group influence. It has (a) a large and vocal membership; (b) members who enjoy high status and legitimacy; (c) a high degree of electoral participation (voting and financing); (d) effective leadership; (e) a high degree of access to decision-makers; and (f) public support. Moreover, for reasons at least partly attributable to the lobby's efforts, the lobby's primary objective — a U.S. commitment to Israel — has been accepted as a national interest.
Most articles and research on the Middle East interest groups are based on anecdotes, case studies or casual observation. They either vaguely conclude the Israeli lobby has some influence some of the time or (usually in the case of works by authors hostile to Israel) assert the Israeli lobby is a powerful and dangerous influence that controls U.S. policy.
In a more rigorous study of 782 policy decisions made from 1945 to 1984, I found the Israeli lobby won; that is, achieved its policy objective, 60 percent of the time. The most important variable was the president's position. When the president supported the lobby, it won 95 percent of the time. At first glance it appears the lobby was only successful because its objectives coincided with those of the president, but the lobby's influence was demonstrated by the fact that it still won 27 percent of the cases when the president opposed its position.
One of the most surprising results, particularly in light of conventional wisdom and evidence presented in case studies, was that the president's position was not significantly affected by the electoral cycle. Although candidates may appear to pander to Jewish voters, the data indicate the electoral cycle does not affect influence success.
Lobby success also varied depending on the policy at issue. The lobby was very successful in overcoming presidential opposition on economic issues, but rarely able to defeat the president on security and political issues. The lobby was more successful on economic issues because most of those were decided in Congress where pro-Israel congressman frequently fought for increased aid levels for Israel, earmarked funds for Israel and adopted amendments to aid bills that were endorsed by the Israeli lobby.
The lobby's lack of success on political issues was most likely a result of the fact that most of these cases were decided in the executive branch where lobby influence is relatively weak. The outcome might also be explained by the tradition of congressional deference to the president on matters of security and diplomacy.
Sources: 1 Amir Tibon, “This Jewish Community in the ‘Ultimate Swing State’ Will Play a Crucial Role in Deciding Who Controls the Senate, Haaretz, (August 8, 2018).
2JTA, (January 13, 2006).
Getting Their House Together, Egypt Today, (November 2003).
4U.S. Census Bureau (2000); Jewish Demography Project.
5Shirl McArthur, “Five Senators, 29 Representatives Included in 108th Congress' 'Hall of Shame,'” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, (November 2004), pp. 36-37.
Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict, 4th Edition, (NY: Alpha Books, 2008).
Mitchell G. Bard, The Water's Edge And Beyond. (NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1991.
Mitchell G. Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East, (HarperCollins: 2010).
Center for Responsive Politics.
Republican Jewish Coalition.
Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI).
Alex Kane, “These Democratic Insiders Want to Keep the Party From Moving Left on Israel-Palestine,” The Nation, (December 16, 2019).
Allison Kaplan Sommer, “Pro-Israel Jewish Groups Worry as Sanders Surges Toward Monday's Iowa Caucus,” Haaretz, (February 2, 2020).
Armin Rosen, “AIPAC-Connected Lobby Whiffs in Eliot Engel Debacle,” Tablet, (July 21, 2020).
Ira M. Sheskin & Arnold Dashefsky, “United States Jewish Population, 2019,” in Arnold Dashefsky & Ira M. Sheskin, Eds., American Jewish Year Book, 2020, (Cham, SUI: Springer, 2021).
Shane Goldmacher, “Bernie Sanders Prepares for ‘War’ With AIPAC and Its Super PAC,” New York Times, (
Orge Castella, “Latin-Jewish alliance aims to use star power to combat antisemitism and misinformation in media,” JTA, (July 26, 2022)
“U.S. states with the highest Arab American population in 2019,” Statista, accessed August 24, 2022.