Everyone is talking about Peter Beinart’s new piece in the New York Review of Books, in which the former New Republic editor excoriates the American Jewish establishment for stifling criticism of Israel and warns of plummeting levels of support for Israel in the U.S. Jewish community. And deservedly so — it’s an important piece, as much for the identity of the author as for the content. I’m not going to discuss Beinart’s argument in full at the moment, as I’m currently working on a longer piece that will address some of the same issues. But I did want to comment on one issue that has been widely remarked upon in the debate over Beinart’s article: namely, the shift in the demographic makeup of Israel’s supporters in the U.S., as liberal Jews peel off while evangelical Christian Zionists sign on. The result is that U.S. support for Israel may soon become far more of a conservative Christian than a liberal Jewish phenomenon.
The question is, will this make a difference? Some, like Walter Russell Mead, say no, insisting that the special relationship has always been primarily due to Gentile rather than Jewish support. Others, like Matthew Yglesias, recognize the centrality of the American Jewish community to the special relationship in the past, but suggest that the influx of Christian Zionists supporters means that the collapse of Jewish support will ultimately matter very little. And it’s true that in terms of raw numbers, the number of potential evangelical Christian supporters of Israel will always dwarf the number of potential Jewish supporters.
But I think that both supporters of Christian Zionism like Mead and critics like Yglesias underestimate just how crucial support within the educated and affluent liberal mainstream of American Jewry has been in sustaining the special relationship; as a result, they overestimate the extent to which growing Christian Zionist support can unproblematically substitute for dwindling Jewish support. This is a case where merely looking at crude poll numbers, as Mead is fond of doing, can mislead us. For one thing, they show only breadth of support, not depth. It may be that large numbers of Christians are willing to answer “yes” to the poll question “do you support Israel?”, but this tells us very little about levels of actual commitment translating into political action. Some, like John Hagee and his followers, are no doubt exceptionally committed to the Greater Israel project, but they are by all indications a minority even among conservative evangelicals.
But more importantly, poll numbers fail to indicate influence. U.S. support for Israel has never been about the raw number of Israel’s supporters, but rather the fact that these supporters tended to make up an enormous part of the American political, intellectual, and economic elite. It was this influence, not raw numbers, that helped the Jewish community spearhead what Alan Dershowitz called “perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.” This influence was manifested not only in support among actual Jews, but among the Gentile elites who lived in the same suburbs, went to the same colleges, and worked in the same offices as Jewish supporters of Israel. And it was manifested not only in obvious measures like campaign contributions, but in subtler ways of shaping media discourse and setting the political agenda.
Thus, even if Israel does manage to replace every lost Jewish supporter with a Christian Zionist supporter, there is every reason to believe that this demographic shift would still have enormous ramifications for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. In terms of concrete impact on policy, gaining ten less-affluent and less-educated evangelical supporters in Texas or Alabama does not make up for the defection of a single Peter Beinart or Haim Saban. (I don’t intend to sound snobbish here; in fact, I think that the ways in which the American political system limits the influence of its poorer and less-connected citizens is one of its least attractive aspects. I am simply stating brute facts.)
But this means that supporters of the old special relationship should not get too sanguine about the possibility of replacing the old liberal Jewish base with an influx of Christian Zionists. Even if this influx continued — which is far from inevitable, since Christians are watching the same political developments in Israel/Palestine as Jews are, and could very well become similarly disillusioned — it is unlikely that the special relationship can survive without its traditional base of liberal Jewish support.