Advocating for the State of Israel: Two Case Studies: How the Pro-Israel Community Built its Political Organization

cloudy_Israel_flagBy Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As this nation prepares for the 2016 Presidential campaign, this country is once again on political overload, as candidate commercials begin to interrupt sitcoms, political party debates dominate office conversations, and as well as blogs and twitter accounts flood our computer screens with messages offered by these candidates. At the same instance, American audiences are being asked to consider such policy questions as containing ISIS, battling international terrorism, and managing the Syrian refugee crisis while creating a coherent immigration policy. These international concerns are joined together with an array of domestic and family value issues to complete the political landscape.

No doubt, most Jews can relate to these primary issues and to the positions of the various presidential contenders; however for some Jewish voters a distinctive question is always present: “But is this or that candidate good for Israel?” The Jewish DNA, at least for many older voters, is deeply wedded to the special relationship that has emerged between the State of Israel and the United States. In raising this concern a Jewish voter is clearly displaying his particular political orientation, where his/her Zionist passions are bound up with his American identity.

What can be learned from two earlier scenarios where American Jewry would play a critical role in the formation of the Jewish State (1948) and later (1956) in defending and protecting Israel in its first major policy crisis with Washington during Suez Crisis? These two case situations would challenge American Jews as they negotiated their Jewish passions with their American political sentiments. Further, it would teach the pro-Israel community how best to access power and to achieve its political objectives. The tools essential in both of these case models would ultimately become the principles of political advocacy employed by pro-Israel activists over the course of the next seventy years.

While there were traces of an “Israel lobby” prior to 1948, the establishment of the State of Israel essentially catapulted Jewish political activism to a new level of engagement. The support of the United States no doubt marked a turning point in the UN vote regarding the partition of Palestine, leading ultimately to the international recognition of Israel as a member state. Jewish organizations would play an essential role in garnering the support of American policy makers. The unfolding of that story is outlined in the paragraphs below.

The Founding of the Jewish State:

Understanding United States’ Middle East policy in the post war era is an essential ingredient to this drama. The decline of British influence in the region, ultimately climaxing in England’s withdrawal from Palestine in 1948, created a power vacuum. The involvement of the United States in the Middle East would become essential in order to protect American and more generally Western interests in the area and to counter the emergence of Soviet influence. This intervention has been described as “reactionary [rather than] a program of action”.

Once the issue of the future of Palestine would shift from the British Foreign Office to the American government, the role of the Jewish community in the United States would become paramount. Yet, despite this political opportunity, American Jewry would find itself unprepared to launch a coordinated effort. Support for a Jewish State, however, did not come without great challenges. In part due to its size and political diversity, American Jewry did not function as a unified constituency around the issue of Zionism and the goal of Jewish statehood. This lack of communal consensus gave way to an internal conflict that stemmed from religious and ideological disagreements.
The issue of patriotism and more directly, the charge of dual loyalty, would divide the community. In a post-war world where just a few years prior European Jews were murdered simply because they were Jewish, advocating for Zionism brought about a new level of uneasiness, leaving many American Jews uncomfortable and in some measure afraid.

The American Council for Judaism would articulate the argument that “America was our homeland and Judaism, our religion,” thereby rejecting the claims of the Zionist camp. Indeed, various religious constituencies, ranging from the far right to the left, were not prepared to endorse the case for a Jewish national homeland. Significant numbers of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith, while embracing the humanitarian responsibilities as an outgrowth of Nazi atrocities, were likewise not committed to the Zionist agenda.

Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics:

During the period of 1946 to 1948, the initial objective of the Zionist leadership would be to essentially isolate the issue of Jewish statehood as solely an American issue, devoid of British or Arab influence. The strategy here centered on the goal of promoting the idea and urgency for creating a Jewish state in order to provide a safety net for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who had managed to survive Hitler’s wave of terror and destruction. With the failure of both the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and later the Morrison-Grady Plan (1946) to resolve the question of the status of Jews in Palestine, the policy question of a Jewish homeland would shift from a bi-national conversation to the single purvey of the American government.

With an upcoming election pending in November of 1948, Truman noted that a great deal of Jewish financial contributors would be monitoring the White House decision regarding Palestine as central criteria for embracing the Democratic candidate. Attempting to counter previous criticism of his initial reluctance to support the Partition Plan, Truman would acknowledge the pressure placed on the administration to push forward an endorsement of a Jewish state.

Political Messaging: American Jewish leadership understood that in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War that they would have a unique opportunity to transform the positive public sentiment and concern for the welfare of the Jewish people into a political victory.

In order to build support for the case for the Jewish State, the pro-Israel community would build a cadre of allies to advance its political agenda. Jewish organizations mobilized veterans’ organizations, various Christian Zionist leaders and church institutions, and the American labor movement. For example, serving in the army would be seen as one of the truest forms of patriotism, lobbyist groups recognizing this fact mobilized veterans organizations to act in consort with the Zionist cause. The power of patriotism cannot be overstated as an essential and effective tool in advancing the 1948 case for a Jewish State.

Building a “Staged Campaign”: Over time, Zionist organizations would upgrade their tactics shifting from press conferences and public policy statements to an intensive letter writing campaign, the introduction of demonstrations and rallies featuring high-profile political figures. In the end this staged campaign would fail to render a satisfactory outcome. Many decision makers, including Truman, complained of the excessive pressure being orchestrated by an array of Jewish advocacy organizations. Even the head of the Jewish Agency and the future president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, noted the tension caused by this intensive strategy, ultimately demonstrated by Truman’s unwillingness to meet with him during a stateside visit in 1948. In an effort to overcome this negative impact, B’nai B’rith leadership approached Eddie Jacobson; coincidentally a personal friend and former business associate of the President, who would exercise these connections in order to convince the President to meet with Weizmann. The results of that historic meeting provided Truman the opportunity to pledge his support for the establishment of a Jewish state.

Managing the Issue of “Dual Loyalty”: One of the primary fears of the non-Zionists in connection with the founding of the Jewish State involved the issue of “dual loyalty.” In a series of letters authored in 1950, Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, the President of the American Jewish Committee, laid out their respective views on what the founding of the State of Israel would mean to Diaspora Jewry.

Political Outcome: Truman’s recognition of the Jewish State would help to cement a political alliance between a major ethnic community and the Democratic Party; this would have particular significance in connection with delivering New York’s Jewish vote and in turn, solidify that state’s key electoral votes to the Democratic Party in the 1948 campaign.

Personal relationships, political alliances, and the presence of public sentiment sympathetic to the plight of European Jewry would successfully allow the Jewish community to achieve this goal that had eluded it for over 2000 years.

Moving Beyond: 1948 can very well be described as an initial success for the Jewish community, as its pro-Israel groups were able to mobilize and turn the tide in favor of the formation and recognition of the State of Israel.


With Israel having been established, the question of how American Jews were going to deal with contentious and divisive policy issues would emerge. Indeed, eight years after the founding of the State, the Suez Canal Crisis (1956) would represent the first real test of the community’s political prowess. The institutions of the Jewish community would evolve, in part as an outgrowth of the birth of the State and in alignment with the changing character of the American Jewry in the post-war era. One would see the emergence of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the evolution of the American Zionist Council; in turn, the Council would evolve in 1963 into AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee).

Background on the Sinai-Suez Crisis

Beginning in 1954, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies would become Egypt’s primary weapons supplier, in turn, bringing that nation’s leadership closer to the Communist orbit. In light of America’s foreign policy goal of containing Soviet influence and power, the Eisenhower Doctrine was constructed in 1957 to offer military assistance to combat possible Soviet involvement within the region.

Aware of the USSR’s developing relationship with Egypt, Jewish organizations attempted to position Israel as an outpost of democracy, prepared to defend Western interests against the Soviet threat. Facing the threat of potential destruction by its Arab neighbors, Israel and its American Jewish supporters attempted to garner political and military assistance from the United States and its allies. The State Department rejected pleas for military support to Israel noting that the (Eisenhower) Doctrine essentially targeted countries susceptible to Soviet influence, and in this case, vulnerable Arab states would directly qualify. In rejecting Israel’s request, the administration interpreted the Israeli initiative as only likely to contribute to an arms race in the region.

The Political Challenge: The decision on the part of the United States not to provide arms to Israel represented a major policy challenge to American Jewish interest groups; unlike the 1948 case there existed a major policy divide as America’s policy priority to counter Soviet influence in the region and the security concerns of the State of Israel were not in alignment. As with the 1948 case, pro-Israel groups launched a communications campaign to promote the security threats facing Israel; this initiative would include articles, statements, telegrams, letters, rallies and personal contacts, all designed to foster a US-Israel strategic connection. Here, Jewish organizations concentrated on criticizing the existing policy as too narrow in its focus.

Allies of the pro-Israel community however challenged this strategy, calling upon American Jewish organizations to adopt a different tactic. American labor leaders, for example, recommended an alternative approach, arguing that rather than challenging the administration, the pro-Israel community ought to be advancing patriotic sentiments demonstrating Israel’s democratic character as aligned with America’s strategic interests.

The Trigger Events: On October 29 1956, only a few days prior to the American presidential election, Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai. When the joint ultimatum of ceasefire issued by Britain and France was ignored, the two European powers landed their paratroopers along the Suez Canal on November 5th. This pre-planned military action afforded the French and British an opportunity to gain control of the Suez Canal with the intention of removing Egyptian President Nasser from power.

The three allies, acting in tandem, had attained a number of their military objectives, yet heavy pressure from both the United States and the USSR would force the British and French to ultimately withdraw. In March of 1957, faced with the threat of sanctions on the part of the American government along with the United Nations, Israel would withdraw its forces. The Suez Canal would be closed to shipping from October 1956 until March 1957 as a result of the conflict. In the end Israel fulfilled some of its objectives, including attaining freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran, which the Nasser regime had prevented prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

With the unfolding of the Suez Crisis it would become abundantly clear that no matter how much support could be generated for Israel, the White House and more directly, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles truly believed that Israel committed aggression that could not be condoned. Venting its unhappiness with Israel, State Department officials informed American Jewish leadership that the administration was considering halting United Jewish Appeal funds earmarked for the Jewish State.

A number of critical issues impacting Israel as well as American Jewry drew the attention of Jewish leadership; these involved preserving “the right of innocent passage” through the Suez Canal of shipping destined for Israel, combatting the Arab economic boycott which had been adopted by the Arab League, fighting the discriminatory policies directed against American military and civilians of the Jewish faith by Arab governments, and ensuring the safety and security of Egyptian Jewry following the Suez Crisis.

Playing to its Strength: As in the 1948 case, the pro-Israel community would seek to garner support from Congress, viewing the legislative wing (Congress) as more approachable than either the White House or State Department. The message conveyed by Jewish interest groups emphasized that Israel’s security was the basis for its decision to partner with London and Paris, arguing in turn that the United States was morally responsible toward ensuring the Jewish State’s ability to defend itself. With this strategy in place, pro-Israel forces constructed a media and press campaign, employing pamphlets, press statements, reprints of pro-Israel editorials and articles, and radio broadcasts to bolster and defend their position.

Unlike the events of 1948, employing external political influence and pressure was not possible at the time of Suez crisis. In part, the time frame proved too short and the pro-Israel community was unable to adequately mobilize its efforts to separate out Israel’s security requirements from the broader picture of the British and French military actions. Yet, following the Suez invasion, there would be time to reposition the pro-Israel community to advance some of its longer-term interests, in particular promoting Israel’s security concerns.

Mobilizing the Community: During the critical weeks and months following the Suez Crisis, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would operate as a communications hub, initiating a series of briefings designed to orient Jewish leadership on the current political situation. Additionally, the American Zionist Council (the successor to the AZEC, American Zionist Emergency Council) facilitated local community informational meetings. Written memorandum relative to the goals and activities of the AZC were circulated in the communities. Unlike the 1948 case, Jewish leadership resisted making direct appeals to the White House. Similar to the 1948 case, the most effective strategies in the Suez Crisis proved to be ones rooted in American patriotism. Pro-Israel forces, for example, utilized the policy question of whether the United States ought to renew its contract with Saudi Arabia over the use of Dhahran Airfield. Jewish groups would argue that a country that refused to allow Jews to enter their country did not abide by the values of equal rights and fair treatment afforded all citizens. Referencing this issue in 1956 both the Republican and Democratic parties would adopt platform statements against discrimination practices at home and abroad, exhibiting the influence of Jewish groups in domestic party politics. Alliances play a pivotal role here as well, as Jewish institutions forged beneficial relationships with key labor leaders and union organizations, church organizations, and veterans groups expanding the pro-Israel support beyond the boundaries of the American Jewish community. Furthermore, various Jewish organizations would adopt a public stand against Soviet influence in the Middle East, in turn garnering support from anti-Communist groups, effectively transforming the Suez issue into a broader Cold War threat.

The individual successes of the various lobbyist groups, however, in no way produced a collective victory. Ultimately the threat of sanctions from President Eisenhower would force Israel to withdraw from Egypt, and in a survey (Oct/Nov 1956), it was revealed that only 10% of those polled approved of Israel’s actions.

The two case situations offer us some valuable insights into political organizing and mobilizing public opinion:

Coalition Building: These early efforts pointed to the value and necessity of building coalitions. The engagement of church groups, labor unions, veterans associations, and other core constituencies would be an essential ingredient in building support for America’s endorsement of the Partition Plan and ultimately, US recognition of the State of Israel. As noted above, the pro-Israel community adopted a similar approach in 1956 on behalf of garnering this nation’s support for Israel’s long term military and security interests.

Distinctive Political Styles: What we would learn from both 1948 and 1956 is that Jewish organizations would demonstrate their distinctive political styles, reflecting their particular mission and vision as well as their distinctive cultural orientation. Here, several institutional models deserve some specific attention:

American Jewish Committee’s cautious and quiet diplomacy and singularity of involvement meant that the AJC would avoid during these earlier years formally affiliating with umbrella organizations in order to protect its independence of action and its view that no structure ought to speak for American Jewry.

The Jewish War Veterans would construct support among veterans’ groups citing Israel as “the bastion of democracy in the Middle East,” deserving the support of the United States.

In turn, the American Council for Judaism would argue that the Zionist camp represented “a small minority who’s primary concern of a foreign government” did not reflect the interests of the United States. The ACJ would go further calling on the American government to investigate “the relationship between the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Appeal, and the various organizations of American Zionism.”

The Jewish Vote: Politicians are never removed from the “ballot box” and indeed, both political parties and key government officials were conscious of the “Jewish Vote” when considering policy statements and political action associated with building the US-Israel relationship. In connection with case situations, party platforms, political speeches, and campaign ads would seek to highlight each side’s “particular” connection and relationship to the Israel story.

In both case settings the “Jewish vote” would be seen as a factor in influencing policy. As long as the national interests of the United States were in line with the interests of Israel’s supporters, there was a level of congruence and engagement. However, unlike 1948, in the 1956 Suez Crisis US strategic and global priorities were seen as in conflict the security concerns of the State of Israel, creating a level of political tension between Washington and Jerusalem and an internal divide between Israel’s supporters in this nation and the American government. The issue of “dual loyalty” represented an internal matter of concern to the Jewish community, yet the critics of the State of Israel would raise it publicly. The question of American Jewish patriotism would remain a question for debate for a period of years.

Party Platforms: If the 1948 platforms reflected the shared commitment to the founding of the Jewish State, the 1956 statements pointed to partisan divisions. Whereas the Republican statements on the Middle East would represent the sentiments of Eisenhower and Dulles, calling for an impartial friendship for the Arab States and Israel and emphasizing the collective regional security plan that had been put forth by the administration, the Democratic Platform called for U.S. to “redress the dangerous imbalance in arms” and the necessity of providing Israel with “security guarantees.”
Inter-Organizational Competition: Similarly, institutional competition would represent one of the overriding patterns of political behavior in both case situations.

Beyond tactical differences over strategy, one finds deep ideological divisions within the community. In the 1948 case in particular the presence and active involvement of an anti-Zionist constituency. Their presence would likewise be present in later case situation.

The anti-Zionist, American Council for Judaism, would argue that the Zionist organizations represented “a small minority whose primary concern of a foreign government” did not reflect the interests of the United States. The ACJ would go further calling on the American government to investigate “the relationship between the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Appeal, and the various organizations of American Zionism.”

Access to Influentials: Certainly a key to the success of any interest group is its ability to have access to the primary decision-makers. Jewish groups would have various points of connection to critical “influentials” within the Congress, the Administration, and State Department where these policy questions would be debated and acted upon. The Jewish community defined its political agenda in the following terms convincing the White House to be supportive of its Israel agenda, while at the same moment neutralizing the State Department’s deeply rooted hostility to the idea and ultimate presence of a Jewish State by mobilizing a pro-Israel Congress to bring pressure to bear on the President.

The pro-Israel community would measure specific documents, for example, Congressional statements made on behalf of Israel. During the Congressional Session of 1956, some 23 addresses and speeches were delivered, an additional 85 articles and editorials would be entered into the minutes and some 17 letters would likewise be recorded in the proceedings.

Playing to National Sentiment: Within the first case scenario, Jewish groups invoked patriotic and humanitarian themes to bolster the “case” for US recognition of the establishment of a Jewish State. Similarly, as part of the strategy introduced into the second case model, Israel’s democratic character would be seen as a compelling basis for American support for ensuring the Jewish State’s security and military preparedness.

Ideology as a Factor: The debate over “Zionism” and the relevancy of Jewish Statehood would be a profound and divisive issue up until the Second World War; Hitler’s atrocities would transform the issue from being a theoretical debate to one of political reality. Managing the welfare of Jewish people displaced by war and as victims of Nazism created an urgently new and different scenario. Yet, for selected Orthodox religious groups and the American Council for Judaism, the idea of a Jewish State ran counter to their perception of the Jewish condition. For the religious rejectionists, only God could deliver the “Promised Land,” and any efforts to the contrary must be opposed. For the ACJ, the Zionist agenda was contrary to their Americanism; fearing both the charge of dual-loyalty and the threat of anti-Semitism, could alter the status and security of Jews residing as citizens in this land. The task of mainstream American Jewish leadership would be to discredit and marginalize these ideological actors, portraying them as operating outside of communal consensus with reference to the importance of supporting the Jewish State.

Targeting Jewish Engagement: During both of these time frames, the perception on the part of Jewish leaders involved a belief that the pro-Israel community faced a hostile State Department and an “impartial” White House, which would prompt the community to harness and mobilize its Congressional allies to marginalize the negative impact of the former while seeking to favorably influence the latter.

End Notes:

The lessons of political advocacy for Israel would be core to the building of a strong pro-Israel agenda and infrastructure.

This paper was based on my Ph.D. dissertation (1973), American Jewish Interest Groups: Their Role in Shaping United States Foreign Policy in the Middle East: A Study of Two Time Periods: 1945-1948, 1955-1958. A group of five research areas were examined (1) interest group tactics and political styles, (2) interest group cohesiveness and the role of ideology, (3) the formation of alliances and mobilization of public opinion, (4) the relationship of political interests to foreign policy priorities, and (5) the impact of interest group pressure on Congressional and Department of State elites.

I wish to acknowledge the invaluable support provided by my former student and research associate, Jacqueline Lowy for this project.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.