Pro-Israel Campaign Giving, Capital Clout and the Recession

by James Besser

Maybe you’re one of those optimists who believe the economy has turned a corner and recovery is on track for the end of the year. I’m no economist, but I’m not banking on it, and the Jewish leaders I talk to aren’t, either.

The impact of the economic crisis on countless Jewish foundations, Federations and other organizations have been reported in gruesome detail in the Jewish Week and elsewhere. But there’s another question facing the Jewish community and pro-Israel organizations: what is the downturn doing to political giving, and therefore to political clout?

You don’t have to be a Ph.D political scientist to know that a fundamental element in political power is campaign giving. The pro-Israel lobby didn’t get to be as powerful as it is by developing really great talking points; its success is based very heavily on the fact the “lobby” part of the community is backed up by thousands of individuals who give to candidates at every level – national, state and local.

Lawmakers in Washington pay attention to AIPAC because they fear that if they cross the pro-Israel group, pro-Israel campaign donors will know it, and both stop giving to them and start giving to their opponents.

So what happens if campaign giving starts to dry up?

There are some indications this is already happening. In the recent poll by J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, 37 percent of those who contribute money said the current economic crisis has caused them or will cause them to “reduce my contributions to political campaigns.”

Jewish donors are slightly more likely to cut back on political giving than giving to “Jewish organizations and charities.”

If that trend continues, will Jewish and pro-Israel clout diminish?

My initial response: of course it will. But after talking to a number of political scientists and Jewish political types, I’m not so sure.

They all agree that political giving is a key part of pro-Israel muscle in Washington, and that a lot of donors – big and small – have been badly hurt by the recession.

What’s less clear: will Jewish and pro-Israel giving diminish more than campaign giving in general – or less? Several political scientists I spoke to said that with their intense level of commitment and single-issue focus, pro-Israel givers will cut back, but probably less than other campaign givers – actually raising the importance of pro-Israel campaign money.

“Political money in general is going to dry up, or is already drying up,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist here. “So it may be that politicians will be working harder to tap pro-Israel money.”

Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said the key issue is proportionality; pro-Israel giving will continue to be a disproportionately important part of campaign finance, even if overall levels decline.

What could be a bigger problem: getting younger Jews into the habit of giving to Jewish and pro-Israel causes. The “young leadership” track for major pro-Israel groups has been enormously successful in recent years, in part because so many young people came out of school and landed high-paying jobs. Snag them early, groups like AIPAC believe, and you have lifelong supporters.

But times are particularly hard for all those young law school and business school grads; a lot of them are going back to live with mom and dad, not living yuppie life styles and giving to political candidates and to their favorite Jewish and pro-Israel groups.

I don’t have any inside information on this, but I’d imagine the young leadership professionals at groups like AIPAC and in the pro-Israel political action committees are worrying a lot about this and working out strategies for dealing with it.

But for now, at least, critics who hope the recession will cut pro-Israel power down to size are likely to be disappointed – although if the economic slide continues, all bets could be off down the road.

James Besser is the Washington correspondent/new media editor for The New York Jewish Week. This post originally appeared on the JW Political Insider Blog and is posted with permission.