How Not to Think of Lobbies in America

How does one think about a special interest group? Are they the ‘tail wagging the dog’? Or more realistically, just power-brokers who are go-in-betweens, managing perceptions, raising money and buying out influence, for those who they work? The answer is something in between. While I don’t agree that lobbies are all powerful, they do wield significant influence that cannot be denied. But they also operate within certain constraints, as Stephen Walt warns us in his article How not to think about the Israeli lobby. Recent failures of the Israeli lobby – including not being able to get the US into war in Syria – (until now) is an indication of its limited influence. It took nearly three years before the U.S. decided to intervene in Syria, and that too, only when ISIL is involved.

AIPACI spoke with a group of American students, quite recently, about ‘Israel Lobby and US Foreign policy’ a topic I am somewhat familiar with. Having researched this topic for over two years while at Syracuse University, I gave up and changed tracks. After a while, I was exhausted – both intellectually and emotionally at the developments (or lack thereof) in Palestine. It is a hard topic to research, especially if one is invested in some way – either intellectually or emotionally. As a bystander, I was not as invested in the topic, but morally; I felt (and still do) that all fair-minded people should intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though the two state solution may not exactly be the way to go. “Israel is like a piece of cheese, with the holes for settlements. How will you ever divide that into two countries”, said one of my favorite professors on campus. I believed him and still do. Though I harbored faith in the two state solution at one point, I don’t think it is practically feasible, given current realities on ground.

The American students I spoke to were critical, skeptical but at the same time optimistic that there is a solution to the crisis. With the Israel lobby question in mind, I did not have to struggle too hard to convince them that those in ‘real’ power had to make hard choices, some wise decisions and come to some consensus on what the way forward is. And to put things in context, I was speaking with students in the ‘Bible Belt,’ and that fundamentalist Christians are more pro-Israel than many American Jews, as this poll by Pew Research shows. The status quo won’t work is something these students realize. Even the most ardent pro-Israeli student in the room realized that the obstacles to ‘peace’ are internal to the Israeli establishment and this discourse is aided by American support. Peter Beinart’s question of whether the ‘liberal Zionists’ ideals’ of a free and democratic Israel that uphold human rights, justice are dead, is worth asking.

In a recent Op-Ed in New York Times, Mairav Zonszein argues that there is a vilification campaign going on in Israel against those who dare speak out against the state.Zonszein says “The vilification of the few Israelis who don’t subscribe to right-wing doctrine is not new. Similar acts of incitement occurred before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But now they have multiplied, escalated and spread.” The discourse of ‘Us vs. them’ seems to have been incorporated by the Israeli establishment, very effectively and any dissent is labeled as anti-Semitism. The most recent ‘war in Gaza’ demonstrated this fact. Social media was abuzz with discussions, fights and arguments about whether Israel had the right to ‘defend’ itself against the rockets that Hamas fired.

The ‘winds of change’ are blowing, if recent developments are any indication. Peter Beinart, in his book The Crisis of Zionism argues that there the continued building of settlements in the West Bank imperil the very existence of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Beinart says that the tradition of debate, open-dialogue that is inherent in Judaism is being hijacked by fundamentalist groups in Israel. While groups such as Americans for Peace Now, J-Street and dozens of others work to build up the ‘moderate’ voice that is liberal, accommodating of the Palestinian demands for recognition, the hawks seem to dominate the debate. These liberal groups are also growing in power and influence, if my discussion with the youngsters is any indication- and so is the public sentiment among American Jews- who are overwhelmingly liberal. On another note, Hamas just gave up control of Gaza to the Unity government a few days ago, according to news reports. As Rami Khouri reminds us, the challenge before us is whether the rival factions will unite. Further to this, I believe something more important than this is whether this unity will hold, and if Israel will recognize this unity. He calls this negligence to establish order within the ranks of PA and Hamas ‘ a criminal negligence’.

Finally, as Walt reminds us, it would help to remember that lobbies are special interests, that operate to achieve their ends. They may at times be the tail that wags the dog, but generally, as a rule; the dog is in control of the tail. Knowing this reality will help clarify any exaggerated claims – whether it is in the case of Israel or the NRA.



Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg


If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.




[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013


“Inter-faith dialogue isn’t inter-faith agreement” – Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Truah


Q : Can you tell us about yourself and your organizational affiliation?

RR: Truah and Rabbis for Human Rights, North America are the same organization, as we changed our name in January this year. I am a conservative Rabbi and the Director of North-American programs. We also do work on issues in Israel and West bank but I do domestic work.  Issues that are part of my portfolio are : Slavery, human trafficking, Labor trafficking and American Muslim community. Coalition of Amakelli in Florida (tomato industry), Anti-torture campaign: It has two campaigns – Americans against torture on war on terror and other on solitary confinement and we also do work with our partners. Their issues may not be directly correlated to ours, but we provide support. We are also involved in a big way in  Immigration reforms.

We had about 130 congregations taking part in the Human Rights (HR) Shabbat program, around international human rights day. The general consensus is that over 50% of Jews are associated with a synagogue and we work through Rabbis to articulate our messaging. Sometimes, Rabbis are able to speak out for justice in congregations and bring them with them, or at times bring their moral voices.

While we focus domestically, and on Israel; we want to pick issues where we have some leverage, either as Americans or as Jews. For example, we did not get involved in Syria, though it is a major human rights question, simply because we don’t have leverage in that area. While it is good to raise awareness, we need to do something and pull people to do something. Awareness is a good place to start, but not to finish.

Q: How do you set goals, gather support for your campaigns ?

RR : Every year we do long and short term planning. Sometimes, it is about creating a resource to get it out there. I also work with partner organizations, and in some ways I am supporting needs which they articulate, That sense of campaign planning is all pervasive.

During our campaign planning, we realized how much basic education about Islam is needed. Through some of our partners, we realized how critical that is, in our messaging too. When you compare the issue of Islamophobia with gay rights, the reason why the conversation about gay rights has changed in such a big way in the last two years is because people are aware of gay people. They have a friend or a family member who is gay. The reason Islam is demonized is because people don’t know Muslims. Even today, most Americans don’t know someone who is Muslim. Only 20-25% know who is a Muslim. It is much easier to believe stereotypes when there is no direct contact. Rabbis themselves have gotten to know the local imams, but they haven’t gotten together to get their communities together, yet. In part, because, it is hard to figure out how we talk about contentious issues such as Israel and Palestine. It does remain a challenge. On the other hand, there are successful models. The reason I mention Chicago, is that the community there is so well organized. The Jewish council on American Affairs have partnered on issues of shared concern – housing, immigration. The approach that they have taken is to focus on issues that are real and of concern to both communities.



Q : What is the role of College campuses in addressing these issues?

A : Because of the discussion surrounding Israel and Palestine, any dialogue is often politicized. On the other hand, there is also good Jewish-Muslim collaboration. On campuses, kids are from similar backgrounds, they are living together and are on similar wavelengths. When the AP reports of NYPD spying on Muslim college kids came out, some of the strongest pushback came from the Rabbis on campus. Such collaboration and support for each other gives me hope.

 I don’t want to say that we have to wait for another generation, as youth can be biased too, given the role that Jewish communities on campuses can play, and the expectations of parents that they will play such a key role in transmitting Jewish values. It is effective messaging when I tell parents that “How’d you like it if your child was afraid to go to Hillel, because he/she is being spied upon?” So, that’s interesting to me, and is something to watch.

Q: How did you get involved with Truah?

RR : I came to work with Truah during my senior year of Rabbinical school, that is about six years agoI came to work on the anti-torture campaign and it was really fascinating for me, as I thought of myself as a political junkie and also was involved in Jewish social justice wor. Torture brings up very deep issues and forces you to confront deep moral questions and for me, it was like beginning of an awakening of whose civil liberties are we willing to violate to feel safe. There is also the difference between feeling safe and being safe actually. That people for the perception of safety, are willing to victimize the other. The organization has changed much since I came, in all good ways. I feel the conversation in the Jewish community has changed and we are taking on more issues than before.

Q : How big is your network and how do you carry out your campaigns?

A : We are based in New York and have about 1800 Rabbis across the country.

We have in the past had conferences but don’t currently do those anymore.  IN the coming year, we are looking to do one day trainings, to educate Rabbis on skills building.

Q : What is the state of inter-faith work ?  What are the key challenges coming your way?

RR : I think there is a lot going on and that is good. There are many organizations talking to each other. At shoulder to shoulder, we are all Abrahamic faiths.

Through 1950s through 90’s, inter-faith meant Jewish and Christians and now it is becoming Jewish-Muslim-Christian and some sprinkling of other faith groups. When religions move to the US, they begin to organize like a church, and in other countries. New groups are developing their systems and they also don’t have clergy in the real sense. We started to bring Muslims in that structure, but there are challenges to go beyond Abrahamic faiths.

The other challenge is of course when you are building a morality structure, around faith; there are those who are spiritual but not affiliated. This is a challenge too. How do we reach out to churches of color and immigrant communities? A lot is being done on the organizational level. A lot is going on, and I am not sure how much of it is entering the national conversation.

I come from Canada, where religion is not as much as a public issue and national conversation, as it is here. It is an important fact about the U.S, compared to other countries and in particular Canada. Even if Americans are becoming less religious, religion is becoming a big part of the national dialogue. I wonder if the conversation about Muslims is not about religion per se but is more about immigration and so.

Q: Your experience with Jewish congregations?

RR : What I see is that in times of tension whether the recent Muhammad film controversy, people who are liberal, fall into the stereotypes about Muslims. For example, they would say things like “ You never see Christians doing such things”, without an understanding of the dynamics. It is very easy for people to believe stereotypes of Muslims and Islam.

Also, I believe it is refusal to take responsibility that they are believing in stereotypes. People are writing about the films and not having the background about it. For me, those are often challenges and even secular people can be so antagonistic.

Q : How are you funded?

RR: We are funded by both foundations and private donors. My sense is that there is money for this kind of work. There just seems to be more need for this.

For many Jews the question is not whether they should support HR at all, because they are modern, ethical people and do from that standpoint. It is what is distinctly Jewish about supporting human rights. We are speaking to people who think about how to address these issues, from a Jewish perspective, rather than simply approaching them in a secular, neutral manner.

One piece of push-back that I am getting and one that needs to be addressed both from Jewish and secular perspective is that of “Why should we care about HR when they (criminals or terrorists) don’t value them”? I try to tell them that it is not about their values, but our own. We don’t torture because it is against American values, it doesn’t matter what a terrorist will do in their cells, with their captives. We won’t let them set the agenda.

It is troubling for me, and that is often where Jewish language comes in. What we do is what we do. We must uphold our values irrespective of how others behave with us.


Q : What have you learnt that you’d like to share?

RR : Inter-faith work is incredibly worth doing, and takes a long time and you have to be open to listening to the other. And also that you have to understand that inter-faith dialogue isn’t inter-faith agreement. And it is ok to engage with people who don’t agree with them and how can we expect them to agree with us, if we don’t agree with them.