It’s not every day a reporters attends a Jewish organization’s conference and hears two Jewish congressmen politely debating whether Jewish political contributions control U.S. policy in the Middle East. Or sees one of those members get a big round of applause after saying he voted against a resolution that condemned a Nation of Islam leader. But that’s what happened Monday afternoon at the J Street conference.
It all started when Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) told the story of voting against a 1994 resolution condemning the hateful and anti-Semitic speech of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, at the time a top lietuenant of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Filner said he couldn’t condemn the speech because of the First Amendment — "How can Jews survive without the First Amendment?" he said — and was the only Jewish member of Congress to vote against it.
After the vote, though, he said he started to get calls from unnamed people in the Jewish communty who told him they weren’t going to donate to his campaigns anymore — and eventually lost $250,000 of contributions per election cycle as a result of the vote.
"That kind of money is an intimidating factor," he said. "I raised a lot less money in succeeding years, but my consicence was cleared," he said to huge applause — apparently because he stood up for to the dominant opinion in the Jewish community.
As the discussion among Filner and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Charles Boustany (R-La.) continued — with praise for J Street for creating space for what many said could now be a wider-ranging debate on Middle East issues — Polis cautioned that "we need to be careful to not give cover" to those "who think there is a Jewish conspiracy" to control U.S. foreign policy. The statement, which appeared to be an indirect reference to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s book "The Israel Lobby," got just a smattering of applause.
Filner, though, retorted by recalling the two members of the Congressional Black Caucus who he said "were deemed insufficiently pro-Israel" by the Israel lobby and were defeated. (The opponents of both Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) did receive a lot of money from pro-Israel activists, but also had other issues leading to their defeats.)
"That intimidates people," Filner said.
Polis responded by saying that the pro-Israel lobby is no different than any other single issue group in American politics, from labor unions to low-tax proponents like the Club for Growth to gun-rights supporters.
"This is not unique to American politics," he said about the pro-Israel lobby, "nor is this even one of the most influential groups in either of the parties," he said.
But Filner persisted, arguing that, for instance, labor unions were at least providing health benefits for the members — but on Israel, members of Congress "are taking positions that can lead to war" based only on how it affects their campaign coffers.
"The Republican Party doesn’t give a damn about Israel," he said, but only support it on political grounds.
That finally led Boustany to chime in, suggesting that Filner not "generalize about Republicans."
The some 1,500 people in attendance at the conference didn’t demonstrate much reaction to the Polis-Filner back and forth, but in-the-halls discussion after the session indicated that the crowd appeared to generally side with Filner. That’s ven though his charges seemed to echo at least parts of the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, something that J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami has said he doesn’t agree with.