Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said something about the role of pro-Israel money in his potential bid for the presidency that sounded ugly, but perhaps not quite in the way it seems.

Graham, weighing a presidential run, said this Monday in a Wall Street Journal interview:

“If I put together a finance team that will make me financially competitive enough to stay in this thing…I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding. [Chuckles.] Bottom line is, I’ve got a lot of support from the pro-Israel funding.”

If you aren’t laughing, that may be because you’re sensitive about the connection between Jews and money. You may recall the ways anti-Semites have historically smeared the Jews with charges of buying their way into positions of influence. As the liberal bloggers Eli Clifton and Jim Lobe put it in a column about the joke,

“Suggesting that ‘pro-Israel funding’ may determine his choice of cabinet secretaries (as well as his policies) may make even his potential benefactors squirm just a little bit in light of the purposes to which real anti-Semites who believe ‘Jewish money’ controls the U.S. government might put such a statement.”

I tend not to worry about giving ammunition to “real anti-Semites,” who manage to find their own ammunition no matter what we or our friends do or say. Haters gonna hate, as the kids are probably no longer saying. And Graham is a reliable friend of Israel, so it is not as if he’s sounding an anti-Semitic dog-whistle to those so inclined to hear it.

The truth is that there is a deep pool of Jewish money available to candidates, and that the Republican contenders, especially on the second tier, are angling for it. They remember how Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish philanthropist and casino mogul, kept the candidacy of Newt Gingrich alive long after the rest of the world put a fork in it.

Establishing one’s pro-Israel bona fides has become a pillar of Republican politics. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, for the first time in more than a decade, Senate Republicans raised more pro-Israel money during the 2014 election cycle than their Democratic counterparts. The same article reported that Graham’s donations from pro-Israel donors rose from $100,000 in 2008 to about $285,000 in 2014.

Pro-Israel donors are not responsible for the huge amounts of cash that are allowed to flow into and distort our political campaigns. But we have gotten very good at leveraging our small numbers and relative affluence for political influence. If that bothers you, then consider the alternative. Perhaps the Holocaust would have happened even had American Jews been an assertive, well-organized lobby. And perhaps Israel would have been able to defend itself in war after war without a strong “Israel lobby.” But American Jewry is haunted by memories of its failures in the first instance, and doesn’t want to repeat the mistake in the second.

Graham’s first mistake was equating “Jews” with “pro-Israel.” The pro-Israel community likes to present Israel’s cause as bigger than the Jews. They point to the impassioned support for Israel among Evangelicals, as well as the generally positive feelings of an American majority.

Graham’s joke reminded me of the famous story about Oscar Straus, who was secretary of Commerce and Labor under President Theodore Roosevelt. According to contemporary gossip (debunked as far back as 1912), Roosevelt was one of the speakers at a dinner given in Straus’s honor. “Believe me, gentlemen,” he said, “when I called Mr. Straus to my cabinet, I was considering no question of religion or race or station. I was considering only his fitness for the office to which I had elected him.” The next speaker was Jacob H. Schiff, the banker and philanthropist who was known to be a bit deaf and absent-minded. “My friends,” said Schiff, “when Mr. Roosevelt wrote and asked me whom I considered the best Jew for the position….”

Pro-Israel activism is also predicated on the notion that PAC money isn’t “buying” support for Israel, but rewarding incumbents who have been friendly and boosting the viability of candidates who have demonstrated support for Israel. That’s the system, and it has been exploited to great effect by the pro-Israel lobby — better than the pro-Palestinian lobby, for sure, and probably better than any number of other lobbies representing countries of fewer than seven million people. But certainly no better than the oil lobby, the NRA, the tech industry, the labor unions, the Saudis, and Big Pharma.

Graham’s joke, like Schiff’s gaffe, revealed a deeper truth, perhaps inadvertently. He made explicit the quid in quid pro quo; in essence he was saying, “If I am going to attract the money I need to be viable, I am going to owe favors to a lot of Jews.”

To me, that doesn’t reflect poorly on the Jews. It reflects poorly on a system that has turned our politicians into part-time legislators, full-time fund-raisers, and most-of-the-time back scratchers. Graham was just joking, I am sure. Unfortunately, the joke is on all of us.