Jesse Helms and the Pro-Israel Divide

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), who died on Friday at the age of 86, was a perfect lightning rod for one of the critical divides in Jewish life.

For many pro-Israel activists, Helms’ conversion from staunch foe of their agenda  — in 1983 he suggested breaking diplomatic relations with Israel because of the war in Lebanon, and he was a consistent foe of foreign aid  – to ardent Likudnik was the stuff of legends and a turning point in pro-Israel politics.

After Helms traveled to Israel and saw the Zionist light, many pro-Israel leaders came to the belief that their strongest support in the future would come from conservative Republicans with ties to the evangelical movement.

That belief seemed confirmed in 1995 when Helms took over as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a post he used to oppose Clinton administration involvement in the Oslo peace process.

For many liberal Jewish activists, Helms’ elevation to iconic status was a symbol of everything they see as wrong with pro-Israel politics today.

Helms, they said, was a fierce foe of all their top priorities, starting with civil rights, hate crimes protections and strict church-state separation. Helms was seen as an unrepentant son of the white southern segregationist system and the most influential supporter of the Christian right in Congress.

It infuriated liberal Jewish groups that the North Carolina lawmaker would be welcomed as a hero by major pro-Israel groups even as he was working effectively to undermine much of the domestic agenda of Jewish groups – and as he opposed the policies of the Israeli government during the Oslo years.

And so it goes.

Single-issue pro-Israel groups argued that defending Israel should be the top priority of the organized Jewish community, and that in that fight, you ally yourself with whoever can effectively advance that agenda without regard to their views on other issues.

Multi-issue Jewish activists said that’s a dangerous kind of parochialism that undercuts traditional domestic coalitions, alienates a majority of Jews with broader political interests and ultimately strengthens politicians and groups that, while pro-Israel, work against other community priorities.

Jesse Helms, and the chasm between his Jewish admirers and detractors, was the perfect reflection of that divide.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.