Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The Changing Reality of Jewish Political Advocacy: Israel as a Case Study

Last week, at the World Zionist Congress we saw a demonstration of the growing divisions and disagreements around the Israel agenda.[1] Through the adoption of a number of resolutions, one could readily identify the deep ideological and religious divisions within the Jewish polity regarding the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel. Do such public disputes further undermine support for the Jewish State within the political arena?

The events that unfolded last week raise the broader questions surrounding Jewish political advocacy. For much of our history, significant organizations within the American Jewish communal enterprise have operated as political “interest groups,” representing the priorities of American Jewry.  Such entities are often identified as an advocacy organizations, with most of these organizing efforts designed “to encourage or prevent changes in public policy, without trying to be elected”.[2]

Over the decades Jewish “lobbying” efforts have reflected a broad range of interests. In the past I have addressed some of the specific features that both define and shape Jewish political behavior.[3] The core priorities for the Jewish community involve these five areas of action:

  • Israel Advocacy and United States Foreign Policy
  • Public Policy Issues
  • Social and Human Service Policies
  • Human Rights and Civil Liberties
  • Cultural, Religious and Historic Concerns

In this essay, especially after the fallout at the World Zionist Congress,  I want to pay special attention to what happens when advocacy efforts falter or lose political clout. In an environment of significant diversity and discord,  we currently find the pro-Israel advocacy movement facing a far more challenging reality.

We then have to consider the following:

  • How does a community deal with internal political divisions surrounding Israel? How does this impact garnering political buy-in both from within and outside of the community?
  • What does “support” look like in this type of political climate?
  • What happens when a political interest community loses clout?

When there is a perceived or real loss of political support what are the outcomes? As the Jewish State experiences more political challenges, it further erodes an agreed upon consensus about the Jewish and democratic character of Israel, leading to a corresponding decline in Diaspora alignment, resulting in a corresponding political fallout beyond the community.

When a community’s political position is seen as less cohesive, its collective effectiveness is correspondingly diminished. This is the proposition with which our community must now contend.

The “pro-Israel” agenda is deeper and broader than the American Jewish constituency itself. The idea of “Zion”  has been aligned with the deep religious, cultural and civic connections that has bonded America to the Holy Land over the course of the history of this republic.  This current diminution of influence is aligned with changing public opinion attitudes in connection with Israel and the corresponding acceleration of the BDS movement among other anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian appeals.

Dissecting this loss of influence and consensus appears to be tied to a number of factors:

  • The political crisis within Israel
  • The impact of the BDS movement and other efforts to discredit or marginalize the Jewish State
  • The growing sentiment for the perceived “underdog” status of the Palestinians
  • The impact of Diaspora internal divisions and disagreements
  • The changing demographic and generational relationships of Americans to the Holy Land as a core idea and value
  • The broader political disconnects within the American polity.

There are a number of other realities contributing to the redistribution of power within the American Jewish political scene:

  • The presence of multiple and competing interest group players competing for support and credibility
  • A diminished shared agenda around core issues involving the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel
  • A perceived weakening of the demographic strength and influence of the Jewish community, and
  • The splintering of priorities within the Jewish community.

Stepping Back:

We should note that interest group politics involve actions where the efforts of these organizations is singularly designed to “grow” its influence and credibility among  political decision makers.[4]

For much of my career I have had a particular focus on interest group theory and practice, coming to this work first as an academic and later as a practitioner.[5]  My doctoral dissertation would pay specific attention to the strategies, tactics and outcomes employed by Jewish organizations, giving particular attention to “Jewish interest group politics” during the period of 1945-1968.  In connection with my earlier research, we were able to articulate particular patterns of both practice and performance, covering the early years of Jewish Statehood.

Over time, the field of Jewish interest group practice has been radically altered by an array of operational factors:

  • The number of Jewish institutional political players has accelerated in direct correlation to the presence of a diversity of political perspectives involving the Israel agenda.
  • The role and volume of money in politics have significantly shifted the playing field, with the presence, for example, of PAC’s and funding generating initiatives.
  • The professionalization of Jewish interest group politics has evolved with the emergence of several 501 C4 lobbying organizations.
  • The complexity of the issues has created more tension and uncertainty not only around specific policy questions but more broadly in connection with advocacy practice.
  • The use of social media and other technologies to advance the case of interest group priorities.
  • The introduction of educational structures designed to advance and support the primary goals and functions of advocacy for organizations.

Today, lobbying is largely done by professionals working for consulting firms or holding defined positions within interest groups. Some of the direct interactions that a lobbyist might have with a government official include private meetings, testifying at committee and agency meetings, consulting on legislation drafts, and providing political information to legislators on proposed bills.”[6]

The formation of coalitions, where political interests align with other constituencies and organizations, remains a core organizing principle. Working off the proviso that there is strength in numbers, coalitional politics serves as an important operating feature of interest group practice. It is estimated that interest groups on the federal level expend in access of $7 billion on such issues as energy, infrastructure, communications, health and pharmaceuticals, and insurance.[7]

Interest group politics can generate an indirect impact by working through other channels, such an ad campaign, mass mailings,  and internet postings. As legislators focus more readily on their own constituencies, engaging allied  organizations, the general public, and key grass roots constituencies to represent the interests of lobbyist groups serve as key tactics employed by political organizations.

Interest groups may attempt to influence the behavior of legislators by publicizing their voting records. Oftentimes a legislator is given a score based on the percentage of times that he or she voted in favor of the group’s position.

In my own research I identified an array of civic organizations and business institutions that were engaged by Jewish interest groups to represent the pro-Israel agenda. Among the core players were labor unions and business associations, church leaders and Christian denominational bodies, veterans organizations, civic and educational institutions.

In examining in more depth, the pro-Israel lobby, one finds today a multi-faceted network of Jewish advocacy groups, some of whom are registered as “lobbyists” 501, C-4 organizations, (among them: AIPAC and J Street). Beyond formal lobbying,  “Political Action Committees” raise significant funds on behalf of pro-Israel candidates regardless of party (NORPAC, Protect our Heritage PAC, Pro-Israel America PAC),  while other organizations are distinctively partisan(Republican Jewish Coalition and Democratic Majority for Israel) . Within the spectrum of Jewish organizations, many provide “support” to Israel through informational and educational work. And more recently, one finds a host of Israel “advocacy” organizations including such bodies as Israel 21c; Stand With Us, and the Israeli American Council.  One can find an far more extensive list of supporting organizations, filling specific roles:

According to Open Secrets, a research group tracking money in US politics and its effects on elections and public policy, the total amount of money spent by the top pro-Israel lobby groups in the US from 2021 to 2022 was about $35,280,906. AIPAC alone spent $20,846,098 during this period, which represents 59% of the total spent by the top pro-Israel lobby groups. Interestingly, of the $20,846,098, approximately $7,807,707 was contributed to Democrats, $8,500,000 to nonpartisans, and $4,533,391 to Republicans. Moreover, J Street spent $5,879,332 during the same period, and of this, its contribution to Democrats was about $5,253,435.[8]

One of the core supporting elements in connection with political lobbying involves a defined focus on education. As an example, between 2000 and 2019, AIPAC Education Foundation would expand $16 million on congressional trips involving more than 1400 lawmakers and their staff members. Numerous national agencies and local Jewish federations/JCRC’s also provide such travel and informational opportunities to current and future political players.

Behaviors and Practice:

The Pro-Israel community may have one advantage in connection with its efforts, as there are far fewer, well-funded foreign-policy lobbyist- oriented organizations competing in this market space.  The success of lobbyist groups is directly tied to the levels of public support that is in place for a particular cause. This all lends a distinct advantage to pro-Israel advocacy, despite these internal political challenges.

Yet, in an environment of heightened political divisions, Jewish advocacy becomes increasingly more complex and challenging. Where in some settings, political activism is seen as an appendage to an established cause, for the Jewish community Israel advocacy is never seen as an added benefit but as central organizing principle to sustaining the strength, credibility and security of the State of Israel!









About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.