What's wrong with a Zionist lobby anyway?

It's the Arab lobby that really exerts the negative influence on US foreign policy, and it is they that use the underhand tactics due to the weakness of their case

Steve Apfel
On 12 September 2013 10:07

That favourite bogeyman the ‘Zionist Lobby’ resonates like a conspiracy out of some tract like the Protocols. Is it really improper for Diaspora Jewry to sway public policy or opinion favourably towards Israel? Is a Zionist lobby not simply doing what other special interest groups do, doing it sometimes better or sometimes worse than for example the anti-Zionist lobby?    

Conducted in the open as it ought to be in a democratic system, lobbying is nothing new or inherently sinister. After all what is it but an act of advocacy to swing the political climate in favour of, in our case, Israel.

Given that the Middle East conflict dominates world agendas, and has done for a long time, lobbies – pro, anti and powerful – are bound to be active volcanoes. In the American context everyone knows about the Israel lobby, AIPAC.

“There is a big bad lobby that distorts US foreign policy…way out of proportion to its actual support by the American public.  But the offending lobby is not AIPAC but rather the Arab lobby, which opposes the Jewish state.” So wrote Mitchell Bard in a book titled, The Arab lobby: the invisible alliance…

Looking today at Barak Obama’s envoy John Kerry and his unequal treatment of the parties in the new peace process, at the way he forced Israel to make concessions and allowed the Palestinians to make demands, it’s not difficult to hazard which of the lobby groups wields the greater power in America – Jewish or Arab.

How they wield power is a different matter. An unhealthy lobby, Bard says, is one that tries with unlimited money to buy what it cannot win on the merits of its case… Which Bard views to be the distinguishing mark of the American Arab lobby.       

In South Africa two lobby groups, one pro the other anti Israel, vie to sway government policy and public opinion. The Anti-Zionist boycott lobby, under the umbrella of BDS, vies with a pro-Zionist lobby under the umbrella of a pair of communal bodies: the Jewish Board and Zionist Federation.

In a democratic country both lobby groups are legitimate. Why then pillory only the Zionist lobby? A small but economically powerful Jewish minority surely has a perfect right to try its hand at some arm-twisting.   

How a lobby goes about twisting arms is another matter. Is it more open than covert? Does it respect human rights and liberties? No lobby will have a perfect scorecard. Just because it operates in a democratic system, don’t expect a lobby to be democratic. The Zionist lobby is no exception. Communal bodies, remember, are not Jewish parliaments. Office holders are not elected on a democratic ticket. There is no such thing as a Jewish ballot.

As you’d expect in that case, office-holders can be self-perpetuating kingpins, holding sway over resources and making decisions for which they are not accountable. So expect to find the regular systemic bugs: cronyism, misappropriation, infighting, vested interest, bad decision-making and all. Jewish philanthropists are generally a patient long-suffering breed, but even they eventually tire of wheeling and dealing within communal bodies. Who knows, but similar plots might play out in anti-Zionist lobby halls.

How effective has it been, the Zionist lobby in South Africa? In twisting the government’s arm to do its bidding the jury is well and truly unanimous: outgunned and outplayed by its counterpart.

Take the labeling of products from so-called Palestinian territories. The boycotters won that big battle without having to draw weapons. Given the non-too subtle backing of the government itself, perhaps the outcome was inevitable. Indeed, by any intelligent guess the government and its alliance partners would be funding the anti-Zionist lobby, and by extension the satellite NGOs.

Last month one of these satellites, Open Shuhada Street, used this money to pay an Israeli to enjoy the delights of Cape Town in return for spinning his yarns about Israel’s ‘wicked military.’

If the Zionist lobby has been hopeless in twisting the government’s arm, what impact has it made on public opinion? Here the Zionist lobby has made quite good strides. Some well executed strategies appear to be paying dividends. A recently formed body named Fairplay courts and recruits Christians to the Zionist cause by sending church leaders to Israel.

Acquainted with the ‘realities’ they return to herd their church flock on board the blessed ark, Zionism. Now here’s the thing: if the Zionist lobby continues to grow this support base, especially among black Christians, it could well make the government sit up and take notice. The time is not too far off, remember, when the nation will go to the polls.  

And that surely is what lobbying is all about: asking policy makers to pay a price by confronting them with a credible threat.             

Steve Apfel is director of the School of Management Accounting, Johannesburg. He is the author of the book,'Hadrian's Echo: The whys and wherefores of Israel's critics' (2012) and a contributor to, "War by other means." (Israel Affairs, 2012). His articles and blogs are published in several foreign journals and his new work, 'How the West was won' is due out next year

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