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(photo credit: Rabbis for Human Rights)
While on a recent lecture tour in the United States, I watched a CNN broadcast on the growth of Islam in America. While suspicion lurks about home-grown Islamist extremism, the program's main concentration was on the American Jewish community's concern that the rapid growth in the number of Muslims in the US would translate into Arab political power at Israel's expense.
Although American Jews have long told themselves that their influence on US foreign policy far outweighs their numbers, they would be mistaken to believe that their sway is unlimited. That would be falling prey to anti-Semitic propaganda that posits that the Jewish lobby wields excessive control over foreign policy - and not just regarding the Middle East.
Despite their numerical inferiority, Jews have been a force in the US because of the historical link between Judaism and Christianity, expressed in the Judeo-Christian tradition that forms the basis of Protestantism and Catholicism, the major religious denominations in the US. They have garnered respect because of their active participation in the political system. Indeed, Israel has benefited greatly from American Jews' active involvement, and counts on the Jewish lobby to advance its causes both within the administration and among the populace.
However, Jewish influence has always been a bit exaggerated. As long as Israel's policies served American interests, the Jewish lobby seemed to work wonders. But whenever there was a clash of interests, no amount of Jewish activism on behalf of Israel mattered.
Cases in point are Jimmy Carter's reevaluation policy that withheld the transfer of F-16s to Israel, Ronald Reagan's sale of reconnaissance and fighter planes to Saudi Arabia, and the senior George Bush's freezing of loan guarantees for Russian immigrants. All the pressure by the American Jewish lobby made no difference.
THE RELIGIOUS demographics in the United States are changing. American Muslims now almost outnumber American Jews. The rapid growth in the number of Muslims is proportionally matched by the rapid decline of Jewishly identified Americans. Interfaith marriages and assimilation, together with a decreasing birthrate, are contributing to the endangerment of the American Jewish population.
It is no longer true that American Jews vote as a bloc regarding issues related to Israel. No longer does Israel dominate their thought processes when they enter the voting booth - primarily because concepts of nation, peoplehood, ethnicity and culture play only a peripheral role in their lives.
And yet, despite their liberal tendencies - 70 percent of Jews vote for Democratic candidates - California Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Republican George Pataki were elected to governorships in states where there are large concentrations of Jews.
More so, with all the negative memories of George Bush senior, the Jews of Florida in the presidential election of 2000 could not turn the tide in that state to throw the victory to Al Gore, heir to the Jewishly beloved Bill Clinton. And, in the last mid-term elections, with the exception of Joe Lieberman, many pro-Israeli congressional representatives were put out to pasture.
ALL THIS stands in sharp contrast to the American-Arab community's voting patterns. Its loyalty to Arab and Islamic causes is unyielding. Simply put, within the American-Arab world there is no debate about Middle East politics as is the case within a very diverse Jewish world.
Pluralism is not part of the Islamic tradition. There is no such thing as a "Reform Muslim." While Arabs have gone to war against each other more often than against Israel, and while more Arabs have killed Arabs than have Israelis killed Arabs, when it comes to their overall attitude toward the Jewish state, virtually all Arabs find a ready unity.
Following the Arab world's lead, Israel sets off a chain reaction among Arab-Americans that binds them together in a singular political stance.
At any rate, Arab-Americans are still considered outsiders. Particularly after 9/11, attempts on their part to blend into the American mainstream are more difficult than ever.
The Arab-American community is also playing the oil card very effectively. For certain, with the present administration and its personal connection with Arab oil sheikhs, Middle East foreign policy is more influenced by Arabs than Jews, and Arab countries in the Middle East are calling on their brethren in the US to speak out.
Additionally, the US views Israel's inability to blunt Iran's surrogate Hizbullah as a strategic failure; and, as evidenced by Condoleezza Rice's recent courtship of Iran and Syria, America is slowly recognizing that these two entities may have a far more constructive role to play in Middle East politics than does Israel.
With the next presidential election already heating up, American Jewish influence will be further challenged. With heavy Arab-American communities in Michigan, Illinois and California - pivotal states in any national election - it will be interesting to see whether America's next president will continue to give preferential treatment to Jewish and Israel concerns.
As the American-Arab community grows in numbers and confidence, it will increasingly be American Muslims who will influence US foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East.
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