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If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what do you make of famed atheist Richard Dawkins' desire to build a pro-atheist lobby on the model of the pro-Israel lobby?
Dawkins, a biologist and author of the atheist manifesto The God Delusion, tells the Guardian that atheists need "some sort of political organization." And he has just the sort in mind: "When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous, I am told - religious Jews anyway - than atheists. And [yet they] more or less monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see," said Dawkins. "So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place."
Um, thank you?
Dawkins' quote is a little like the Jayhawks' lyric: "All I know's I'm loving you for all the wrong reasons." It's debatable how much Jewish support for Israel is a religious impulse, and it's simply a delusion to say the pro-Israel lobby "monopolizes" American foreign policy.
Like president Jimmy Carter and Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer, Dawkins does the truth no favors when he ascribes to the "lobby" powers it doesn't have.
AIPAC often wins the day in Washington not because it "monopolizes" the debate, but because it takes positions that Americans and their representatives are often inclined to agree with in the first place.
Walt and Mearsheimer make the illogical leap that because, in their opinion, America's support for Israel cannot be defended on strategic and moral grounds, Washington's pro-Israel policies must be the result of the machinations of The Lobby. A less paranoid interpretation of the facts would suggest that Americans consider Israel a strategic and moral ally because they consider it ... a strategic and moral ally.
BUT LET'S take credit where credit is due: Israel's supporters have built a formidable advocacy mechanism, and to deny that is to deny one of the signal accomplishments of the American Jewish community in the post-Holocaust era.
AIPAC has certainly used America's peculiar campaign finance culture to its advantage and plays political hardball with the best of them. (I've been on the receiving end of AIPAC's heavy-handedness, so I know whereof I speak.) In a 2006 article about Walt and Mearsheimer in The New York Review of Books, Michael Massing reports on the various ways, all legal, in which AIPAC twists arms and punishes enemies.
Pro-Israel lobbyists sometimes go overboard, and it would be a lot healthier for the Jewish community and Israel if we were able to foster wider debates within the most powerful organizations and stronger alternative pro-Israel voices outside of them. But if it is the very idea of Jewish power that makes you uncomfortable, I urge you to consider the alternative.
As Dawkins suggests, in a manner so backhanded it feels like a slap, American Jews have managed to combat prejudice and build political clout despite their small numbers. And in that sense, imitation is a sincere form of flattery - AIPAC has provided a road map that other advocacy groups are welcome to follow.
Dawkins isn't the only one looking to the Jewish community as a paradigm. The New York Times reported last week that Indian-Americans are eyeing with envy and admiration the alphabet soup of American Jewish organizations in hopes of starting their own. "Indian-Americans, who now number 2.4 million in this country, are turning to American Jews as role models and partners in areas like establishing community centers, advocating on civil rights issues and lobbying Congress," the Times reports.
The article goes on to describe the Hindu American Foundation, modeled on the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the US India Political Action Committee, which takes its lessons from a score of pro-Israel PACs.
"What the Jewish community has achieved politically is tremendous, and members of Congress definitely pay a lot of attention to issues that are important to them," said Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US India PAC.
"We will use our own model to get to where we want, but we have used them as a benchmark." Emulation is also leading to strengthened ties between American Jews and Indian-Americans. In 2002, INAPAC, an Indian PAC in New Jersey's Middlesex County, reached out to the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations for mentoring about how to get political clout.
The less savory side of this is that many Hindus and many Jews come together over their shared antipathy toward their Muslim political rivals. For the most part, however, Jews and Indian-Americans are sharing not only tips on political organizing, but a notion of what it means to be loyal Americans and strong advocates for their motherlands.
Dawkins isn't much interested in bridge building, apparently. In an ironic twist, however, much of his agenda mirrors that of the Jewish organizations he thinks are hopelessly religious in nature: Support for stem cell research. Opposition to "creationist interference with education." Religious tolerance, extended to those who have no religion at all and don't want one.
Writes Dawkins: "I think, more positively, I would like to see people encouraged to rejoice in the world in which they find themselves, the universe in which they have been born, to take full advantage of the tiny slice of eternity they have been granted."
Hell, if that's the atheist agenda, then sign me up.
The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.