Benzion Netanyahu and the Origins of Bipartisan Support for Israel
By Maidhc Ó Cathail
The Passionate Attachment
May 11, 2012
At the opening of his May 2011 speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Benjamin Netanyahu observed that he saw a lot of old and new friends present, laying particular stress on the fact that these “friends of Israel” were comprised of “Democrats and Republicans alike.” No doubt few, if any, members of Congress who rose to applaud the Israeli Prime Minister’s banal remark on their fealty to a foreign state would have been aware of the “surprising and little-known role in American political history” played by Netanyahu’s father in creating what one leading American Jewish activist has not surprisingly called “a welcome tradition of bipartisan support for our friend and ally Israel.”
According to a new book by Rafael Medoff and Sonja Schoepf Wentling, Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel, Benzion Netanyahu was instrumental in forging that “tradition of bipartisan support” that prevails today in Washington. As Medoff and Wentling explain, the Israeli Prime Minister’s father was sent to the United States in the early 1940s by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky to represent the militant Revisionist Zionism movement there:
Netanyahu divided his time between Revisionist headquarters in New York City and Capitol Hill, where he sought to mobilize congressional backing for the Zionist cause. At the time, mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were strong supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and stayed away from the Republicans. Netanyahu, by contrast, actively cultivated ties to prominent Republicans such as former President Herbert Hoover, as well as dissident Democrats such as Sen. Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Mormon.
As Lee Smith notes in a Tablet Magazine review of Herbert Hoover and the Jews:
He became such an important figure on Capitol Hill that in helping to draft the Republican political platform in the 1944 presidential campaign, he forced the other party—the one led by FDR—to match it and thereby created a bipartisan consensus on what was at the time called the “Palestine issue.”
In a recent JTA essay, co-author Rafael Medoff explains:
In the months leading up to that year’s Republican national convention, the Revisionists undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment” about Palestine among GOP leaders such as Hoover, Sen. Robert Taft, who chaired the convention’s resolutions committee, and Rep. Clare Booth Luce, wife of the publisher of Time and Life magazines.
The GOP adopted an unprecedented plank demanding “refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes by tyranny” and the establishment of a “free and democratic” Jewish state. The Republicans’ move compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs. The Democratic National Convention, which was held the following month in Chicago, for the first time endorsed “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”
These events helped ensure that support for Zionism and later Israel would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar plank. To do less became politically inconceivable.
As Thomas Friedman reminded Benjamin Netanyahu, the 29 standing ovations he received from Congress last year were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” But the Israeli leader also had someone else to thank for preparing the ground for that bipartisan lovefest — his father, whom Lee Smith fondly remembers as “a practical man of political action who helped pioneer Washington’s Jewish lobby.”