The claim that US Christian Zionists are “the largest Israel lobby” is a canard now so commonplace that it appears within the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s page on the “Israel lobby in the United States.” But are Christian Zionists really the largest Israel lobby? That all depends on your definition of “large,” “lobby” and beliefs about how policy is actually made. A look at a key set of lobbying numbers indicates Christian Zionists are not major lobby players. They could disappear tomorrow and the US Israel lobbying engine would not even sputter.
The claim that Christian Zionists are the “largest pro-Israel lobby” is based on unsubstantiated headcount claims that Christians United for Israel CUFI has over nine million members. It is a fact that Christians make up 65 or so percent of the U.S. population and that evangelical Protestants constitute 25.4 percent. It is also undeniable that evangelicals tend to believe the US should be doing more for Israel than other Christian groups and at the voting booth would tend to vote for pro-Israel candidates. They are important.
But how does all that translate into effective lobbying for concrete “facts on the ground” like moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or White House support for Israel formally annexing a large percentage of the West Bank? Are Christian Zionists the reason for the US annually giving Israel $3.8 billion in free weapons over the coming decade, or more aid since 1948 than the Marshall Plan? If you believe in Majoritarian Electoral Democracy and overlook the uncomfortable fact that evangelical Christian religious organizations were initially indifferent to or even suspicious of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) initiatives, the answer could be “yes.” But for those who know the history of the Israel lobby , and who do not believe that a pull of the voting booth lever automatically translates into US policy, Christian Zionists are not a significant lobby.
A now infamous quantitative study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, Testing Theories of American Politics, Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, determined that ordinary citizens have little or no independent influence on policy. In other words, millions of Christian Zionists pulling voting booth levers do not really matter much, except for, perhaps, as cover. Overall, argue Gilens and Page, it is the far smaller number of economic elites who exert a “substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.”
Organized interest groups are the other major policy influencer and have a quantifiably “large, positive, highly significant impact on public policy.” That impact was measured by Martin Gilens and his team by examining 1,779 cases and calculating which among the three groups could “obtain a policy change” within four years. It usually took the relevant parties only two years. What follows assumes the Gilens and Page conclusions, not Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, are correct.
Looking through the window of the Office of the Clerk of the US House of Representatives reveals where the rubber truly meets the road as policy becomes law or doctrine adopted by the executive branch and key agencies. The lobbying reports reveal expenditures and initiatives of organized interest groups, many of which, like AIPAC, are primarily funded by economic elites. They lobby the House of Representatives, the Senate and various executive agencies and the White House to advance Israel.
A review of the disclosure forms of every religious oriented group lobbying on Israel (both for and against unconditional support) between the third quarter of 2019 and most recent available reports filed for the second quarter of 2020 reveals the utter insignificance of Christian Zionists within the actual lobbying arena.
Christian lobbying resources devoted to advancing Israel through specific legislation or policy represented only 6 percent of the total $3.6 million expended over the past 365 days. Christians United for Israel, through its CUFI Action Fund, accounted for 99 percent of that small sliver of Christian Zionist lobbying.
Large, Jewish establishment organizations that have been around for decades – by far – lobby the most for unconditional support of Israel. Their main concerns are maintaining Israel as the largest recipient of US foreign aid, through such legislation as the United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2020. But they also want to sharply curtail their fellow Americans’ free speech rights to boycott over Israel’s human rights record through the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement and pass legislation broadening the definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel. Their legislative agenda reveals a constant effort to maintain and deploy ever more US military personnel and assets against Israel’s regional rivals. AIPAC is by far the largest religious association lobbying for unconditional support of Israel, followed by the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee.
Although Israel-specific spending over the last 365 days seems relatively small at $3.4 million, it takes organizations of significant financial wherewithal to field teams of dedicated lobbyists over long periods of time. According to the latest yearly revenue figures from Pro-Publica, the lead lobby AIPAC raised $105 million in revenues, while the American Jewish Committee AJC and Anti-Defamation League ADL raised nearly $75 million each. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) raised only $5.8 million but, like the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) spends a larger portion of its budget lobbying for Israel. These organizations lie within the lobbying and advocacy wing of a vast Israel affinity ecosystem that directly subsidizes Israel, engages in local political action and public relations, develops education campaigns, and has total revenue forecast to reach $6.3 billion this year. It is the Jewish establishment’s Israel advocacy wing that has most effectively authored and pushed pro-Israel legislation over the long term, not the Christian Zionists.
Unlike the Jewish establishment organizations, Christians United for Israel’s CUFI’s revenues are unknown. CUFI received a special tax exemption as a religious association of churches, after a battle with the IRS, and does not report financial data. But there are reasons to believe that CUFI may both be much financially weaker than its lobbying counterparts and more of a “cut-out” that is financially dependent on Jewish establishment donors and Israel than commonly acknowledged. In 2007 CUFI received startup funding from the Goldhirsch Foundation, which supports primarily Jewish establishment organizations. CUFI was recently reported to have even accepted clandestine Israeli government funding.
Even so CUFI’s lobbying division, CUFI Action Fund, spent less than $250,000 lobbying for Israel over the past 365 days. Even adding the expenditures of the once-mighty Christian Coalition, which is composed of various Christian denominations and which spends $30,000 per quarter lobbying, would not boost the Christian Zionist lobbying category much. Most of Christian Coalition’s actions deal with abortion, and only a handful on unconditional support for Israel. Because expenditures are not broken down by issues or legislation in lobbying reports, this analysis assumes that all legislative and issue lobbying received an equal share of total declared revenue or expenditures. That would mean that the $30,000 in Christian Coalition’s quarterly expenditures was spread across some 65 issues equally, making Israel a very small lobbying concern.
CUFI appears to be a very junior Israel lobby partner in congressional hearings. In 2017 the major establishment Jewish organizations openly claimed to represent the entire American Jewish community in a legislative bid to curb free speech on campus. That false assertion was effectively challenged by Dr. Barry Trachtenberg. The claim was made during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on the 2016 Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. CUFI’s young, inexperienced solitary lobbyist could not credibly make similar boasts of representation and struggled to keep up. But CUFI’s presence at the hearing and support for the legislation added to the appearance that there was broad Christian Zionist support for the measure – presumably the reason for CUFI’s startup and Israeli funding. The Moral Majority played a similarly useful junior partner role in an establishment Jewish Israel lobby initiative decades before – when it supported the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1995. A quarter century later, that long, intense Israel lobby initiative finally took effect under the Trump administration.
Another expression of Jewish Israel lobby interest in the appearance of widespread Christian Israel lobby support is the appearance of an organization called the Alliance for Israel Advocacy which spent $25,000 on a kind of lobbying for “Israel lobby growth.”. It is the “policy arm of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) which is the largest single organization representing the Messianic Jewish community. AIA seeks to equip the Christian church to stand with Israel.” It is unclear the group’s lobbying initiative is sustainable, having dropped from quarterly expenditures of $10,000 to zero in 2020.
Further undermining claims that lobbying power lies mostly with evangelical Christian Zionists is well-funded counter-lobbying by other Christian groups. The Quakers, represented through the Friends Committee on National Legislation, spent almost as much as CUFI Action ($179,561) lobbying on Israel over the same time frame. Unlike CUFI, the Friends Committee was lobbying to constrain Israeli misbehavior by advancing the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act and preserving the right to boycott. Again, assuming even spending across issues, the Friends Committee, which spends a million dollars per quarter lobbying, devotes a relatively small percentage of its total budget on Israel-related issues.
The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd is yet another Christian organization that promotes the rights of Palestinians in Israeli occupied territory, though it is spread as thin as the Christian Coalition and expends most of its lobbying dollars on other issues. Overall, CUFI’s Israel lobbying is nearly evenly matched (85 percent) by Christian lobbying groups aiming to constrain Israel’s excesses.
Jewish establishment lobbying for Israel is not similarly constrained, even by upstarts. JStreet, a liberal advocacy group formed in 2007 which aims “to promote American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically” spent $100,000 per quarter lobbying. Again, assuming expenditures for its initiatives were also distributed evenly, only $231,501 appeared to be devoted to Israel issues. The issues listed at the very top of JStreet’s latest lobbying disclosure form included the Justice in Policing Act, measures condemning police brutality and condemning white supremacist terrorism. Like the establishment Jewish organizations, JStreet supports billions in annual US military aid to Israel. Most of its constraining activities take the form of various “letters of concern” to US policymakers about unilateral Israeli annexation of West Bank territory and support for extremely modest amounts of aid to Palestinians. Even so, JStreet’s lobbying muscle is only about 7 percent of the establishment Jewish organizations lobbying budget.
Given public availability of searchable lobbying data, and empirical quantitative insight into what actually drives US policymaking, why are so many now making false claims about the overwhelming lobby power of Christian Zionists? One reason may be that Christian Zionists are an easy target for criticism because they have some pretty interesting, at times bigoted, end time beliefs. Their dispensationalist narrative of Armageddon has made them problematic allies of Israel. This belief not only involves the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity – but that they perish if they do not. Bashing these beliefs as retrograde is easy and they mostly cannot effectively fight back. But inflating claims about Christian Zionist lobbying – no matter how compelling the evidence to the contrary – also allows pro-Israel pundits and critics alike to avoid the overriding issue and implications of the far greater influence of Jewish establishment lobbying for Israel.
As stated in 2014 by longtime Middle East analyst and critic Jeffrey Blankfort, the reason why “Israel’s critics inside and outside of the Jewish community…accept it is that the alternative is something that few of them, at least publicly, will acknowledge: that those responsible for the plight of the Palestinians were the Zionist Jews and their supporters around the world who, backed by no imperial power, carried out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and the capture of the West Bank and Gaza again in 1967.”
As more recently stated by Philip Weiss, “I know why writers shy away from blaming the Jewish establishment for the Israel lobby. They are afraid that any acknowledgment of Jewish influence will lead to more anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews. But a journalist’s job description is to tell the truth about important events, and the truth is that the Jewish portion of the Israel lobby, AIPAC and the big Zionist donors, play an essential role in our politics.”
And so, it remains both easy and satisfying to portray the Christian Zionists as playing the leading role in tilting U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East toward Israel – with subsequent decades of disastrous consequences. Although Christian Zionists are clearly a budding “affinity ecosystem,” their lobby component is tiny, redundant and mostly irrelevant. The hard truth is that the entire Christian Zionist population of the US could disappear tomorrow – perhaps through the rapture – and it would not diminish the power of the Israel lobby to win legislation and policy mandates.
It is much less satisfying to expose the power of the Jewish Israel affinity ecosystem’s lobbying component. That is because it has an entire division devoted to fighting back and constantly patrolling mass media and now social media to find and punish critics of Israel.
That so many well-meaning activists and intellectuals have now been diverted into confronting Christian Zionists as “the largest Israel lobby” may well be the reason behind all the hype and inflated claims of its power and influence. Now more than ever, it is important to reflect upon which “special interest groups” such wholesale diversions and false claims truly serve.
Grant F. Smith is the director of theInstitute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington which is co-organizer of the 2021 Transcending the Israel Lobby at Home and Abroad conference at the National Press Club and 2020 IsraelLobbyConEXTRA!