Book review: Resurrecting “America’s Defense Line”

The Israel lobby has come under more public scrutiny in the past three years than it has since US Senator William Fulbright’s famous hearings into its activities in 1963. Questions over its role in fomenting the Iraq war have no doubt served as a catalyst; hubris and overreach have done the rest. First there was the espionage case involving two senior executives with the lobby group AIPAC caught passing purloined classified documents to Israeli handlers. Then there was the public lynching by the lobby’s attack dogs of Chas Freeman, an outspoken critic of Israel who had been nominated by the Obama administration to head the National Intelligence Council. Now we learn that a National Security Agency wiretap had caught Congresswoman Jane Harman agreeing in a late 2005 conversation with a suspected Israeli agent to intervene with the Justice Department on behalf of the two AIPAC espionage suspects. In return, according to Jeff Stein’s Congressional Quarterly expose, the agent pledged to lobby House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to appoint Harman chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

If there is something unique about this story it is the level of interest that it has generated. Neither spying, nor the influence peddling is new; but until professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt broke the silence on the lobby’s influence, few were willing to discuss either. Things have moved on considerably since. Many fine books have come out in recent years that have shed light on the lobby’s operations, specifically on its frequently decisive role in shaping US Middle East policy. No analyst however has been as tenacious as Grant F. Smith of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRMEP) who in a series of books has brought crucial new information to light through the use of the Freedom of Information Act. His latest, America’s Defense Line: the Justice Department’s Battle to Register the Israel Lobby as Agents of a Foreign Government, focuses on an important aspect of the lobby’s origins that has implications for how it operates today.

Supporters of the Israel lobby have long maintained that the reason it does not have to register as an agent of a foreign government is that its funding and composition are indigenous to the US. Even critics such as Mearsheimer and Walt have declared its operations “as American as apple pie.” However, as Smith reveals, the lobby was only able to turn into the powerhouse it is today because of the start-up funding it received from Israel and its ability — through stonewalling, deception and subversion of the legal process — to stave off the State Department and the Department of Justice’s attempts to have it registered as a foreign agent. In fascinating detail supported by hundreds of declassified documents (reproduced in the Appendix) Smith reveals the various mechanisms it employed to avoid the purview of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The lobby’s greatest success — to propagate the myth that Israel and the US have identical interests and common enemies — would not have been possible had the Department of Justice succeeded in securing its compliance with FARA. This law requires entities registered under it to mark all their informational material with the disclaimer that their author is the agent of a foreign government.

Central to Smith’s investigation is the person of Isaiah L. Kenen, the Canadian-born founder of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose brief stint as a journalist segued into his long lobbying career. (It is from Kenen’s 1980 history of the lobby, Israel’s Defense Line: Her Friends and Foes in Washington, that Smith draws the title of his book. If for Kenen the lobby was Israel’s defense line, for Smith the US judicial system is America’s.) Kenen began as the director of information for the American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs but after the creation of Israel he went on to work for the Israeli embassy’s Office of Information as a press officer.

Already in the late 1940s, writes Smith, Kenen began probing the FARA unit for weaknesses, keenly aware that its restrictions would never allow him “to properly ‘frame’ issues in a sophisticated way that transformed and sold their presentation from Israeli needs to perceived American interests.” He therefore left the Office of Information and joined the American Zionist Council (AZC) as Israel’s domestic lobbyist. The AZC had recently delegated the activities previously carried out by the Jewish Agency at David Ben Gurion’s suggestion in order to bolster the appearance of “indigenous American control.” However, it faced a formidable challenger in the anti-Zionist American Council of Judaism (ACJ), which rejected “all those self-appointed spokesmen who presume to make their partisan claims in the name of all Americans of the Jewish faith.” It was the ACJ that finally took the AZC’s case to the Justice Department, eventually forcing it to register under FARA. This led Kenen to form the American Zionist Public Affairs Committee, soon to be subsumed by AIPAC, as a means of escaping FARA regulations. He also founded a biweekly publication, Near East Report, which introduced many of the themes familiar from the Israel lobby’s recent propaganda. The publication was underwritten by the Jewish Agency, the executive arm of the World Zionist Organization headquartered in Jerusalem.

The Justice Department’s drawn-out struggle to register the lobby under FARA is chronicled by Smith in remarkable detail. These efforts were given a boost first by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration (deeply resented by Kenen), which would withdraw the AZC’s tax-exempt status, and subsequently by John F. Kennedy, whose Justice Department would eventually lead the AZC to register under FARA. Throughout this period the AZC had to rely on funding from the Jewish Agency. The growing scrutiny only spurred the lobby to devise more sophisticated means of masking this funding through the use of various offshore shell corporations which laundered back tax-exempt aid first raised in the US. Once these mechanisms were revealed during the Fulbright hearings, however, the lobby finally switched to domestic funding. The dogged attempts by Department of Justice officials such as Irene Bowman and Nathan Lenvin eventually came to naught when the assassination of Kennedy led the new Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to go with the prevailing winds (decidedly pro-Israel under president Lyndon Johnson) and scrap the investigation.

Smith also details the strong anti-Zionist current that characterized American Jewry before it was eventually overwhelmed by the better resourced Zionist factions. The initial charge against the Israel lobby was led by the American Council of Judaism, which was headed by reform rabbis such as Elmer Berger, and Jewish universalists such as the philanthropist Lessing Rosenwald. When The Wall Street Journal reported that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was concerned about offending “Jewish opinion,” he was deluged with letters from American Jews rejecting the notion as a myth. They saw themselves first and foremost as Americans and they wanted Kennedy to do all that he felt was necessary to protect US interests, including registering the lobby as a foreign agent. However, after the 1967 war, Jewish anti-Zionism would go into hibernation until its revival four decades later by the Iraq war and the role of the mostly Jewish neoconservatives in instigating it.

Despite a 90 page appendix including useful profiles of the various organizations, key declassified documents, samples of racist cartoons published by Near East Report, and a history of incidents related to FARA enforcement, the book could have benefited from adding a concise chronology of events. Better editing could have also eliminated some of its repetitiveness and reduced the confusion that results from the sometimes non-linear narrative style. Nevertheless, the writing remains engaging throughout and the analysis is invariably sharp.

In the wake of the Harman-AIPAC spy affair, calls have intensified for the leading Israel lobby institution to be registered as an agent of a foreign state. The lobby, as one of its stalwarts colorfully put it, is like a “nightflower” which wilts in the sunlight. Those seeking justice for the Palestinians and accountability for the disastrous course of foreign and domestic policy under the lobby’s tutelage could do worse than to ensure constant sunlight. Given the nature of the scandal, the Department of Justice is susceptible to public pressure and thanks to Smith’s indispensable work, we are privy to the means employed by the lobby to thwart similar investigations in the past. Armed with this information, it may finally be possible to uphold what Smith calls “America’s defense line” — the US laws that govern the operations of foreign agents.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the co-founder of He can be reached at m.idrees A T gmail D O T com.

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