The Truth About Those Pro-Israel ‘Benjamins’
When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” suggesting that US politicians support Israel because they are bribed to do so, it ignited an uproar.
In reality, American support for Israel is rooted in our shared values and interests, and the overwhelming support of the public. This does not mean, however, that money has no influence on politics; otherwise, no one would make political contributions. When it comes to campaign financing, the pro-Israel community, which includes many non-Jews, plays by the same rules as everyone else — and the amounts actually involved may surprise you.
It is not easy to identify the pro-Israel political action committees, or PACs (despite its name, AIPAC is not a PAC), since many have innocuous names such as the Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens or the Desert Caucus. The Center for Responsive Politics tracks campaign expenditures, and categorized a total of 82 as pro-Israel PACs that have given money in at least one election cycle starting in 1990; 16 have contributed in every cycle, and 25 have done so since 2010.
In 1990, 51 pro-Israel PACs contributed a little over $4 million; in 2018, 31 pro-Israel PACs and individuals doled out nearly $8.1 million. Spending over 15 election cycles averaged nearly $4.2 million. While PACs get a lot of attention, they have contributed a declining proportion of total giving. Annual PAC contributions have averaged about $3 million, but the relative amount contributed by PACs shrank to 19% in 2018, while contributions by individuals has steadily grown.
These amounts may seem significant in the abstract; however, they are paltry compared to the biggest spenders. On a ranking of top interest groups giving to members of Congress in the 2018 cycle (including money besides PAC contributions), the pro-Israel category ranked 34th, contributing less than $11 million, compared to the top-ranked category of retired groups, which gave more than 10 times as much.
In the broader category of “Pro-Israel PACs, Individuals, & Soft Money,” pro-Israel donors have given a total of $143,362,385 since 1990, an average of $9.6 million per cycle. The record high was $17 million in 2016. In 2018, the figure was $15 million.
While the total sounds impressive, the pro-Israel “industry” ranked only 54th out of 94 in the Center’s compilation for 2018. Pro-Israel contributions were dwarfed by those of the securities and investment industry ($400 million) and retirees ($383 million). Environmental groups gave more than $100 million, and non-profit institutions $91 million. Even accountants outspent pro-Israel donors ($19 million).
Given the disproportionate number of Jews who are Democrats, it may be surprising to learn the distribution of funds is not more lopsided, with 60% going to Democrats and 38% to Republicans. This is partly explained by the fact that not all pro-Israel givers are Jews, and that nearly 80% of the contributions go to support incumbents regardless of party.
In the last several years, these figures have been distorted by J Street. Most of its giving is by individuals rather than through its PAC. J Street’s first expenditures were in the 2008 cycle. Its contributions have increased from just under $400,000 in that election to almost $4.1 million in 2018.
What is even more striking is J Street’s share of overall pro-Israel contributions, which has grown from 28% in 2008 to 51% in 2018. Even more remarkable is that J Street has contributed in only 6 out of 15 cycles dating to 1990, and still accounts for 19% (nearly $12 million) of the nearly $63 million spent by all 51 groups. By comparison, National PAC participated in every cycle and its total expenditures were $4.6 million. NorPAC giving started in the 1994 cycle and is the second largest cumulative donor at about $6.5 million.
J Street also gives all its money to Democrats (with the exception of two Republicans in 2014), which means the percentage of Republican recipients would be higher (approximately 43%) if J Street contributions were excluded.
What about the pro-Arab/Muslim lobby?
The anti-Israel crowd is frustrated by their lack of influence for a host of reasons. Most important is that the public and its elected officials do not buy what they’re selling. They do not see Israel as the root of all evil in the Middle East; they are not sympathetic to the Palestinians; they do not support the agenda to destroy Israel; and they don’t have a following to match the pro-Israel community’s involvement in the political process.
The Arab states have almost no constituency. For example, there are probably few Americans of Saudi descent who vote based on their interest in strengthening US-Saudi relations. As I documented in The Arab Lobby, the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, and other Arab states exert most of their influence behind the scenes. They dwarf the contributions of the pro-Israel community by paying tens of millions of dollars to lobbyists who represent the interests of their clients, not those of the United States.
Supporters of the Palestinians have multiple disadvantages. Americans of Palestinian descent make up a tiny fraction of all Arab-Americans. A much larger percentage are Lebanese Christians, whose experience with Palestinians in their homeland makes many hostile toward the Palestinian agenda. The Center has no record of any lobbyists working on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf (in 2012, DLA Piper received $90,000 to lobby for the Palestine Investment Fund, which is focused on economics rather than politics). In addition, very few people will contribute money or vote based on a candidate’s support for the Palestinians.
In 2018, I found only six political action committees identified as pro-Arab/Muslim. Altogether, they contributed $263,500 — and $203,950 of that amount was from the Free Syria PAC, which is “interested in finding a lasting end to Syria’s conflict.”
Since 1992, I could identify only 17 pro-Arab/Muslim PACs. The Arab American Leadership PAC is the only one to contribute in every election cycle since 1996. It is also the largest contributor over that time — $677,718. The next biggest spender is the Iranian American PAC — $335,000. The amount Free Syria gave in 2018 was the largest expenditure in any cycle. Overall, in the last 14 cycles, pro-Israel groups outspent pro-Arab/Muslim ones by 40 to 1 ($62.7 million to $1.6 million). Interestingly, the amounts given to Democrats and Republicans is nearly identical to the overall proportions contributed by the pro-Israel PACs — 64% to Democrats and 36% to Republicans.
Americans who support Israel do invest significant sums in political campaigns; however, the largest organizational contributor, J Street, has a very different agenda than the mainstream pro-Israel community. It is probably the closest thing to a pro-Palestinian PAC. If you count J Street as part of the pro-Arab/Muslim lobby, the pro-Israel side was outspent in 2018 and its overall advantage in the last six cycles drops to 2 to 1.
Israel is by no means the only party benefiting from the expenditure of Benjamins.