In 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy told Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir that the United States and Israel had a “special relationship.” A hallmark of that relationship has been its bipartisan nature, which has been reinforced by powerful lobbies working in unison on both sides of the political aisle. Such support made it possible for the United States to send Israel $121 billion in foreign aid between 1948 and the end of 2014—more than to any other country. The United States also backed Israel in its regional conflicts and vetoed or opposed United Nations resolutions critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
But there are growing signs of discord within that community that could, in turn, threaten the special relationship. The most recent is the rift created by House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, to speak before Congress on March 3 without consulting beforehand the White House or congressional Democrats.
The division between Republicans and Democrats over Israel did not, however, emerge overnight with Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. Indeed, the story begins before the founding of Israel. During U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, most American Jews and American Zionists became Democrats, and Zionist organizations relied on the connections that the prominent Democrats—notably, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Stephen Wise—had with Roosevelt. But in 1944, Cleveland Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver took command of the American Zionist Emergency Council, which was formed in 1939 as a coalition of various Zionist organizations. He established a policy of seeking bipartisan endorsements for a Jewish state, using the threat of endorsing Republicans who favored a Jewish state to pressure the Truman administration into supporting its cause.
The Israel lobby in Washington evolved out of Silver’s strategy. After Israel’s founding in 1948, the coalition spun off into the American Zionist Council, a collection of 21 different Zionist groups, to lobby Washington; and in 1963, the council, which was under investigation for
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