columnU.S.-Israel Relations

In COVID-aid bill scrum, Israel becomes a familiar scapegoat

The coronavirus bill was insufficient to deal with both the crisis and the usual congressional spending mess. But blaming the problem on foreign aid is for fools and anti-Semites.

A view of Capitol Hill at night. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/M. Fitzsimmons.
A view of Capitol Hill at night. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/M. Fitzsimmons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There’s much to complain about when it comes to the process and the end result of the massive $900 billion coronavirus relief stimulus bill that just passed Congress. No matter which side of the political aisle you are on, the legislation was a mess. It is, at one and the same time, both insufficient to the needs of a country in distress as well as spending that will sink the nation deeper into debt for the foreseeable future and beyond. It’s also the product of the kind of partisan negotiating tactics that have lowered the country’s view of politicians and Congress even further.

But somehow in the middle of all this naked power politics—and shameless lobbying and trading of favors for special interests—some activists found the time to single out Israel as the cause of the problem. Those who did so were either guilty of the most appalling ignorance of how the budget process works, as well as what aid to Israel entails in terms of benefits to the United States and its economy. Or call it outright simple bias. But no matter what the motive, they demonstrated anew just how irresistible a target the Jewish state is for those who always want to blame it and the Jews for the world’s woes.

One such instance came from actress and activist Alyssa Milano. Milano, who was one of those who helped promote the #MeToo movement and is a prominent supporter of Democratic candidates, is as well-known for her politics as her acting career. So her decision to tweet out a broadside to her 3.7 million followers targeting Israel as one of the reasons as to why Americans impoverished by the COVID lockdowns and recession were cheated by the bill was no small thing.

Nor was she alone. The claim was repeated many thousands of times on Twitter by those who look to her for guidance, in addition to left-wing journalists with the same agenda as the assertion that the new pandemic relief bill contained $500 million for Israel spread across the Internet like wildfire.

Of course, the aid bill did no such thing. Ignorant social-media posters like Milano were confused by the fact that Congress passed a package of spending bills together to close out the year so that they could then take their holiday recess. Among those bills was the annual spending authorization bill for the U.S. Department of Defense. That did contain funding for foreign aid for a host of different countries of which Israel was one.

Among the other recipients were the Palestinians, who received $250 million ($50 million per year over the next five years) as part of the People to People Peace Fund run by the U.S. Agency for International Development and named for its principal sponsor, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). That aid, which is supposed to fund investment in the West Bank and Gaza, will, by law, not go to the Palestinian Authority or any other entity that subsidizes terrorism.

But neither Milano nor any of the other left-wingers tweeting about Israel getting money that could better be spent on poor Americans mentioned that.

Of course, Israel does receive a great deal of assistance from the United States as part of a $38 billion military package approved by President Barack Obama in 2016 that will be spent over the course of 10 years. That’s a lot of money, and critics of the Jewish state can and do point to it whenever they want to highlight some other worthy or not so worthy domestic cause that they say would do more good for ordinary Americans. That’s what Milano and others claimed this week.

But what the critics either don’t know or choose to omit from their diatribes is that every penny of the money Israel gets is spent in the United States. It all goes to help fund Israeli purchases of American arms and material. The weapon systems are important for maintaining Israel’s defense against hostile enemies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran (which was, not coincidentally, enormously enriched and empowered by the same Obama administration). Because Israel isn’t allowed to use it to prop up its own defense and aircraft industries, those billions are, in effect, a massive jobs program for U.S. manufacturers and responsible for ensuring the livelihoods of many thousands of American families. Looked at that way, the rabble-rousing rhetoric of Milano and those echoing her false claims have it completely backwards.

It’s also true that this spending helps protect U.S. security. Having a strong Israel—the only democracy in the Middle East—means that the burden for defending the region against rogue actors need not fall solely on the United States. Moreover, a lot of the funding is for developing joint projects, like the Iron Dome and Arrow anti-missile defense systems, which help defend Americans as well as Israelis, and which was specifically mentioned in the defense authorization bill highlighted by Milano and others.

In the long run, it might be better for Israel if it were completely removed from the U.S. budget, even if the military assistance it gets is crucial to its defense. But the truth is that the Pentagon and successive administrations led by Republicans as well as Democrats have discouraged any Israeli move towards ending its dependence on American aid. Maintaining the status quo not only keeps Israeli manufacturers from successfully competing against American firms in selling weapon systems but gives the United States leverage over the Jewish state, which has often been employed in efforts to pressure it to make concessions in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel’s first domestically produced fighter jet—the Kfir—was scrapped for those reasons as far back as the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

There are plenty of reasons to question many of the obscure spending provisions in the actual stimulus bill, including aid to the arts and to the horseracing industry, to mention just two that are often cited. Still, even those benefit some Americans who derive their livelihoods from such businesses. That’s why congressional spending bills are always a mess since they are, inevitably, a compromise between the 535 members of the House and Senate who all want to ensure their constituents get a share of the federal purse.

The idea that Israel is stealing COVID aid from needy Americans is not so much a misunderstanding as it is a brazen lie. It’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that such canards are motivated by anti-Semitism since those who make these charges almost always fail to clarify how Israel spends the money, or that it is just one among many recipients of foreign aid. Americans do well to debate why the bill took so long to pass and what is in it. However, casting false blame is not so much beside the point but just another effort to scapegoat Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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