Coercive Consensus: Jewish Federations, Ethnic Representation, And The Roots Of American Pro-Israel Politics

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Political Science
Jewish Studies
Political Science
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Scholars tend to identify the 1960s and early 1970s as a period of pro-Israel ideological consensus in the American Jewish community. That consensus began to break down following the Yom Kippur War of 1973, slowly giving way to a more conflictual intra-Jewish debate over Israel. Yet apart from references to the emotional impact of the Six-Day War of 1967, the literature on American Jews and Israel offers no explanation for the onset of the so-called “consensus” period. This dissertation asks: how did a total identification with Israel come to characterize every major national Jewish organizations during that brief but highly consequential period? The development of a national system of Jewish philanthropic federations, I argue, was central to the institution-building and network-formation processes that underwrote the post-1967 “consensus.” First established at the turn of the twentieth century to streamline the raising and distribution of funds for Jewish charitable organizations at the municipal level, federations gradually assumed responsibility for a range of local communal functions, including political representation. Conceptualizing American Jewish politics on the model of a Bourdieusian “field,” my dissertation explores the consequences of the federation as an institutional form for the distribution of economic resources, and thus power relations, in what I call the “American Jewish ethnopolitical field.” Wielding their monopoly control over Jewish philanthropic resources, federations imposed discipline on the national Jewish political organizations, forcing ideological adversaries to coordinate their public affairs activities under federation auspices. By the Six-Day War, this process had yielded a nationally centralized Jewish political framework—the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC)—capable of orchestrating mass mobilizations across the country and policing internal dissent through the coordinated application of economic and symbolic sanctions. The consolidation of pro-Israel identity at the level of national organizations was thus the effect of an institutional project constructed through the strategic deployment of economic coercion—a “coercive consensus.” While existing accounts of American pro-Israel politics tend to foreground the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, I demonstrate the centrality of federations and their political auxiliaries to pro-Israel advocacy during much of the second half of the twentieth century.

Ian S. Lustick
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