AIPAC in the middle
A few weeks ago I saw an ad for a job opening at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The “National Progressives Outreach Constituency Director” will, according to the ad, “promote pro-Israel advocacy among progressive political leaders and activists across the United States.”
I don’t know if it is reading too much into the ad to wonder if it is a response to recent criticism that AIPAC is alienating its allies on the Left. Whether or not you think this is true, it is an allegation that has dogged the pro-Israel lobbying group for years. The fight over the so-called Kirk-Menendez bill intensified the perception: AIPAC, in supporting a bill that reads as a challenge to the Obama administration’s Iran policy, is being accused of taking sides. Even Sen. Robert Menendez, the NJ Democrat who cosponsored the bill, warned his Republican counterparts not to make the bill’s passage a “partisan political issue.”
Perception is everything in Washington, as AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy, Steven Rosen, recently told reporter Eli Lake. Rosen recalled how in 2003 AIPAC examined its outreach to Democrats. “AIPAC had been vexed for some years by allegations that it was tilted to the Republicans and had moved away from Democrats,” recalled Rosen, who called it “a false allegation.” However, “it was repeated so often that something had to be done about it.”
Jewish progressives don’t think such efforts have gone very far. M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer who has morphed into perhaps its most vocal critic, recently predicted the “inevitable fusion of AIPAC and the GOP.” Another former AIPAC staffer, Douglas Bloomfield, asserts that “AIPAC’s bipartisan reputation is in tatters and it sounds increasingly like a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and for hyper-partisan Republicans rather than the voice of the American-Jewish community.”
And even when AIPAC draws undeniable Democratic support, its critics smell blood. After New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at an AIPAC gala in New York, a few dozen Jewish leaders on the Left wrote a letter criticizing him and the lobby. “Your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding,” they lectured. “AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”
Historian Gil Troy called this a prime example of the “AIPACing” of AIPAC — that is, “caricaturing the broad bipartisan lobby as monolithic and intimidating.” And in truth, the mayor of the city with the second-largest Jewish population outside of Tel Aviv wasn’t pledging allegiance to AIPAC’s policies, but saying the usual “I’m with Israel” comments repeated by Gotham politicians for 60 years.
As for the contention that AIPAC “speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone,” that’s not quite true either. AIPAC tends to reflect the priorities of the sitting Israeli government, which happens to be right wing. And while AIPAC’s leaders were less enthusiastic when the Israeli Left was in power, they still played along.
When thousands of AIPAC delegates gather in Washington next weekend for its annual Policy Conference, such disagreements won’t be much in evidence, and they won’t see many signs of partisan bickering, at least not among the hundreds of lawmakers who will be sure to put in face time. That’s because the conference is not a political convention, but a pilgrimage for pro-Israel activists. As individuals, they may not sign off on every or even any of AIPAC’s legislative priorities, but still they think it essential to demonstrate to Congress and the White House that the pro-Israel lobby is a force to be reckoned with. “I am the left wing of the Left movement within Judaism,” writes Rabbi Dan Cohen of South Orange. Nevertheless, he writes, he’ll be at the conference because “AIPAC is committed to working with and strengthening the bonds between the administrations in Israel and the United States — regardless of party.”
AIPAC isn’t a parliament, and members don’t vote on specific policies. But AIPAC does call itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” a motto that presumes a lot of consensus. The question is, how hard does AIPAC try to engage supporters who don’t stand behind Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinians and Iran?
AIPAC’s reputation among those who are left of center is not helped by pundits who essentially insist you are either with AIPAC or against Israel. (Asaf Romirowsky, executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, essentially accused those who question AIPAC of adopting the “Palestinian narrative.”) Too often, Zionist moderates are being asked to choose between defending AIPAC, whether they agree with its policies or not, or being lumped in with the odious crowd that denies Israel’s very right to exist.
But if “the best way to guarantee that the United States continues to stand by Israel is through bipartisan support in Congress,” as an AIPAC video puts it, that perception must be changed.
So let’s hope that AIPAC’s new “National Progressives Outreach Constituency Director” is successful — not because the progressives want it, but because Israel needs it.