AIPAC Confounds the Critics
You know the old saw that there are only two certainties in life — death and taxes. Well, let me add a third. Every year, AIPAC will have a hugely successful conference and critics will misrepresent it. This year, the ignoramuses are out in force, fueled in part by Bernie Sanders’ “boycott” of the conference under the pretext that AIPAC provides a platform for leaders “who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
Let’s start with Sanders’ claim. First, AIPAC does not tell its speakers what to say and does not endorse any bigotry. And second, if Sanders gave a whit about Palestinian rights, he would spend more time criticizing Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for their abuses than criticizing Israel and its supporters.
The Washington Post ran a story on AIPAC with the headline “A new Jewish activism confronts AIPAC: ‘Large and loud.’” The article has little substantively to say about AIPAC but instead focuses on the views of IfNotNow (INN), an organization so small and irrelevant it does not register as a blip on the pro-Israel and Jewish community radar screen.
While there is no shortage of knowledgeable people who criticize Israel, what distinguishes the loony critics of the radical Jewish left is their appalling ignorance. INN is a prime example; nevertheless, Michelle Boorstein’s article states, without any evidence: “Longtime watchers and activists agree that the activists represent a new generation of Israel critics that differs in key ways from the pro-peace movement of the 1990s.” If she had spoken to any “longtime watchers” they could have told her about similar groups dating to the 1940s. In my time on campus, the equivalent group was Breira, which is in history’s dustbin, as INN will soon be.
The article, which quotes no one from AIPAC, turns instead to J Street’s anti-AIPAC director Jeremy Ben-Ami, who claims “there’s another way to be pro-Israel, you don’t have to support whatever the [Israeli] government does.” This is just the latest example of his ignorance, as AIPAC, and other pro-Israel organizations, have never moved in lockstep with the Israeli government. All he has to do is talk to his “pro-peace” friends who complained AIPAC didn’t support the Rabin and Peres governments following the Oslo agreements.
According to Ben-Ami, “Younger groups are saying, ‘You don’t have to be pro-Israel, you should be pro-human rights, and everyone should have a state.’” Really? Doesn’t his group claim to be “pro-Israel”? How is supporting Israel, a country that values human rights, inconsistent with the youngsters’ views? As in the case of INN, how do you claim to be pro-human rights and ignore Palestinian abuses? And do they really believe “everyone should have a state”? The Basques? The Kurds, Native Americans? The Jews? Also, INN members trumpeted Sanders’ boycott of AIPAC, but he hasn’t attended in the past, even when the left-of-center Israeli Labor Party was in power.
The same day, Post columnist Dana Milbank also took shots at AIPAC. He reiterated Sanders oft-repeated line about having once lived in Israel, as if spending a few months on a kibbutz nearly 60 years ago made him an expert on the conflict with the Palestinians.
To prove Sanders was right about AIPAC, Milbank cites Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement in a video that the Palestinians are “the pampered children of the international community.” Some may find the wording undiplomatic, but is he wrong? Isn’t it true the Palestinians get more aid per capita than any other people in the world? Isn’t it true the Palestinians are the only ones with their own UN welfare agency? Isn’t it true that the Palestinians have special UN committees devoted to their cause, and that a disproportionate amount of time at the General Assembly and Human Rights Council is devoted to supporting them? Isn’t it true that their cause has been given far more attention than other nationalist movements?
Milbank says that Netanyahu wants to annex Palestinian territories, which would make a two-state solution “all but impossible.” How does that prove Sanders’ point? Milbank assumes the two-state solution is possible now, ignoring the realities on the ground and Palestinian rejectionism. He also ignores the Trump plan, which, despite those realities, offers the Palestinians a state.
Milbank accuses Israel of “increasingly becoming a platform for the Republican Party.” In the same article, however, he quotes Democrat Michael Bloomberg’s speech to AIPAC in which he expressed support for a two-state solution and Senator Cory Booker’s remark that “Israel has never been and must never become a Republican or a Democratic issue, it must always be an American issue.”
If he attended their sessions, Milbank could have quoted from numerous other Democrats who spoke, such as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, as well as Reps. Jacky Rosen, Will Hurd, Hakeem Jeffries, Brenda Lawrence, and Nita Lowey. Oh, and in addition to Bloomberg, other Democratic candidates who spoke via video despite the pressure of campaigning were Amy Klobuchar (before she dropped out) and Joe Biden.
AIPAC has been holding policy conferences since 1960. When I first went in the early 1980s, a few hundred activists participated. This year, more than 18,000 people attended, and 4,000 of those were students. That is an astounding show of support and power. Not only is the conference striking for its bipartisanship, but attendees represent a cross-section of America: Jewish and non-Jewish, observant and non-observant, left and right, gay and straight, Caucasians and people of color. By contrast, J Street, which had about 4,000 people at its conference, is hyper-partisan.
Given that roughly 70% of American Jews are liberal Democrats, why would anyone think AIPAC is not made up of a similar percentage? Its board has always been bipartisan, with presidents from both parties. If you attend the conference, you will find Orthodox Jews, who tend to be more conservative, but they are a minority.
Critics of AIPAC fundamentally misunderstand not only the organization, but politics. To have influence over foreign policy, AIPAC needs access to the chief foreign policy maker, the president — regardless of party. Often, as in the Obama years, AIPAC’s president has a personal relationship with the president. The organization never neglects Congress, where it has the most influence, and where it must work with members from both parties.
Activists with agendas don’t understand that Americans do not have influence over Israeli security policy. Some mistakenly believe the United States can force Israel to capitulate to their views at the expense of the will of the Israeli people. You can’t claim to believe in democracy, however, and then complain when election results disappoint you. Those who dislike Netanyahu don’t get a vote — and, to their chagrin, those who do have chosen him again over the alternatives. AIPAC respects the will of the Israeli people.
AIPAC’s job is not to lobby for or against settlements, or for a particular “solution” to the dispute with the Palestinians; it is to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. As I noted, many people were unhappy AIPAC was not more enthusiastic about Oslo; now, others are dismayed that it is not cheerleading for the Trump plan. That’s not their mission. Again, it is up to the parties to negotiate an end to the conflict.
If a Democrat should win in November, you can be sure that AIPAC will be accused of tilting to the Democrats during its next policy conference, as it was during Clinton and Obama’s terms.
Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.