AIPAC Does Not Speak for American Jews
Allan C. Brownfeld
The role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — and of the larger organized American Jewish community — in the 2008 presidential election campaign is coming under increasingly critical scrutiny.
USA Today reports that, “Jewish voters made up about 3% of the electorate in 2004, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places. But high turnout among Jewish voters in November could make a difference for McCain or Obama in battleground states.”
AIPAC, which presents itself as representing the views of American Jews, held its annual meeting in June and was addressed by a host of political leaders of both parties, including Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The reality is that AIPAC’s claim to speak in behalf of American Jews is false. The positions it advocates are far removed from the opinions of the vast majority of Jewish Americans, as indicated in national polls and in voting behavior. Still, AIPAC’s influence, precisely because it is perceived as representing American Jewish opinion, is widespread and, in the view of many, both excessive and destructive of both American interests in the Middle East and Israel’s own long-run security.
Consider AIPAC’s role in our political life.
“Once a year, the Israel lobby in Washington known as AIPAC holds its annual convention where anyone who is anyone in the political world comes to render fealty, rather than homage,” writes Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times. “It has become a political rite of passage, like a medieval contract for exchanging goods and services ... Anyone who doesn’t pass the litmus test can forget about becoming president of the United States, or senator or even congressman ... The lobby, reputedly Washington’s most powerful (though this is disputed by the National Rifle Association and the AARP) ensures that anything Israel wants or needs gets quick action on the Hill. That covers anything from $3 billion a year for the next 10 years for modern weaponry to soft loans for building the $2.5 billion physical barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, and under the radar the steady expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”
Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain told AIPAC exactly what it wanted to hear. Senator Obama went so far as to declare that, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” The reaction to this statement was negative throughout the Middle East and is in opposition to longstanding U.S. policy which holds that the status of Jerusalem is a subject to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.
AIPAC activists welcomed Obama’s declaration. In the Middle East, however, reaction to Obama’s speech, which was broadcast live on several Arab-language television stations, was immediate and strongly negative. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, said that, “This statement is totally rejected. We will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as its capital.” Even in Israel, some analysts suggested that Obama had staked out a position beyond that of current leaders. Within 24 hours, Obama backtracked, and said that the final status of Jerusalem “is going to be up to the parties to negotiate.”
The AIPAC meeting also featured bellicose anti-Iran statements. Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative spokesman, urged that Iran be placed on the terrorist regime hit list. Senator McCain told the AIPAC audience that if elected president he would drastically ramp up financial pressure on Iran’s rulers by targeting the country’s gasoline imports and imposing sanctions against its central bank. Senator Obama presented an equally firm position concerning Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported that, “AIPAC and other Jewish-American organizations have identified Iran as a threat to Israel’s interests. ... Both Republicans and Democrats view Jewish Americans as key swing voters in the presidential election.”
Philip Weiss, who is at work on a book about Jewish issues, attended the AIPAC meeting and reported on it in an article, “Looking into the Lobby,” in The American Conservative. Discussing Senator Obama’s speech, Weiss writes: “His speech became the annual example the conference provides of a powerful man truckling. Two years ago, it was Vice President Cheney’s red-meat speech attacking the Palestinians. Last year, it was Pastor John Hagee’s scary speech saying that giving Arabs any part of Jerusalem was the same as giving it to the Taliban. Obama took a similar line. He suggested that he would use force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, made no mention of Palestinian human rights, and said that Jerusalem ‘must remain undivided,’ a statement so disastrous to the peace process that his staff rescinded it the next day ... It would be hard to imagine a more naked exhibition of political power: a convention of 7,000 mostly rich people, with more than half the Congress in attendance, as well as all the major presidential candidates, the prime minister of Israel, the minority leader, the majority leader and the speaker of the House. Yet there is precious little journalism about the spectacle in full. The reason seems obvious: the press would have to write openly about a forbidden subject, Jewish influence. They would have to take on an unpleasant informative task that they have instead left to two international relations scholars ... Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of last year’s book The Israel Lobby.”
Dramatic Impact on Policy
For more than 30 years, Weiss declares, AIPAC has supported Israel’s policy of expanding into the West Bank and has had a dramatic impact upon U.S. policy: “In 1975, when President Ford wanted to reassess Mideast policy over Israeli intransigence, he was cut off at the knees by an AIPAC letter signed by 76 senators. Then in 1989, when James Baker went before AIPAC and told them to give up their idea of a Greater Israel including the West Bank, George H.W. Bush received a letter of anger signed by 94 senators. In both instances, AIPAC was hewing to the Israeli government line and nullifying American policymaking ... They have passed on their full powers of judgment to the Israeli government. In that sense, the Zionists in that hall might best be compared to Communists of the ’30s and ’40s, who also abandoned their judgment to a far off authority ...”
In Weiss’ view, “The great sadness here is that American Jewry is the most educated, most affluent segment of the public. Yet on this issue there is little independent thinking. The obvious question is whether they don’t have dual loyalty. As a Jew, I feel uncomfortable using the phrase, given its long history, but the facts are inarguable. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic speaks of everything ‘we’ should do to make peace with the Palestinians, then corrects himself to say what Israel should do. Speaker after speaker says that Israel is in our hearts. People who emigrate to Israel are applauded, and when the national anthems are played, one cantor sings the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but the ‘Hatikvah’ has two cantors belting it out, with the audience roaring along. Maybe most revealing, I heard a right-wing Israeli politician sharply criticizing Olmert’s policy in the West Bank. Think of the scandal it would cause if American politicians went abroad and criticized the president’s foreign policy. It’s no scandal here because AIPAC is a virtual extension of Israel.”
More Extreme Positions
Ironically, AIPAC and other groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, take positions more extreme than those taken by the government of Israel itself. Editorially, The Forward notes that, “There’s something almost comical in the timing of announcements ... that Israel had achieved diplomatic breakthroughs with foes in its northern and southern fronts. The word came out during the very week that Republicans were mounting their fiercest attacks yet on liberals who favor negotiating with those same enemies. Once again, Israel’s self-appointed defenders in this country were out peddling notions of what is good for Israel that bear little resemblance to what Israel actually wants. Liberals, thrown on the defensive, were absurdly forced to pledge, in the name of Israel’s defense, that they would never do precisely what Israel itself is doing. Through it all, the main target was the Jewish voter, who is apparently presumed too dumb to know the difference.”
Often when political candidates address Jewish forums, they assume that the way to appeal to Jewish voters is to take the most extreme possible position in behalf of Israel. This, of course, is the idea promoted so effectively by AIPAC. The fact is, however, that most American Jews do not share this perspective at all. In a survey of American Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee, respondents were asked about the issues that will determine their presidential vote this year. A strong plurality of 42 percent picked either “economy and jobs” or “health care,” the two domestic choices offered. By contrast, only 36 percent picked one of the three Middle East-related suggestions, the war in Iraq (16 percent), and “national security” (14 percent) or “support for Israel” (6 percent). The notion that Jewish voters are waiting for a stamp of approval from self-proclaimed “leaders,” such as those in AIPAC, of a “pro-Israel” label on particular candidates bears no relationship to reality.
Variety of Views
Even those Jews who focus upon U.S. Middle East policy share a variety of views, hardly those represented by AIPAC. Recently, a new political action and lobbying group known as JStreet and JStreet PAC has been established to counter the influence of organizations such as AIPAC. In a full-page ad in The New York Times (June 23, 2008), JStreet declared: “When Israel goes to war, supporters rally. When Israel negotiates, why the deafening silence? A new ceasefire has been brokered between Israel and Hamas. Israel and Syria are quietly resuming diplomatic contacts. Israel is offering talks with Lebanon, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders are negotiating to establish two states living side by side in peace and security. These efforts may or may not succeed. But they are designed to enhance Israel’s security, the region’s stability and to bring peace closer. And they deserve our support. If Israel had gone to war this week, established pro-Israel organizations would have rallied to its side. There would have been ads, press releases, fundraising appeals and political speeches. Let’s have the courage to support Israel loudly and clearly when it pursues security through diplomacy.”
David Kimche, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry and a supporter of JStreet, outlined the need for an alternative in The Jerusalem Post: “AIPAC has become more militant than the Israeli government. Its messages reflect more the oppositionist Likud doctrine than the moderate stance of Prime Minister Olmert. Moreover, whereas ... some 80 per cent of the Jewish voters traditionally cast their votes for the Democrats, AIPAC is geared to an extreme right-wing agenda, often more in line with the Jewish neo-cons than with the majority of American Jews.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, JStreet’s executive director, says of AIPAC that, “They have come to promote another agenda. Our agenda is that we believe the security of Israel, the survival of Israel, depends in large measure on whether or not it can resolve these conflicts peacefully with its neighbors. This is also in America’s best interest.”
Many prominent Israelis view AIPAC as a negative and counterproductive influence and have joined JStreet’s advisory council. One of these is Daniel Levy, who was part of the Israeli delegation to the Taba Summit with the Palestinians in January 2001. “The mainstream pro-Israel camp,” he states, “has decided so brazenly to throw its lot in with neoconservative ideologues within the administration and with the far Right dispensationalist Christian Zionists, and this unholy triangle has pulled things so much to the right-wing direction that we are desperately in need of a corrective ... I think other groups that care about this issue feel more comfortable expressing a sensible position on the Middle East when there is also a very credible and hopefully very loud Jewish voice saying, ‘This is the most pro-American and pro-Israeli position you can take’ ... just like you can be a pro-American patriot and be against bombing Iran and staying in Iraq for 100 years.”
Samuel Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University and columnist for The Jerusalem Post, declares that, “There are plenty of good reasons for an alternative to AIPAC. American Jewish opinion is indeed too variegated to be represented by one and only one voice on Israel issues. A lobby that gave its podium to the bigoted pastor John Hagee and has had several of its officials implicated in a scandal involving classified information needs a competitor to keep it honest.”
Rather than supporting AIPAC’s embrace of the war in Iraq, a recent Gallup Poll placed the American Jewish community at the top of the list of “major” religious groups opposed to the war. The Reform movement — the largest synagogue denomination in the U.S. — has gone on record in opposition to the war. According to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, his group’s resolution fairly reflects the Jewish community’s attitude toward the war. “It is not us that are out of step with American Jews,” he said.
Exceeded Its Mission
George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and political activist, wrote in The New York Review of Books: “AIPAC under its current leadership has clearly exceeded its mission, and far from guaranteeing Israel’s existence has endangered it ... I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel ... I cannot remain silent now when the pro-Israel lobby is one of the last unexposed redoubts of this dogmatic way of thinking ... I believe that a much-needed self-examination of American policy in the Middle East has started in this country; but it can’t make much headway as long as AIPAC retains powerful influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties ...”
The Economist devoted a full page to a discussion of the “changing climate” facing AIPAC: “The Iraq debacle has produced a fierce backlash against pro-war hawks of which AIPAC was certainly one. It has also encouraged serious people to ask awkward questions about America’s alliance with Israel. And a growing number of people want to push against AIPAC ... AIPAC’s ace in the hole is the idea that it represents Jewish interests in a country that is generally philo-Semitic. But liberal Jewish groups retort that it represents only a sliver of Jewish opinion. A number of liberal groups have started to use their political muscle — groups such as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum. These groups scored a significant victory over AIPAC by persuading Congress to water down a particularly uncompromising bit of legislation, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which would have prevented any American contact with the Palestinian leadership. ... The growing activism of liberal Jewish groups underline a worrying fact for AIPAC: most Jews are fairly left wing. Fully 77 percent of them think that the Iraq war was a mistake compared with 52 percent of all Americans.”
Stricter Lobbying Laws
Former National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski worries that America is seen in the Middle East as “acting increasingly on behalf of Israel.” In his book Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, he calls for “stricter lobbying laws” because groups such as AIPAC have too tight a hold on U.S. policy. It is Brzezinski’s view that AIPAC has seriously distorted U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Increasingly, more and more Jews feel alienated from Jewish organizations that supported both the Iraq war and Israel’s war in Lebanon. “The virtually unqualified support of organized American Jewry for Israel’s brutal actions ... is not new but no longer tolerable to me,” Sara Roy, a scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, writes in her book, The War on Lebanon.
Explaining how AIPAC’s positions are far from the American Jewish mainstream, columnist Douglas Bloomfield wrote in The Washington Jewish Week that, “Most American Jews, like the rest of the country, oppose the Iraq war but (Israeli Prime Minister) Olmert gave it a ringing endorsement in his live satellite hook-up to AIPAC ... that could have been written by Dick Cheney ... Olmert’s over-the-top embrace of the Bush policies is one more example of how the Israeli government is out of touch with the mainstream of American Jewry.”
Bloomfield went on to point out that, “Most Americans support a peace process leading to a two-state solution, and they see settlements as an obstacle to that goal — which is what backers intended. Settlements have never been popular among most American Jews (or most Israelis these days), and Olmert’s recent decision to expand them did not sit well in the Jewish community. More damaging may be the perception of excessive Israeli government tolerance of settler violence against Palestinians, which reinforces the belief there is a double standard for justice in Israeli society. Most American Jews are uncomfortable with AIPAC’s and the Israeli government’s warm embrace of the religious right. AIPAC delegates ... enthusiastically cheered a speech by evangelical Pastor John Hagee, who railed against territorial concessions to the Palestinians as ‘appeasement’ and ‘crocodile food.’ Most American Jews are progressives and uncomfortable with the alliance with evangelicals like Hagee; and don’t share his hard-line views about peace with the Palestinians and have less to agree about on domestic policy.”
Sharing Classified Material
Not only is AIPAC not representative of the constituency in whose name it professes to speak, but its former foreign policy chief, Steve Rosen, and its former Iran analyst, Keith Weissman, are now being prosecuted by the U.S. Government for allegedly sharing classified U.S. information about Iran with Israeli diplomats, journalists and others.
By any standard, AIPAC appears, more and more, to be a rogue organization speaking only for a narrow extremist constituency within both Israel and the U.S.
Following the indictments, AIPAC began receiving a closer look. Writing in The New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg noted that, “AIPAC is unique in the top tier of lobbies because its concerns are the economic health and security of a foreign nation, and because its members are drawn almost entirely from a single ethnic group.”
According to Goldberg, “AIPAC’s professional staff — it employs about a hundred people at its headquarters, two blocks from the Capitol — analyzes congressional voting records and shares the results with its members, who can then contribute money to candidates directly or to a network of pro-Israel political action committees. The Center for Responsive Politics, a public policy group, estimates that between 1990 and 2004 these PACs gave candidates and parties more than 20 million dollars.”
Writing in The Nation, Chris Hedges declared that, “The Israel lobby in the U.S. does not serve Israel or the Jewish community — it serves the interests of the Israeli extreme right wing. Most Israelis have come to understand that peace will be possible only when their country complies with international law and permits Palestinians to build a viable and sustainable state based on the 1967 borders, including, in some configuration, East Jerusalem.”
Hedges recalled that, “This stark demarcation between Israeli pragmatists and the extreme right wing was apparent when I was in the Middle East for The New York Times during Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 campaign for prime minister. The majority of American Jewish organizations and neoconservative intellectuals made no pretense of neutrality. They had morphed into extensions of the right-wing Likud Party. These American groups, to Rabin’s dismay, had gone on to build, with Likud, an alliance with right-wing Christian groups ... whose cultural and historical ignorance of the Middle East was breathtaking. This collection of messianic Jews and Christians ... believed they had been handed a divine or moral mandate to rule the Middle East, whether the Arabs liked it or not.”
It seems clear that AIPAC has not done enough to maintain a clear division between the lobbying group and Israel. AIPAC officials have left the organization to serve in the Israeli government. Lenny Ben-David, formerly known as Leonard Davis, for example, worked at AIPAC for 25 years — first in Washington, then in Jerusalem — before he was tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998 to be the deputy chief of mission in Israel’s Washington Embassy.
Henry Siegman, once a leader in the American Jewish Congress and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, charges that many American Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC, have substituted blind support for Israel for the traditional Jewish search for truth and justice.
“We have lost much in American Jewish organizational life,” Siegman says. “I was a student and admirer of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I read his books, We were friends. We marched together in the South during the civil rights movement. He helped me understand the prophetic passion for truth and justice as the keystone of Judaism. This is not, however, an understanding that now animates the American Jewish community ... American Jewish organizations confuse support for the State of Israel and its people with uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments, even when these governments do things that in an American context these Jewish organizations would never tolerate. It was inconceivable that a Jewish leader in America 20 or 30 years ago would be silent if a political party in the Israeli government called for the transfer of Palestinians — in other words, ethnic cleansing. Today, there are at least three such parties, but there has never been a word of criticism from American Jewish organizations.”
Bad for Jews
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, believes that AIPAC is bad for Israel, bad for the U.S., and bad for Jews. “The most decisive reason the Israel lobby is bad for the Jews,” he writes, “is that it strengthens idolatry in the Jewish world by reinforcing our tendencies to believe in power and domination rather than in love, compassion and open-heartedness ... It pains me deeply to see the Israel Lobby so successful in turning many of the Jews who are supposedly religious into worshippers of power; people who believe that the Will of God can be read by the outcome of military struggles like the 1967 Six Day War. This is straightforward idolatry — the worship of power and the betrayal of the God of Israel.”
As the 2008 campaign proceeds, AIPAC’s role should continue to be carefully examined. It is abundantly clear that its claim to represent American Jewish opinion is false. It is also beyond question that the vast majority of Jewish voters cast their ballots on the basis of a variety of issues, domestic and foreign, not on the single issue of U.S. Middle East policy. Judaism, it must be remembered, is a religion of universal values, not a narrow special interest group in behalf of Israel or any other political consideration, To the extent that AIPAC’s influence in our political life is diminished, the chance to develop a constructive U.S. policy which leads both Israelis and Palestinians to a meaningful peace is enhanced.
Please feel free to forward your comments to my attention at either the address or e-mail listed below. We need and appreciate your continued involvement to ensure that our voice is heard.
— ALLAN C. BROWNFELD,
American Council for Judaism,
P.O. Box 9009,
Alexandria, VA 22304.