US Vice President Mike Pence addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2018. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

Opinion Why Young Jews and Democrats Are Waving Goodbye to AIPAC

My generation has only known Israel as an occupier. We won’t back anyone who supports that injustice – including the powerful lobby that is AIPAC

The festival that is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference began on Sunday in a slightly desperate fashion.

Despite AIPAC’s recent wins around moving the Jerusalem embassy and waves of anti-BDS legislation on the federal, state, and local level, AIPAC President Mort Fridman opened the conference not with a victory cry but with a besieged appeal to the Left: "To my friends in the progressive community, I want you to know we are partners in this project...There are very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall and out of this movement and we cannot let that happen - we will not let that happen!"

As a young Jew and leader with IfNotNow who marched, sang, and chanted in the chilly March weather outside AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference last year, I know that the forces pulling progressives out of AIPAC are of the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government's making.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman next to Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon and Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to welcome U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressing AIPAC, March 5, 2018 CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

As long as they insist on supporting and maintaining the occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, progressives will turn away from pro-Israel advocacy in increasing numbers -- both within and outside the Jewish community.

Just look at the polling of the future American Jewish community: Support for Israel among Jewish college students in the United States dropped an astounding 32 percent between 2010 and 2016.

While the Jewish establishment, anxious to make sense of these numbers, points to assimilation and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, the fact cannot be ignored: My generation has only known Israel as an occupier which denies millions of Palestinians access to water, proper medical care, and the ability to elect their own government. Supporting such a system as dogma is a dead-end to the thriving Jewish future we all want.

But American Jewish community leaders attending the AIPAC conference year after year, regardless of Trump’s inflammatory actions in the region or which authoritarian Israeli official is speaking, are not the only ones failing to see which way the wind is blowing; elected officials - especially Democratic Party leaders - similarly face an increasingly skeptical base.

A Pew study released in January showed that while 79% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel, only 27% of Democrats hold that view, the largest divide between the two parties’ views on Israel since the poll was first conducted in 1978.

While there are many possible catalysts for this shift, it’s clear that as the GOP - and AIPAC and the Israeli government itself - has increasing aligned itself with a strange coalition of pro-Israel white nationalists (including anti-Semites), the Democratic base is becoming equally clear that it expects party leaders, politicians, and candidates to be on the side of freedom and dignity, here and in Israel-Palestine.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2018. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

In the near future, a candidate who campaigns on Medicare for All will not be able to support the occupation and call themselves a "progressive."

Led by young people committed to the future of this country and our communities, the left flank of the party is forcing cracks in the ossified status quo. When Bernie Sanders declined an invitation to speak at AIPAC in the heat of the 2016 primaries, citing a "scheduling conflict," he broke with Democratic party convention and paved the way for progressives to be bolder about resisting AIPAC’s seemingly total power.

When Kirsten Gillibrand put her name on an anti-BDS bill last summer, outcry from activists and the American Civil Liberties Union forced her to withdraw her sponsorship.   

As Democrats try to position themselves as an alternative to the authoritarian, racist policies of the Trump administration, unquestioning support for Israel is becoming an untenable position.

When AIPAC conference attendees give standing ovations to the Trump administration and its dangerous policy moves, what is preventing progressive politicians from running in the other direction?

Look no further than AIPAC’s speaker list for this year’s confab. While the Democratic establishment is appearing in full force - Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Ben Cardin, who are heavily involved in foreign policy committees - this year the only rumored Democratic presidential hopeful is Amy Klobuchar.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks at the 2018 AIPAC policy conference, at Washington Convention Center in Washington, March 5, 2018. Jose Luis Magana/AP

The lack of celebrity power and political ambition reflected in the line-up reveals a new, encouraging possibility: Democrats with ambition may no longer be required to make a stop at one of the most powerful lobbies in America on their way to political success. As Cory Booker and Gillibrand gear up to run for President by appealing to an increasingly Democratic base, that is a hopeful sign.

However, this trend is not final nor inevitable; the progressive wing will have to fight hard to loosen AIPAC’s grip on the party, just as we young Jews are fighting to recommit our community, many of whom have grown up with AIPAC as an integrated part of Jewish life, to face the injustices it enables.

Progressive Democrats fear that breaking with AIPAC’s politics will cost them their legitimacy and their seat. The political taboo around speaking out against Israel’s policies or supporting BDS can take the wind out of populist sails, as it did for Chicago's Daniel Biss, who picked Democratic Socialists of America member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as his running mate and then dropped him on accounts of Rosa’s support for BDS. 

Then-candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak during the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C. Monday, March 21, 2016 Bloomberg

It will not be enough to protest outside of AIPAC. Progressives of all stripes must demonstrate that the future of the Democratic party lies in policies that push for an end to the occupation and support freedom and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis.

If Democratic leaders want to be a party of the rising American electorate - those of us Jewish and otherwise committed to freedom and dignity for all - they must refuse to put their values aside for campaign funding or easy endorsements.

We can and must be bold and uncompromising in demanding that the leaders who seek to represent us - within the American political system and the Jewish community - stand up for the rights and interests of all of us -- workers, immigrants, women, LBGTQ, Palestinians and yes, Jews.

If we succeed, we can truly say goodbye to AIPAC forever.

Emily Mayer is a founding member of IfNotNow, a movement led by young Jews to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she is a movement strategist and trainer. Twitter: @emilyfmayer

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