Let’s cut the folks at AIPAC some slack.
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The AIPAC Policy Conference is over. Donald Trump has given his speech and moved on to other things. But what was really interesting was not the Jewish response to the clown-like presentation of Trump — who “took the risk,” he said, without a touch of irony, of serving as Grand Marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade — but the Jewish response to AIPAC. The Policy Conference unleashed a torrent of anti-AIPAC abuse so vicious that it made me wonder about the sanity of the attackers.
I have my issues with AIPAC. (See below.) Tough, constructive criticism of the organization is essential now. Still, can anyone doubt that AIPAC is one of American Jewry’s great success stories? I am glad it’s around. It delivers power and influence to a once-powerless community, forced to stand by helplessly as European Jewry was exterminated in the 1940s. If AIPAC didn’t exist, we American Jews would have to create it.
Many responsible voices of the center-left don’t see it that way. Peter Beinart has suggested that AIPAC has betrayed the United States by putting concern for the welfare of Israel ahead of the well-being of non-Jewish Americans. Gershom Gorenberg has written that by giving Donald Trump a speaking slot at its convention, AIPAC has helped to make Trump legitimate in the eyes of Republicans, and thus is partly responsible for his potential success. The online journal Tablet has asserted that AIPAC is run by “mid-level incompetents who disgrace our community.”
Give me a break. I support those who protested against Trump at the AIPAC conference, and I am as disgusted as they are by the Trump campaign. But can anyone seriously suggest that AIPAC is to blame for what Trump has become? Such claims have an almost conspiratorial, anti-Semitic feel to them. (How did the crazy-man Trump get the nomination? It was because of the Jews.) AIPAC did not make Trump legitimate; Republican voters did.
Similarly, AIPAC is not the Great Satan of American Jewish life. It is not undermining American democracy. And it is not an incompetent organization run by fools. In fact, it is the opposite of all these things: a source of pride for the American Jewish community, a shining example of American democracy at work, and a well-run, breathtakingly effective political operation.
AIPAC is a single-issue organization devoted to promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship. In America’s contentious democracy, where competing interest groups battle for power and influence, single-issue organizations work. The gun lobby and the anti-abortion lobby are examples of what happens when determined people with a single issue on their agenda advance that issue to the exclusion of all else. Regrettably, the anti-gun forces and the pro-choice lobby have not learned from their example. But fortunately, the pro-Israel lobby has.
Does AIPAC twist arms, pressure members of Congress, advocate relentlessly for the Jewish state, support Israel’s friends and oppose Israel’s enemies? Of course. In other words, AIPAC does precisely what every advocacy group in Washington does. And it succeeds, primarily because the American people remain strongly supportive of Israel. But it also succeeds because AIPAC is very good at its job.
And thank God. As confident as I am of Israel’s military strength and the determination of her people to repel all enemies, the Jewish state, located in a perilous region, is vulnerable and will remain so. Absent the support of America, she would face the real danger of extinction. And without AIPAC, the American support that Israel requires would be far more tenuous than it now is.
The contention that AIPAC is run by “incompetents” is absurd. Incompetent leaders do not recruit 100,000 members, build a grassroots presence in every congressional district, and bring together 18,000 people for a convention in the nation’s capital. No less bizarre is the claim that this year’s AIPAC gathering could refuse to extend an invitation to Donald Trump. Trump may be a buffoon, but he is the likely Republican nominee for President of the United States. If you represent an organization that advocates for Israel, not inviting him was never an option.
AIPAC is not as powerful as many suggest. It has less clout than the gun lobby, the banking lobby, and the oil lobby. Still, it wields an impressive amount of influence. And AIPAC came by its influence honestly, not by deception or political chicanery but by building on the natural sympathy of the American people for the small, beleaguered State of Israel. Why, then, the virulence of the anti-AIPAC attacks? I can’t help thinking that some in our community may still be a bit uncomfortable with displays of Jewish power, exercised unashamedly by a Jewish-dominated group asserting its values and its interests in the halls of Congress.
None of this is to say that AIPAC always gets it right. The Iran agreement is a serious issue, but AIPAC bungled its handling of the matter, making many enemies along the way. And while AIPAC claims to be a bipartisan advocate for the concerns of the pro-Israel community, it sometimes speaks as if its only interest were the agenda of Israel’s very rightwing government. For example, on the Mideast peace process, AIPAC proclaims its support of two states for two peoples. But while AIPAC leaders frequently talk about Iran sanctions, American aid to Israel, and the need for action against Palestinian incitement, they rarely advocate for the two-state solution — or oppose settlements that will prevent such a solution from happening. And this despite the fact that the principle of “two states for two peoples” appears prominently in its literature.
If AIPAC is serious about bipartisanship and about bringing more Democrats, liberals, and young people into the AIPAC tent, its regular advocacy will need to include emphatic support for the two-state solution that, it claims, it already accepts. But that said, AIPAC remains one of American Jewry’s proudest accomplishments, an essential if imperfect asset in Israel’s struggle for survival.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.