Thank you, Donald Trump. Unwittingly, you’ve done something important. You’ve exposed AIPAC’s indifference to the well being of the country in which it thrives. My country. The United States.
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Once upon a time, the leaders of American Zionism divided their time. They struggled to establish, defend and improve the State of Israel because of their moral obligation to their fellow Jews. And they struggled to defend and improve the United States because of their moral obligation to their fellow Americans.
The foremost American Zionist of the 1910s and 1920s, Louis Brandeis, was also America’s foremost opponent of economic oligarchy. The foremost American Zionist of the 1930s and 1940s, Rabbi Steven Wise, was a lifelong activist for women’s rights, civil rights and the labor movement. In his book Jewish Power, J.J. Goldberg notes that in the 1920s, the presidents of both the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress served on the board of the NAACP. In the 1940s, the American Jewish Congress employed more attorneys working to end segregation than did the Justice Department. At the March on Washington, American Jewish Congress head Joachim Prinz, who had been a rabbi in Hitler’s Germany, said he had come to defend “the idea and the aspirations of America itself” against the sin of state-sanctioned bigotry.
That was then. Today, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups still do valuable work defending the rights of vulnerable Americans. But their influence is dwarfed by AIPAC, which enjoys more power in Washington than every other American Jewish organization combined. AIPAC is the only American Jewish organization that hosts virtually all the presidential candidates every four years. It’s the only one that boasts that its national conference is “attended by more members of Congress than almost any other event, except for a joint session of Congress or a State of the Union address.” It’s the only one that employed an official who boasted, “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
Politically, AIPAC has become the dominant institution in American Jewish life. Yet it takes no moral responsibility for anything that happens in America. It has only one mission: to ensure that the United States government supports the Israeli government unconditionally. Nothing else matters. AIPAC has repeatedly hosted speeches by Pastor John Hagee, who called Hurricane Katrina “the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans” because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.” To AIPAC, it doesn’t matter. Hagee leads Christians United for Israel, which lobbies the United States government to support anything Benjamin Netanyahu does.
This is why AIPAC had no choice but to let Trump speak. And it’s why, although some attendees protested, thousands of others cheered as Trump cycled through a familiar set of talking points about how Palestinians deserve all the blame for the fact that in the West Bank, they live as non-citizens, without the right to vote, under military law. The AIPAC members cheered because they have been conditioned to cheer. They have been conditioned to view American politicians solely through the prism of their Israel views. So thousands of Jews cheered for the country’s foremost purveyor of bigotry against religious minorities. Some journalists were surprised. They should not have been. The crowd had been taught well. Moral indifference to what happens inside the United States is the AIPAC way.
After the speech, AIPAC’s president condemned Trump for his personal attacks on President Obama. AIPAC opposes excessive partisanship because it threatens the bipartisan basis of support for Israeli policy. Banning Muslims from entering the United States, or calling undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists,” or encouraging violence at political rallies, does not threaten that bipartisan support. So AIPAC remains silent.
It would be fascinating to see how AIPAC would react if a major presidential candidate demonized not American Muslims, but American Jews. In theory, the organization would react exactly as it has reacted to Trump. In theory, AIPAC—despite being a mostly Jewish organization—has a mandate to protect only Jews in Israel, not Jews in the United States.
In practice, AIPAC would never let such a candidate speak. The outcry from its members would be too great. So it’s not quite right to say that AIPAC accepts no moral responsibility for anything that happens in the United States. Rather, it accepts no moral responsibility for anything that happens to gentiles in the United States.
At the March on Washington, Rabbi Prinz said that, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” More than fifty years later, the most dangerous bigot and demagogue in modern American history is on the verge of claiming a major party’s presidential nomination. And America’s most powerful Jewish organization is silent because it was built to be silent. We American Jews owe our country better than that.