Opinion

AIPAC's Cheering Crowds Can’t Disguise Its Cop-out on Settlements and Its Capitulation to Trump's Bigoted Nativism

AIPAC has finessed Israel's occupation for too long, and refuses to push back against Trump and the GOP's 'America First' nativism. That's why for many on the American Jewish left, AIPAC is now the enemy

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2016.
Saul Loeb, AFP

The AIPAC Policy Conference begins this Sunday, and for many on the left, including the American Jewish left, AIPAC is now the enemy. 

It has embraced President Trump, in all his awfulness; adopted the policies of the reviled Benjamin Netanyahu; turned its back on the Democratic Party; and shown itself to be indifferent to the concerns of young Americans, and young Jewish Americans, who are distressed about Israel’s policies and direction.

But this is a misreading of reality, even if some of these concerns are legitimate. I have always been, and remain, an admirer of AIPAC. We need a professionally-run, big-tent, pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and AIPAC has done an impressive job of serving that function. 

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at the 2016 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C.
Bloomberg

But its problem is this: Washington has changed, America has changed, and most important, the position and perception of Israel in America have changed. What this means is that AIPAC must change as well. 

AIPAC exists to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, seeing strong ties between the two countries as promoting the values and interests of both.

It now has more than 100,000 members and a grassroots presence in every state and congressional district. And it has built this membership base by adhering to certain fundamental operating principles.

And what are these principles? It provides a home for Jews and non-Jews who love Israel, and it opposes anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in all forms. It keeps its agenda limited, focusing on a few key issues, and it avoids the temptation to stray into areas that lie outside of its core pro-Israel mission. 

AIPAC takes special pride in its political and Jewish inclusiveness, viewing itself as the address for bipartisan, pro-Israel activity. It works hard to forge pro-Israel coalitions across party lines. It also makes a significant effort to draw Jews of all religious streams into its pro-Israel work.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the 2015 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

On substantive policy issues, it has long walked a fine line. An American Jewish organization, it defers to the direction of the current Israeli government while also searching out the consensus points that guide American foreign policy.  

Thus, American policy had traditionally favored a two-state solution while in Israel, the Prime Minister says he favors the same but rarely mentions it.  Israel’s current government includes no reference to two states in its coalition agreement.  AIPAC deals with this by saying it supports two states, but downplays the issue, which is barely visible on its website. 

In order to keep AIPAC more or less united, all elements of its membership have made compromises. Jewish conservatives have toned down their pro-settlement rhetoric. Jewish liberals have acquiesced in a more hawkish approach to foreign policy, toning down their own concern about American overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews have all toned down the concerns of their movements about religious issues in Israel. 

The result: A balancing act rooted in deep commitment to Israel that has mostly worked.  AIPAC has succeeded for decades in being the pro-Israel, man-in-the-middle in American politics and the Jewish community. Its membership has continued to grow, and it has united the Jews and the pro-Israel forces in both major parties most of the time.

And the best proof of its success, of course, is its annual policy conference, which is now drawing close to 20,000 people. This conference is best understood not as a substantive forum but as a high-energy spectacle: a drama intended to bind America’s pro-Israel forces together in community and common purpose. 

A protester holds a sign outside the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 21, 2016
Bloomberg

And now the bad news. This can’t last. Not because AIPAC is no longer doing its job, but because the objective conditions that define America’s politics have been radically altered.  What worked before either doesn’t work now, or won’t work for much longer.

The premise of all that AIPAC does is that Israel is a unifying force in American life and in American Jewish life, and that promoting pro-Israel bipartisanship is the heart of AIPAC’s mission. But that premise has been gradually collapsing for almost two decades. And we can’t pretend otherwise anymore.  Consider the following:

*The American political system, which before 9/11 was still reasonably united on matters of foreign policy, has splintered into many mutually antagonistic camps, and support for Israel - until recently still a consensus matter - has turned into a partisan wedge issue. A Pew Research Center survey released in January showed that 79% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, while the figure for Democrats is 27%.

*While questions have been raised about the methodology of the Pew survey, there is no denying that for AIPAC, these numbers are a disaster. What does it mean to be a bipartisan, pro-Israel advocacy group when there is such a dramatic decrease in the support of Democrats for Israel? Various factors explain this drop. Anti-Israel rhetoric by some Democratic leaders may be a factor, and so may hostility to Israel by some young Democrats. At the same time, concern about human rights flowing from the occupation is surely a factor as well.

*Issues of Israel's occupation and settlements, finessed by AIPAC for so long, cannot be finessed any longer. A large plurality of American Jews question the settlement policies of Israel’s government, and have for many years.They have no illusions about the Palestinians, and refuse to attribute to them the nobility that leftwing extremists profess to see in the Palestinian camp. But American Jews are appalled by settlement growth, and distressed by the failure of Jewish leaders, in America and in Israel, to address it in a commonsense way.

And alas, AIPAC’s dancing around is a cop-out here, and one that has paved the way for anti-Israel forces to attract the sympathy and support of Jewish and non-Jewish youth on campus and elsewhere.

President Barack Obama waves after speaking at AIPAC convention in Washington D.C. May 22, 2011
AP

*The Trump Administration is all over the map, on Israel and on every other issue of concern to Jews. The President speaks the language of isolationism, nativism, and "America First," and anti-Semitism has grown dramatically during Trump’s tenure. Iranian forces are settling into Syria, and Russia is the resurgent power in the Middle East. At the same time, the President, to his credit, has moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, offsetting for many Jews his highly questionable policies elsewhere.

To further confuse the picture, Trump may or may not come up with an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that serves Israel’s interests. The Trump administration appears to oppose settlement annexation (a good thing, in my view) but how that might translate into policy is anyone’s guess.

* Religious matters - such as the discarded Western Wall agreement - have infuriated American Jews of every stripe. The simple fact is that these issues are so profoundly offensive to the religious sensibilities of American Jews that they are threatening all of AIPAC’s accomplishments in other areas.And for many American Reform and Conservative Jews, an Israel that fails to recognize the legitimacy of his or her synagogue and rabbi is an Israel that does not deserve respect.  AIPAC’s policy of responding to religious affronts with public silence and quiet, confidential protest is no longer even remotely adequate.

And so the important question for the upcoming policy conference is:  How will AIPAC deal with these matters? 

The strong likelihood, of course, is that it will exult in its record-breaking numbers, applaud madly for its political celebrities, bask in the praise of the already committed in attendance, and say not a word on any of the critical issues mentioned above. 

But make no mistake. This is the path to organizational oblivion. The cheering crowds in Washington are not the grassroots voices that make up the heart of the Jewish community. In a divided America, the grand consensus that once existed on Israel has evaporated. 

Nonetheless, AIPAC is still well positioned to be the advocate and the champion for most of the centrist mainstream, Jewish and non-Jewish. This is the group that is looking for leadership on Israel that AIPAC is best able to provide.

So my hope is that AIPAC will find a way to say the things that need to be said.

President Shimon Peres speaks at the 2011 AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC, US
Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO

That Israel and America are forever partners, forever allies, and forever friends, committed to the values of democracy, freedom, and justice. And that to advance their partnership, American leadership in the world should be seen as a blessing, which alone can offer an alternative to terror, violence, and political dysfunction.

That support for Israel is a bipartisan cause, and one that requires Democrats to take on their anti-Israel progressives and Republicans to take on their bigoted nativists.

That Israelis and Palestinians need to separate, and this means walls, borders, and an end to settlement building in what someday will be the State of Palestine. That Israel must be Jewish and democratic, and that America, and others, will not ultimately support a nation that aspires to rule over another people. 

That Israel needs freedom of choice in religious matters and a moratorium on religious legislation. And that all Jews must be told by the Jewish state that their Judaic way of life is welcome in Israel, their spiritual home.

Such words would only be a beginning, but an important beginning. And they must be said plainly and clearly. 

AIPAC is one of American Jewry’s proudest accomplishments, and is invaluable for the survival of Israel, America’s most devoted Middle Eastern ally. But if it continues on its current course, it will, despite its numbers and its might, soon be irrelevant. 

Far better for it to set aside its silence and, during the events of the coming week, to forthrightly address Israel’s most pressing challenges.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie