I did not physically attend this year’s AIPAC policy conference, but I followed it on-line from beginning to end, and solicited input from friends and colleagues of various political and religious orientations who were there. This is what I took away from a once-a-year extravaganza:
AIPAC’s annual policy conference is not primarily a policy convention at all.
It is a happening, a pep rally, a love fest, and a pro-Israel rock festival. It is an expression of the unconditional love that the great majority of American Jews feel for Israel, including most mainstream Democrats and critics of Israel’s policies.
To be sure, there are workshops, break-out groups, and a mind-numbing number of lectures and speeches, but these sessions are not really the point of the exercise. Like a youth movement convention, its purpose is not to talk about the issues but to build community and enthusiasm for the cause of the Jewish state.
AIPAC appears to be exceedingly strong; in fact, it is relatively weak.
True, it is an effective lobby that has learned the rules of the game in Washington and exercises a fair amount of political clout. It deserves nothing but credit and praise for its efforts. But Washington insiders, ranging from Thomas Friedman to Ilhan Omar, have expressed various versions of the preposterous idea that AIPAC is an unchallenged Washington powerhouse, dictating policy on Israel to both the legislative and executive branches of America’s government.
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Yet as Michael Walzer has noted in Tablet, AIPAC’s power is greatly exaggerated, as are general claims about "Jewish power."
When it comes to the Middle East, the simple fact is that decisions are made primarily by the president of the United States. And Walzer makes the obvious but important point that when AIPAC is in agreement with the president on Israel, AIPAC appears powerful and significant, but when it disagrees with the President, it doesn’t.
Evangelical support for Israel is important, but American Jewish support for Israel is far more important.
AIPAC is a pro-Israel lobby and not a Jewish lobby; Americans of every racial, religious, and ethnic stripe are present at the conference. Nonetheless, the vital link between American Jewry and Israel brought AIPAC into being, and American Jewish commitment continues to power the AIPAC machine.
Anyone who has spent even a day at an AIPAC conference knows that Jewish love of Zion is the moving force behind whatever power and influence AIPAC possesses. The mandate of Jewish religion and the mysteries of Jewish peoplehood are the foundation upon which AIPAC’s unique status has been constructed.
Many Israelis, including members of her current government, believe that Evangelical support for Israel is now the primary guarantor of American backing for the Jewish state. The Prime Minister of Israel has been reported as affirming this point, off the record, on numerous occasions. But this is a grave error.
Yes, there are many more Evangelicals than Jews in America. But for Evangelicals, Israel is one issue among many, and arguably an issue that has begun to lose its resonance. For most American Jews, wherever their political views, Israel remains a singular obsession. And if, God forbid, American Jewish support for Israel were to evaporate, American support for Israel would evaporate along with it.
American Jews are furious at Netanyahu.
As many delegates to the conference quietly acknowledged, Bibi has a certain hold over American Jews, including the 70% who vote Democratic and are more or less liberal.
Bibi’s appeal to the American Jewish community is not easy to explain. It undoubtedly relates to his oratorical and diplomatic skills, his successes with the economy, his inclination to refrain from military action except when absolutely necessary, and his near-complete mastery of Israel’s political system. Somehow, for the past decade, Bibi has managed to be resented and even despised by many American Jews, while also accorded a certain grudging respect.
But those days are over. In the last two years, Netanyahu has crossed every conceivable red line. He has ignored repeated promises to mend relations with non-Orthodox Jews and to resolve the never-ending dispute over the Western Wall.
Far more important, he has demonstrated excessive enthusiasm for his partnership with Donald Trump. Cordial relations are essential; gracious thanks for favorable policies are appropriate. But the sycophantic buddy movie that Bibi has produced with America’s unbalanced and unpredictable President is something else altogether. In the process, Bibi has burned bridges with the Democratic Party that have been nurtured with utmost care for nearly a century.
When the anti-Trump backlash comes, and it will, Bibi’s egregious and unnecessary embrace of everything Trump will cost Israel dearly.
And in some ways worst of all, he supported the successors of Meir Kahane in their successful effort to merge with another party and assure themselves seats in the next Knesset. It is entirely possible that Itamar Ben-Gvir, admirer and disciple of Baruch Goldstein, will not only be elected to the Knesset but will join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
This affront to Jewish tradition is unforgivable. As Bibi knows, the name “Kahane” is associated in the minds of American Jews with racism and terror; it represents everything that is repugnant to American Jewish sensibilities.
While deeply concerned by the violence in Gaza, the participants that I spoke to were not unhappy that Bibi was not physically in the conference hall in Washington to tout his friendship with Trump, to take another swipe at the Democratic party, and to justify in a passing reference his sins against Diaspora Jewry, all the while ignoring the sleaze that has enveloped his tenure as Prime Minister. Somehow his words, delivered by satellite without the usual panache and interrupted by constant technological glitches, were easier to bear coming from afar.
Bibi also expressed the hope that he would win the election, another inappropriate remark and one inviting applause that it did not elicit. The delegates, of course, know that the choice is not theirs to make. Still, most were impressed by Benny Gantz, and I suspect that a majority of those in attendance hope to hear Gantz address the conference next year as Prime Minister.
Most American Jews are realistic about what AIPAC can and cannot do.
AIPAC is not a far-right organization, although conventional wisdom tends to portray it in those terms. Its positions are generally reasonable, centrist, and at times even a bit left of center. It continues to support a negotiated two-state solution even as the Trump administration and the Republican party have gradually abandoned this language. And it joined with the American Jewish Committee in condemning Netanyahu’s backing of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, calling it "racist and reprehensible."
But AIPAC is simply too massive and cumbersome to respond quickly to crises of the moment, and it is too committed to being an umbrella structure to extend its platform even a bit leftward. Writing in the New York Times, Mark Horowitz suggested that AIPAC could be most effective if it co-opted the Zionist left and opened its proceedings to boisterous debate on fundamental issues.
That is probably true, but also impossible. As it is, AIPAC is barely able to keep together the fractious coalition that it has assembled and that extends from center-left to center-right.
Generally speaking, AIPAC members understand the dilemma and do not expect their organization to stretch its boundaries beyond its current limits. They see that there are many advantages to an inclusive, broad-based, pro-Israel organization such as AIPAC, as this week’s conference again demonstrated.
Most would be happy if AIPAC would focus on more aggressively advocating for a two-state solution and more actively opposing racist policies now being floated by parties on the right. In other words, if AIPAC would fight for the positions that it already holds but too rarely speaks to, that would be enough.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie