Why AIPAC Chose to Remain Silent on the Western Wall Debate

In face of the crisis engulfing Israel and the U.S. Jewish community, the powerful lobby has chosen not to take a public position

Women of the Wall at the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Hadas Parush/Flash 90

WASHINGTON – The Israeli government's decision to freeze its own plan for creating an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall has become the most prominent news story in Israel over the past three days, and has also made headlines in the United States, especially within the Jewish community. Many Jewish organizations both on the national and local level have spoken out on the subject, as have have leading figures from different parts of the community.

One organization, however, has remained almost completely silent on the matter – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC. Considered one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States, and is certainly the most powerful one affiliated with the American Jewish community. 

AIPAC doesn't define itself as a "Jewish organization," but rather, as an organization committed to supporting Israel and improving its relationship with the United States. However, the vast majority of the organization's senior leadership is Jewish, and so are most of its active donors and members. Since the majority of American Jews aren't part of the (growing) Orthodox denomination, the same is also true for AIPAC: many of the powerful lobby's leaders and top donors are part of the "disappointed majority" of American Jews who feel disrespected by the Israeli government's decision. 

Yet in face of the crisis engulfing Israel and the U.S. Jewish community, AIPAC has chosen not to take a position. A spokesman for the organization told Haaretz on Monday that its only response to the crisis was the following sentence: "The debate is ongoing and the democratic process in Israel which provides for input from many voices is the best hope for a productive outcome." AIPAC did not reply to a follow-up question, whether a different message had been conveyed by its officials in private to the Israeli government. 

A number of senior officials in other Jewish organizations who work regularly with AIPAC told Haaretz that they understood the lobby's decision not to confront the Israeli government on the Western Wall debacle.

"There are some people within the AIPAC community who are very disappointed with the Israeli government, but I don't think expecting AIPAC to publicly weigh in is realistic," said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. "Their mission is to focus on the Israeli-American relationship, not on religious issues." 

Halber, who is strongly opposed to the Israeli government's decision, expressed an opinion that was shared by a number of heads of Jewish organizations contacted by Haaretz on the subject.

"I would have loved to see a statement from them, and I know many people there are angry, but I totally understand why they're not doing it," said a senior official in another organization.

Shalom Lipner, a former Israeli official who served for more than 25 years at the Prime Minister's Office and is an expert on Israel's relations with Diaspora Jewry, told Haaretz that "it can cause nothing but trouble for AIPAC"  to engage on the issue.

Lipner, now a non-resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, explained that "it both sows division between different constituencies of the pro-Israel community and portrays Israel in a negative light as allegedly disrespecting freedom of worship. For AIPAC to succeed at its mission it has to stay away from this loaded argument and preserve a safe, neutral space where activists can unite together and focus on their shared task to promote the bilateral relationship."

A leading Jewish-American public figure who worked with AIPAC extensively in the past and asked to speak on background told Haaretz that "AIPAC doesn't view itself like other Jewish organizations. They define their role differently. I have no doubt they will communicate privately to the Israeli government how bad this decision is, because it is going to make life very complicated for AIPAC, but it would have been very unusual for them to take a critical public position on an internal Israeli issue." 

But not everyone agrees that AIPAC is making the right decision in this instance. A former American official who has worked with AIPAC pointed out that whenever the organization is unhappy with a policy decision taken by the U.S. government, it makes its opposition known and public, but when it comes to problematic decisions taken by Israel, it never raises its voice. 

Alan Solow, who was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations from 2009 to 2011, told Haaretz that while he does not want to directly address AIPAC's calculations, he does believe that the Western Wall crisis is an unusual event that justifies unusual action from Jewish communities and organizations. 

"The continued delay in implementing the prior agreement to allow for an egalitarian space at the Kotel threatens to significantly disrupt the relationship between the Jewish homeland and the Diaspora," Solow explained in a written statement. "Jewish leadership in the U.S. has traditionally taken an approach that supports decisions of the elected government of Israel out of respect for the democratic process. This has been particularly true with respect to issues of security and of domestic policy. After all, we don’t live in Israel. 

"As the State of Israel, however, is the fulfillment of the dreams of the entirety of the Jewish People, decisions regarding particular forms of Jewish observance cannot by imposed by one fragment upon any other. The notion that the overwhelming majority of American Jews, as well as non-orthodox Israeli Jews, do not have religious rights as Jews that are recognized by the State is a fundamental challenge to the notion of Jewish Peoplehood."

Solow added that "at a time when those of us who are deeply committed to a strong Israel and a united Jewish People are fighting every day to increase support among our youth and those who are not strongly affiliated, this outright rejection of the so-called liberal Jewish streams sends an unwelcoming message and also suggests that promises made cannot be relied upon.

"This will do nothing to diminish my personal support or commitment to Israel, but it will doubtless make the jobs of American Jewish leaders more difficult as they seek to provide political, economic and moral support for our Israeli brothers and sisters."

AIPAC is not expected to change its policy of not commenting on internal Israeli affairs anytime soon. Other organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and a number of local U.S. Federations, have put out unusually strong-worded statements over the last 48 hours, but in the words of a former U.S. official who has worked closely with AIPAC, "this organization is a heavier ship, and any slight movement or change of direction requires a lot of time and thought."