Analysis |

AIPAC Loves Israel, but Only the Sanitized Version

The lobby embraces Netanyahu’s rhetoric but ignores his policies as well as the Israel that voted for him.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a video link from Israel to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a video link from Israel to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2017. Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

WASHINGTON - AIPAC loves Israel, for sure, but only its own, self-censored, sanitized version. AIPAC loves the Israel that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust and is America’s best ally, besieged by barbaric enemies, the only democracy in the Middle East, conqueror of the desert and start up nation. That’s the Israel that AIPAC knows, and that’s the only Israel that it wants to know.

So there was lots of Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, UN, BDS, Mobileye, water desalination and a touch of Israeli culture at the AIPAC Conference that took place in Washington this week, but not so much occupation, income equality, persecution of foreign workers, discrimination against Ethiopian Jews or the Israeli government’s escalating assault on democracy and the rule of law. The AIPAC program was like the good news channel that media critics fantasize about, one in which you are great, anyone else is horrid, everything is hunky dory and there’s no reason for you to hear things that could ruin your dinner.

Organizers did mark the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the Six Day War, but mainly to conjure the miraculous victory of our boys against all odds. A half-century of Palestinian disenfranchisement, land appropriation, deprivation of freedoms, denial of civil liberties – all of these weren’t on the agenda. The routine violence, degradation and harassment of Palestinians, which is inevitable in any occupation, were tossed aside, as they are, admittedly, in Israel itself.

Of course, if there is no occupation then there’s no need to contend with its corrosive influence on Israeli society either. The rampant racism, hate and incitement to violence that Israelis are exposed to day in and day out on social media aren’t translated into English. The Israeli public’s utter disregard for Palestinian lives, health or wellbeing is passed over. The increasingly ugly private and public intimidation of leftist dissenters is untouched. The government’s now naked rush to dismantle the democratic foundations on which the country that AIPAC fell in love with are based is simply not on the agenda.

One reason for that is that AIPAC gets to pick and choose. The pro-Israel lobby heeds the right wing messaging of Benjamin Netanyahu but disregards the unsavory elements of his rule and ignores the Israel that put him in power in the first place. I am willing to bet that most of the inventors, creators, singers, artists, journalists and experts that AIPAC brings over didn’t vote for Netanyahu and don’t like his policies, but they’re not asked for their opinion on that. That’s how AIPAC keeps its members’ blinders on.

But wouldn’t it be refreshing if the next AIPAC Conference could invite Culture Minister Miri Regev to explain to 18,000 delegates why foreign workers are like cancer and why the government has to control the media and why publicly funded theater must toe the government line, or else. Perhaps AIPAC organizers should ask Education Minister Naftali Bennett not to talk about his plans to annex the territories next time he’s around, but about the religious right wing indoctrination that he is instilling in Israel’s public schools. Minister Gilad Erdan might try to convince delegates that governments should maintain data banks on citizens who disagree with them. And the entertainment part of the program could include rap singer Yoav Eliasi, aka “The Shadow,” whose rants against people he deems traitors spur thousands upon thousands of Facebook threats of intimidation, violence and murder against Arabs, leftists and the like.

These are issues for Israel to deal with, AIPAC replies, disingenuously. We don’t intervene. We are here solely to protect and serve the government, whichever it might be. Of course, if AIPAC only means to protect the country from external threats and to keep its hands off internal dangers, why are so many of its sessions devoted to highlighting Israel’s admirable achievements and almost none, besides some token closed sessions with lefties on the sidelines, to discussing its shameful faults? AIPAC isn’t some small immaterial group that no one pays attention to; it is one of America’s most powerful lobbies, whose influence spreads far and wide. By broadcasting that Israel is great both inside and out and by ignoring its darker side, AIPAC plays into the government’s propaganda and undermines its critics. If everything is so wonderful, then all of these disgruntled lefties must be making things up, no? Isn’t that just too horrid of them.

Donald Trump once again garnered embarrassingly warm cheers from the AIPAC crowd at this year’s conference, but that’s only because most AIPAC members have learned to separate his support for Israel from his policies on almost everything else, which most of them, presumably, oppose. And the irony is that the aspects of Trump they hate – dislike of foreigners, incitement against Muslims, disrespect for the rule of law, hostility towards the free press – are an intrinsic part of Netanyahu’s policies. Which means that if they were Israelis, most AIPAC members would be appalled at the direction that Israel is taking under Netanyahu, but since they aren’t, they actually couldn’t care less.

This willful ignorance is what enables AIPAC members to be persuaded that the anti-Israel BDS movement is an existential threat - even though its main manifestation seems to be the hard time that Jewish kids are supposedly having on American campuses – while the dismantling of Israeli democracy and the erosion of the common ground that allows the state to function is deemed innocuous. And because BDS has been magnified by Israeli leaders and amplified by American Jewish leaders to look and sound like a monster, AIPAC members cannot see that the Netanyahu government is cynically using BDS not only to galvanize them but as an instrument of warfare against its political enemies. It has decided that merely voicing support for a boycott of settlements – not Israel, mind you, but universally unrecognized Jewish settlements in the West Bank - is grounds for refusing to admit otherwise kosher Jews to Israel and for suing for damages in Israel itself. I must have missed the forum that discussed this assault on decency, just as I’m sure I won’t be able to attend the AIPAC protest when Israel starts sending critics of settlements directly to jail.

I am not one of those Israeli leftists who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. AIPAC played, plays and will probably play a vital role in protecting Israel and advancing its cause. I don’t even begrudge AIPAC’s increasingly distinct tilt to the right, because Diaspora Jews have always been quicker to embrace the lofty black on white rhetoric of the right than the complex pragmatism of the left – and because leftist Israel supporters have left for J Street anyway. And because AIPAC has been exposed to so many years of Bibi.

What is infuriating, nonetheless, is AIPAC’s refusal to know, the blind eye and the deaf ear that they purposely turn to drown out the voices that tell them that something is rotting in the State of Israel. Even opposition leaders who are invited to the conference don’t dwell on it, perhaps because they seek to spare the feelings of their hosts and to allow them to live on in their fantasy worlds and to bury their heads in the sand. Such deliberate disregard however is not the stuff of which real love is made.

It’s like your brilliant brother or sister, the smashing rags to riches success story who was the marvel of the world when they were younger and who still can’t do anything wrong in the eyes of your parents. But you know things are not as they seem: your brother’s (or sister’s) behavior at work has deteriorated, their record of success has inured them to outside criticism, they rant and rave about how the unfair world doesn’t understand them. And there have been complaints of brutal harassment of subordinates, which the police are starting to investigate. When you try to bring it up at the dinner table, your parents angrily shush you for repeating the words of their dear one’s rivals. “Don’t believe it,” they say. “They’ve always hated him (or her),” they say. When you suggest intervention, they look at you in horror, as if you’ve stuck a knife into their hearts.

When it falls on you to tell them that their cherished one overdosed on heroin and is on way to the hospital and may not survive, they are crushed but somehow, you suddenly realize, not very surprised. They knew something was seriously wrong, but preferred to live with their illusion rather than confront reality. And now, they know, it’s already way too late.

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