Opinion |

AIPAC's Fall: I Worked at the pro-Israel Lobby. Now I Have to Call It Out

AIPAC used to be a nuanced, sophisticated, bipartisan pro-Israel operation. But its ugly Trump-style ads attacking the Democratic Party are strategically suicidal. How did AIPAC get sucked into the worst partisan politics - and can it recover?

Ken Toltz
Ken Toltz
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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C. March 24, 2019
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C. March 24, 2019Credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP
Ken Toltz
Ken Toltz

Five years ago, after over 40 years of pro-Israel advocacy experience, both as a professional and then longtime volunteer, AIPAC first lost my confidence. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had addressed a 2015 joint session of Congress, a unilateral invitation orchestrated by Republicans - a blatantly politically hostile act against President Barack Obama, and a dramatic escalation of Israel’s previously stated opposition to his Iran Deal.

I had never before seen AIPAC abandon its fundamental bipartisan stance, but supporting Netanyahu's attempt to exploit Israel's partisan relationships in the U.S. Congress, by encouraging Democratic members of Congress to attend the speech was an unusual departure.

Now, in the lead up to the 2020 presidential elections, AIPAC has wandered way off track, choosing to use Facebook to run harshly partisan ads attacking "radicals" in the Democratic Party for "pushing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people." Whoa, how did AIPAC get so far off the bipartisan rails? Supporters like me are wondering: Has AIPAC conceded its core bipartisan mission?

To understand just how far AIPAC has fallen, it's worth revisiting an earlier era when the pro-Israel lobby saw its mission - and acted on it - quite differently.

Back in 1978 my dad hosted AIPAC’s first ever Denver fundraiser at our house. It featured AIPAC’s executive director, the charismatic, well-informed and effective Israel advocate, Morrie Amitay. Amitay, a former Democratic Hill staffer with excellent contacts, had succeeded AIPAC founder Si Kenen, heading what was then a small, low-profile organization. I attended that Denver event as a college senior, recently returned from a year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In happier days: Three generations of the Toltz family at the 1983 AIPAC conference dinner. From left: Shelly Toltz, Israel Toltz (grandfather) and Warren Toltz (father)Credit: Ken Toltz

As I listened to Amitay, suddenly it became clear: With my political interests, experience and background, as someone who loved and supported Israel, I should move to Washington D.C. after graduation and go to work for AIPAC. Which is what I did.

In that now bygone era, AIPAC had a very small, modestly paid professional staff; my starting salary as an entry-level legislative assistant was $10,000/year. The professional staff was assisted by a national network of grassroots supporters of Israel numbering about 10,000. None of the legislative staff were identifiable Republicans; Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and the Democratic Party had majority control over both the House and Senate.

The watchword then for AIPAC was effective. Quick on its feet, always prepared with facts, low-profile except in its success building a distinguished reputation and strong relationships among Washington insiders.

The 1980 Reagan "Republican revolution" election caught AIPAC, like everyone else, ill-prepared. Democrats had lost control of the U.S. Senate, yielding the largest Republican gain since the 1940s. A tremendous shift happened nearly overnight. Suddenly, AIPAC had to retool by working out how to lobby all those new Republican U.S. Senators who represented states all over the country – and with new messaging.

Speaking to Republicans about the U.S.-Israel relationship, required identifying common ground and a common language differing from well-used appeals to progressive Democrats for the past 30 years. And there was another major shift that AIPAC had to negotiate: The Republican win of 1980 was fueled by a very large, newly politically active Christian evangelical religious community, who loved Israel and wanted to see it thrive.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem BeginCredit: PMO

AIPAC began highlighting Israel’s role holding off Soviet influence in the Middle East, promoting it as a "strategic asset and bulwark of democracy" in the region, and the protector of religious freedom in the Holy Land and of the Christian holy places.

AIPAC set about a nation-wide effort to grow its grassroots base of pro-Israel citizen advocates, and put specific emphasis on finding and training pro-Israel Republicans in the fine art of constituent lobbying. It hired the organization's first identifiable Republican lobbyist. AIPAC soon discovered that it was no longer necessary to exclusively look toward American Jews as AIPAC Republican activists reached out to pro-Israel Christians to make them feel welcome as members, contributors and activists.

The effort paid off: AIPAC ballooned from a relatively small grassroots membership base of 10,000 to ten times that size supported by a national support staff over the next 20 years.

AIPAC had successfully adapted to new political realities. But the leadership always emphasized, both in-house and externally, that the foundation of U.S. Congressional support for Israel was, and must be, bipartisan.

No one can claim that since the 1980 GOP wave, AIPAC hasn’t continued to be effective. By far, the most significant element of American support for Israel is money, which President Carter had already vastly increased after the Camp David Accords to billions in U.S. foreign aid for both military and economic assistance. With a Democratic House majority, a Republican Senate majority and deficit hawk President Reagan in the White House, bipartisan support to pass the foreign assistance bill was vital. And AIPAC worked both sides of the aisle to achieve those results.

Over the past 40 years Israel has received a combined total of over $100 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance, in which AIPAC takes justifiable pride in helping get authorized, appropriated and signed into law, and always advocated in America’s best interest. The U.S. commitment to financial aid to Israel has been anchored upon the oft-stated commitment to ensure that Israel would always maintain a qualitative military edge over the surrounding Arab states with much larger populations.

President Barack Obama speaks at the AIPAC convention in Washington D.C. on May 22, 2011, calling the bonds between the U.S. and Israel "unbreakable"Credit: AP

Before leaving office in 2016, President Obama approved a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, promising $38 billion in U.S. military assistance to Israel. That’s the same President Obama widely derided in Israel for his falsely perceived anti-Israel bias. Indeed, the roots of the recent distressing events began in those years, when Republicans demonized President Obama for everything and anything imaginable, setting the stage for the nasty personalized jarring politics of today.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by this month's ugly personal and divisive AIPAC Facebook ad campaign targeting Congressional Democrats. Facebook ads are targeted to people with specific demographic profiles and interests. AIPAC’s social media advertising, a spokesperson explained, was "calling on pro-Israel Democrats to stand up against a minority of those in the party who seek to weaken our relationship with Israel."

Yet, despite, or because of, my personal familiarity with AIPAC's history, I was taken by surprise. It appears to me that AIPAC has now fully adapted to - and adopted - the divisive politics of our times, and I find myself compelled once again to speak out.

In comparison to everything AIPAC has ever expressed publicly over its 50-year existence, going after sitting members of Congress - including featuring photos and party affiliation, making wild comparisons between Democratic congresswomen and Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS, and accusing "radicals in the Democratic Party" of "pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people" – strikes me as a vast departure from AIPAC’s previously proven fundamentally bipartisan stance.

Deploying very stark language, naming the Democratic Party, picturing three Democratic congresswomen (two of whom are freshmen) and throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism and of being "more sinister" than international terrorist groups is jarring at best. And although AIPAC subsequently pulled the Facebook ad and issued an apology via Twitter, labeling their own ad "imprecise, poorly worded, inflammatory…that distorted our message" a spokesperson still explained the ad was "popular with our target audience."

Nowhere in the AIPAC apology or explanation, however, did the words "mistake," "error," "not the way we think, talk or believe within our organization" appear. In fact the ad-linked online petition is still live and currently states, "radicals in Congress are threatening the U.S.-Israel relationship by reducing or cutting aid and military assistance, encouraging the boycott of Israeli companies, and using plainly anti-Semitic language." An earlier version included these inflammatory, if not defamatory lines: "It’s critical that we protect our Israeli allies especially as they face threats from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and - maybe more sinister - right here in the U.S. Congress."

Just a day after the ad came to light, another related incident gave the national media a large dose of the worst possible public perception of this "new" AIPAC.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks in a campaign event in Derry, New Hampshire, February 06, 2020. Credit: AFP

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren was challenged by a dissident Jewish activist at a televised New Hampshire town-meeting not to attend next month’s AIPAC Policy Conference in protest: "I’m an American Jew and I’m terrified by the unholy alliance that AIPAC is forming with Islamophobes and anti-Semites and white nationalists and no Democrat should legitimize that kind of bigotry by attending their annual policy conference, I’m really grateful that you skipped the AIPAC conference last year and so my question is if you’ll join me in committing to skip the AIPAC conference this March." To which Sen. Warren replied: "Yes."

AIPAC is celebrated for its sophistication. The organization knows that in the current environment, where American Jews are being targeted, assaulted, hunted and shot by real anti-Semites, throwing that same label at a couple of freshmen Democratic members of Congress critical of Israeli policy is inflammatory, and perhaps dangerous.

A Facebook ad prompting the reader to sign a petition is a membership and fundraising device, and if it was indeed "popular" with the "target audience," AIPAC is touting its pride in and identification with blatantly partisan attack ads guaranteed, if not designed to, unnerve a substantial number of Democrats. Increasing membership and raising money via fear-based appeals targeting Democrats …associating congresswomen to the very terrorist organizations against whom AIPAC seeks America's help to defend Israel from…how did AIPAC fall so far off track?

Previously AIPAC was very reluctant to participate in American party politics, other than the quadrennial national Republican and Democratic Party platform committee drafting meetings. Never publicly with an ad campaign seeking to turn Democrats against each other – and Republicans against Democrats - based on perceived lack of support for Israel. Breaking with the traditional messaging and methods of building friends, members, contributors and activists with positive inspiring appeals that were above party politics were wiped away with a Facebook ad, and to what end?

Then-Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the AIPAC policy convention in Washington D.C. March 21, 2016Credit: Joshua Roberts / REUTERS

All this raises the broader implications indicated by this new public change of course for this 2020 election year and beyond.

It’s well known that AIPAC has unsuccessfully competed with JStreet to claim the title of home of progressive pro-Israel Jews, while also facing a determined and well-funded challenge on the right from the Sheldon Adelson-funded, Trump-attended Israeli-American Council. This new communications strategy raises the risk that AIPAC appears simultaneously confused and politically expedient, and all the while playing into the politics of demonization and division that the Trump Republican party has made a destructive artform.

AIPAC, once tightly attuned to nuance and to its mission, has failed to recognize that playing to the tune of the current politically divisive environment is not only out of sync with its long held values, but aligns AIPAC with Trumpian tactics.

That in itself is a foolish move for an organization seeking the support of U.S. Jews, the vast majority of whom entirely oppose Trump's angry, bullying style. AIPAC members, who understand the organization's deep, positive relationships in Congress, through the decades and back its pro-Israel mission, are shocked to hear they're being accused of membership in a "hate group."

What AIPAC did in the midst of the Democratic primary brought unneeded attention to minor differences on the U.S.- Israel relationship held by a very few influential Democrats, while playing directly in favor of those seeking to sew discord within the party. AIPAC seems to have forgotten its experience of just a generation ago: GOP majorities can turn into Democrat majorities overnight, which is why it held so tightly to bipartisanship over the decades

It's not yet clear if it's already too late for AIPAC to pull back and change course. The organization must be thanking the scheduling stars that this year's policy conference coincides with Super Tuesday, so whether Democratic presidential hopefuls will actually turn up is a moot question. The departure from its longheld bipartisan tradition, however, means AIPAC is under the microscope- and lifetime supporters like me are already on edge, wondering if AIPAC can ever recover its bearings.

Ken Toltz, a third generation Colorado native, businessman, 2000 Democratic congressional nominee and long-time gun violence prevention activist, worked at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. from 1979–1982. Last year he relocated to Mitzpe Ramon, in Israel’s Negev. Twitter: @Ktoltz

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