Writing about AIPAC, on a day when seven Israelis were hurt by a missile shot indiscriminately toward Israeli cities by Hamas. Outraged, and praying for their healing.
This week’s AIPAC Policy Conference is a gathering of about 18,000 people in Washington, DC. Many of the candidates for president on the Democratic side made a public show of staying away, and MoveOn.org called on all of them to do so, stating that AIPAC is nowhere that a progressive should be. (Sen. Cory Booker was there; I'll update this post if I hear of others.)
To me this is both a slander, and as far as leading Democratic candidates are concerned, a political blunder.
I have a few things to fill in about AIPAC, as someone who has been and is involved in the group. I am not registered with either political party in the U.S., and I do align in Israeli society with groups working on coexistence and peace, particularly within a Jewish religious framework. I wanted to add some data to the picture, particular for those more on the left, and to explain my more-than-frustration with the posture of the Democratic presidential candidates.
AIPAC is not a “PAC”, a political campaign fundraising organization. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a grassroots lobbying organization. It was founded long before political action committees (“PACs”) became a big thing. The idea that AIPAC could be targeting officeholders and candidates is an absolute lie.
The influence AIPAC members have comes far more through citizen activism than paid lobbying activities. Obviously there is a synergy between the two – but other major lobbies, such as AARP and the NRA, rely to a much greater extent on paid staff than AIPAC does and have much larger budgets. People who support other big lobbies give more and maybe much more to campaigns than people who support AIPAC, from figures I have been able to find.
The basic premise of AIPAC is “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”
AIPAC is a coalition. The group has hewn to a strategy of bipartisanship, working with administrations of both parties and trying to build equal support in both parties for congressional policymaking and resolutions. If you look at the U.S. senators and representatives who are speaking this week at AIPAC, a bit more than half are Democrats. Maybe this is meant to balance out the presence of members of the administration. The leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate are on the program.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was slated, before he had to return to Israel. And today his main opponent in next month’s Israeli election, Benny Gantz, spoke, and didn't hold back from distingushing himself from the prime minister.
It’s a coalition in terms of AIPAC members’ outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You wouldn’t know from the news, but “Two states for two people” is the first “talking point” on AIPAC’s web page about the peace process. I don’t know exactly how many AIPAC members or conference participants want a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians ardently, passively, or not at all. I think all three groups are substantial.
This week’s conference includes programs featuring thought leaders and activists working on all the challenges of Israeli society. There are so many of Israel’s leading idealists, for whom Israel is a lab for Jewish values in action.
The wide spectrum of Israeli perspectives at AIPAC, on the official program, isn’t window dressing. Like Rabbi Susan Silverman, who advocates dramatically as an Israeli for African asylum seekers and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. And Yehuda Kurtzer, from the Shalom Hartman Institute, a think-tank doing incredible work on social thought, ethics, and Muslim-Jewish relations.
I am not saying of course that AIPAC itself is a progressive or a Democratic group. There are plenty of people aligned with the Israeli right and center-right who are speaking at AIPAC and who are there. What I’m saying is that if you are running for president, you shouldn’t buy into lazy thinking about any group in our society. That’s what it is to write off AIPAC members as a partisan interest group. Obviously, you should not buy into worse, into anti-Semitic stereotypes.
This is exactly a group of people that Democratic candidates for president ought to want to engage. Boycotting the conference is a blunder, and one that’s not going to fade away.
For one thing, there are tons of Democrats within AIPAC who are active on all kinds of issues. They are waiting to pick a campaign to get involved in -- and weighing whether to stay on the sidelines.
For another, if the candidates are serious about a foreign policy in the Middle East based on measurable achievements in human rights, there are many people within AIPAC who want to hear what they have to say, in depth. If Palestinian lives are a core issue, then surely a candidate for office knows they will never improve without the partnership of the governments of both Israel and the United States. What are the elements of a progressive and effective approach for American leadership, a strategy for one of the world’s most difficult regions?
I would think that skilled candidate could have mingled, attended the breakouts, networked, held their side gatherings, found ways to communicate about their perspectives in the framework of peace and security for all..
I am looking to see if the Democrats vying to be leaders are going to re-engage – for their own political self-interest, for the security interests of America, and for the good of Israelis and of Palestinians.