As the annual AIPAC conference convened this week in Washington, the lobby’s status as a lightning rod for the pro-Israel community was more in evidence than ever before. Attacks on the group have escalated in recent weeks, after Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — the sole pair of BDS supporters in Congress — launched anti-Semitic attacks aimed at isolating and delegitimizing the lobby and the pro-Israel community in general.
This, in turn, led to a chorus of abuse aimed at AIPAC from both anti-Zionists and liberal Jewish groups that AIPAC is trying to silence critics of the Israeli government, or has grown too close to President Donald Trump and the political right.
But those wrongheaded liberals, as well as those seeking to depict AIPAC as a sinister manipulator of U.S. foreign policy, aren’t the only critics of the group. Some other supporters of Israel have also lost patience.
The lobby was unable to rally support from members of Congress to stop President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. That was bad enough. But its unwillingness to attack or seek to defeat those who disappointed the pro-Israel community on an issue that most activists regarded as a matter of life and death was a source of bitter frustration.
The same dynamic is now playing out in the aftermath of the fiasco in which the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives essentially gave Omar a pass for anti-Semitic attacks on AIPAC and her Jewish colleagues. The same party leaders who were bulldozed by Omar, Tlaib and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens are being given their usual warm reception at AIPAC.
To those who point out that the Democratic Party is not only increasingly divided on Israel, but that its activist base seems to have been captured by leftists who buy into false intersectional theories that demonize Israel and its American Jewish supporters, that is infuriating.
Moreover, the shift in the way that U.S. military aid to Israel is funded — from an annual budget vote to a 10-year-agreement negotiated by the Obama administration — also eliminates one of the functions that defined the lobby for decades.
Aggravating the frustration of some of its critics was AIPAC’s willingness to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s maneuver by which a party led by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane might make into the Knesset in order to consolidate the right-wing vote and enhance his chances for reelection.
But the argument that AIPAC has become irrelevant is mistaken. Just like liberals who have wrongly interpreted its willingness to embrace right-wingers who love Israel as proof that it is a Republican front, so too does the right get it wrong when it blasts as AIPAC as a weak sister for refusing to go to war with Democrats.
Both ends of the political spectrum simply don’t understand what AIPAC does and why, their criticisms notwithstanding, it is still doing its job.
AIPAC has always sought to be a consensus organization that united left and right under the pro-Israel umbrella. That mission is not as satisfying as an ideologically pure approach that treats everyone as either friends or enemies with no grey area in between.
I think AIPAC is too squeamish at times when it comes to leaders or donors expressing opinions that might outrage either left or right. But those are the sorts of errors that are inevitable in any umbrella group where the leaders must keep the tent as big as possible.
AIPAC’s mission is not the same as advocacy for one camp in Israel or one political faction in the United States, even when those positions are the most sensible. But if you are interested in preserving a bipartisan consensus on Israel, that inevitably is going to mean a willingness to forgive members of Congress who stray on key votes. It also means understanding welcoming Democrats and trying to strengthen their pro-Israel members rather than writing them all off as a hopelessly Corbynized band of radicals is absolutely necessary.
Evangelicals and other Christian conservatives are key to preserving support for Israel in the United States. It’s also true that Orthodox Jews and the small minority of American Jews who identify as political conservatives are the most reliable supporters of Israel within the Jewish community. Both groups make up an ever-larger percentage of the activists who show up at the annual conference.
But that doesn’t mean AIPAC should act in ways that unnecessarily alienate political liberals and members of the non-Orthodox denominations that still make up, along with the unaffiliated, about 90 percent of American Jewry.
AIPAC was well within its rights to denounce the possibility of Kahanists getting into the Knesset. Standing up against racism is necessary to preserve the pro-Israel tent, even if some Israelis view the issue differently.
It may be that the rise of Omar and her friends is the prelude to the collapse of liberal Zionism and the bipartisan consensus. But it is AIPAC’s job to fight to the end to prevent that from happening, not to accept it or to focus on pleasing conservatives whose support is not in question. Nor could it be as effective as it has been in helping to mobilize support for anti-BDS laws in Congress if it did.
Complaints from the right are as off the mark as those of the left. Those who want to sideline AIPAC don’t understand that as frustrating as a consensus big tent group may be, it is still an essential element to the pro-Israel advocacy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.