How AIPAC Betrayed Its Former Support for Democracy

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How AIPAC Betrayed Its Former Support for Democracy

By Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

Back in the early 1980s, I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, active in its Hillel Jewish student center and its student chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). My first AIPAC campaign was aimed at stopping the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia by the United States. AIPAC opposed the sale on grounds that it endangered America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East.

Later, after I became a rabbi serving as a Hillel student center director, I continued to work with AIPAC, believing in its mission to build U.S. support for Israel on the basis of what we understood to be both nations’ democratic values. In those days this was not particularly controversial or partisan. Even those AIPAC supporters concerned by the lengthening years of the occupation viewed U.S. support for Israel’s security as inviolable. In any case, for those who opposed the occupation, the Oslo Accords pointed to its imminent end.

Following the second Intifada, all hope for ending the occupation crashed as Netanyahu and Israel’s nationalist right began their slow but sure ascent to power. While the U.S. continued to support a two-state solution, our own “war on terror” distracted us from any real efforts in that direction. In 2009 Binyamin Netanyahu rose to power again at the same time as Barak Obama entered the White House. The new president was as committed to re-engaging the U.S. in bringing about a two-state solution as Netanyahu was opposed to it. Taking advantage of growing American partisan polarization, the Israeli leader actively engaged Republicans to put an end to Obama’s efforts. Republicans were more than happy to participate, setting their sights on an ever more hawkish AIPAC as one more tool to fight the president. It was not a complete takeover. Centrist Democratic supporters of Israel continued their relationship with the organization. (Jewish institutional support frequently demands it.) Yet today there is little question that the price of AIPAC approval is unquestioning support for aid to Israel and radio silence about the occupation. Republicans need little convincing of that.

I am long past my years of cooperating with AIPAC. Nevertheless, I defended it on at least one occasion. In early 2019, when Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted that support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins,” I joined those who condemned her statement as antisemitic (she later apologized). With respect to AIPAC, the implicit target of her tweet, many things may have gone awry but not the fact that it had never endorsed or contributed to a campaign. This was always a point of pride with the organization. They were there to educate. The “PAC” in the name stood for “Public Affairs Committee,” not “Political Action Committee.” There were no Benjamins involved.

That all changed this year when AIPAC founded the United Democracy Project (UDP) to endorse candidates and channel dark money to support them. The name is an irony-laden throwback to AIPAC’s clearly abandoned pretense that U.S. support for Israel is justified by any shared democratic values. Dozens of the Republicans receiving UDP support have confirmed their disdain for American democracy by supporting Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Some have pointed to AIPAC’s support for some Democrats as proof of their continuing bipartisan approach. And it is true that there are some Democratic who benefit from their largesse. Where there is little hope of a Republican victory, they funnel their dark money to those Democrats who pose little danger to Israel’s status quo on the occupation. Yet this is no great demonstration of their respect for our democratic process. Perhaps the best example is the race for Michigan’s new Eleventh District pitting Rep. Haley Stevens against Rep. Andy Levin. The UDP is said to have invested more than $4 million in the primary that will most likely decide who goes to Congress. 

Rep. Stevens, whose positions on many things I tend to support, is as close to an ally as AIPAC can find in the Democratic party these days, willing to continue uncritical support for Israel and remain silent about the unending occupation. I don’t know whether Rep. Stevens truly cares one whit about Israel. I do know that when it comes to this issue she seems to care a great deal about “the Benjamins.” Her acceptance of AIPAC-UDP support may not rise to the level of the Republican Big Lie, but neither is it any great endorsement of democratic values.

Rep. Levin, on the other hand, is a self-declared Zionist and “way out there Jewish person.” He has mezuzas on his office doors and has served as president of his synagogue. There is no question that he cares deeply about the Jewish state. Yet like many liberal Zionists, he is also pro-Palestinian, actively working for the fulfillment of long-standing U.S. support for two states. To that end, he authored the “Two-State Solution” bill which, as described by J-Street (the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby), “directs the federal government to take steps that will help preserve conditions for, and improve the likelihood of, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” For his efforts, he has been vilified by AIPAC. In an email to Jews in the district, its former head David Victor called him “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship”. 

So here we find AIPAC transformed. Where once stood a lobby that emphasized what it described as Israel’s and America’s shared democratic values – never endorsing or contributing to candidates – now stands an organization committed to a right-wing vision of Israel in permanent control of the occupied territories. In service to the occupation, today’s AIPAC is willing to debase our democracy by any legal means possible, whether channeling support to Democrats who silently acquiesce to the occupation or, worse, endorsing dozens of Republicans who have as little interest in justice for the Middle East as they do in democracy for America.

There is a word in Yiddish that perfectly describes AIPAC’s disgraceful betrayal of its previously self-stated democratic values. That word is shanda.

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