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Understanding what AIPAC does — and what AIPAC needs to do

Rabbi David M. Glickman

I remember my first AIPAC national Policy Conference my freshman year at University of Michigan in 1992. We rode all night in a bus from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C., to join the hundreds of other student delegates and thousands of adult delegates to lobby our members of Congress on the importance of the United States–Israel relationship.

In 1992, we were fighting the George H.W. Bush administration’s opposition of backing Israel’s loan guarantees.

How things have changed. In the early 1990s, the entire conference could fit inside the Washington Hilton. If there was a party-bias, it was against the first Republican Bush administration.

At the most recent Policy Conference, there were 18,000 delegates, including 4,000 college students. The perception within the Jewish community and the general community, is often that AIPAC is a right-wing, partisan organization.  

AIPAC’s greatest strength — and its steepest challenge — is that it is a one issue political lobbying organization. It only focuses on one issue: guaranteeing a strong U.S.-Israel relationship through America’s foreign policy. AIPAC supports foreign aid in general and to Israel in particular, and AIPAC is laser-focused on making sure that Israel has a qualitative military edge in the region.  

By having a narrow policy focus, AIPAC has the ability to cast a very wide net. AIPAC’s narrow focus on the physical security of Israel, and looking at this from the perception of our role as American voters, has the potential to bring many under its tent.

For me, this narrowness of focus allows me to have many different ways of helping Israel and the Jewish people — most of these organizations are outside of AIPAC. AIPAC is not the only way to engage Jewishly or to support Israel — it is one tool in a very rich tool-chest.

But, for lobbying Congress on a specific pro-Israel legislative agenda, I choose to support AIPAC.

To the chagrin of many politically active Jews, AIPAC takes no stance on American domestic issues. AIPAC also doesn’t try to influence Israeli policy. AIPAC sees Israel’s population as the people responsible for choosing Israel’s leaders and deciding Israel’s policies. This means that they don’t take any stance on the many issues about which many American Jews are passionate: American civil rights, American reproductive rights, settlements in the West Bank, or religious pluralism in Israel.

This means that at a Policy Conference, it is one of the few places where you are regularly speaking with people who share very different political views than yourself on a wide-range of issues. In a politically polarized world, this can be uncomfortable — but it is also invigorating. We see in Congress how members from different parties rarely speak to each other. On our Facebook feeds we tend to read and post with those who agree with us.  

But AIPAC is different. At AIPAC, it is possible to come together for one very narrow legislative agenda, even though you may have very disparate views on every other issue. This is why when I was there, I was able to hear Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (left wing) and Brett Stephens of the Wall Street Journal (right wing) being interviewed for a rabbinic communal conversation. I was able to engage with Ari Shavit (left-wing HaAretz columnist and author) and MK Stav Shaffir (Labor party). MK Isaac Herzog (Israel’s opposition leader) spoke in person, and Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke by video. Though the Republican presidential candidates made the news, there were so many speakers who were national Democratic leaders who were also very warmly received.

One reason for AIPAC’s effectiveness on Capitol Hill is that they talk with EVERYONE, and have relationships with both sides of the aisle. However, if AIPAC wants to continue to have this bi-partisan approach it needs self-awareness that right now, AIPAC has the perception of being predominantly right wing.

How to change? In three ways: 

1. AIPAC needs to educate the right wing that vocal partisan politics within AIPAC are a factor in keeping those on the left away. When the focus of collective conversation turns toward an individual party or a politician — and not pro-Israel policies — it can make Democrats feel that AIPAC is a Republican organization. 

2. Left of center AIPAC members need to work with the organization to keep AIPAC bi-partisan. Democrats cannot leave AIPAC and complain that it is not bi-partisan. Democratic voices in the pro-Israel community are what keep it bi-partisan.

3. AIPAC needs to work even harder on the outreach to the progressive community that it has already started through its engagement with progressive rabbis and progressive constituent groups.  

Though not everyone cheered Trump when he attacked our president, enough did to create a public spectacle seen by the world. By definition, those who scream are louder than those who remain silent. If the left and the center-left abandon AIPAC because of the right-wing members, it will be Israel that loses, and the pro-Israel community will become ever more splintered.  

When political support of Israel becomes a partisan wedge issue, it is Israel that gets the short end of the stick — not the individual parties that are arguing. Every political party is ultimately concerned about its own survival — not the survival of the Jewish state.

Administrations in Jerusalem come and go. Congresses and Knesset majorities swing between left and right. This is why we, as the American Jewish community, have an obligation to continue to make sure that support of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and its strong friendship with the United States is on the top of our agenda. Because if it isn’t, it won’t rise to the top of others’ agendas.

Rabbi David Glickman is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom.