To many casual observers of Washington politics, the news that AIPAC was, for the first time in its history, going to be contributing directly to candidates by forming two political action committees came as a surprise. Many familiar with the name of the pro-Israel lobby and its reputation as a formidable force on Capitol Hill, though not how the organization operated, probably assumed it had been making financial contributions to those running for the House of Representatives and the Senate all along.
The PAC at the end of its acronym stood for “public affairs committee,” not “political action committee”—an expression that didn’t come into vogue until long after the group was brought into existence in 1963. The lobby was focused on mobilizing activists throughout the nation to work to influence their local representatives and senators, as well as those aspiring politicians who might someday replace them to understand the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance and why it deserved their support.
The model, self-consciously bipartisan, sought to build a consensus that stretched across party and ideological lines. And for a long time, it worked.
Many of Israel’s enemies exaggerated the power of the lobby and spoke of it as if it were some sort of conspiracy actively engaged in an effort to push legislators to act against the best interests of the United States. That myth of AIPAC as a Capitol Hill heavyweight that the mighty feared to offend persists, as we can see from the comments made by former President Donald Trump when, in typical hyperbolic style, he claimed in an interview that the lobby used to have “absolute power” over Congress.
The truth remains that AIPAC’s clout was always dwarfed by that of many business lobbies, like that of the pharmaceutical industry, as well as those who supported the interests of the oil business and its Arab allies. And when presidents—like Ronald Reagan over the AWACS plane sale to Saudi Arabia in 1981 or Barack Obama on the Iran nuclear deal in 2015—were determined to defeat it, they almost always did so.
While the ability of pro-Israel donors organized by AIPAC to gain the friendship of politicians certainly helped the cause, that wasn’t the real reason for the organization’s success. If Israel was, and to this day remains, largely popular on Capitol Hill, it is because the overwhelming majority of the American people like Israel, dislike its foes and want their leaders to reflect those sentiments. Had that not been the case, then no amount of campaign contributions would have convinced Congress otherwise. And if you don’t think that’s true, then just ask the tobacco industry how much help its massive political spending availed them once public opinion turned on them after knowledge of the dangers of smoking became widespread.
Moreover, despite the slurs slung at the lobby by anti-Zionists and anti-Semites like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—“It’s all about the Benjamins”—AIPAC’s role in fundraising was always indirect. The group scored members of Congress on their willingness to support the Jewish state and the alliance with the United States. But that information was never publicized. AIPAC activists were mobilized by the group to lobby Congress; however, the fundraising, whether by individuals or PACs, was someone else’s job.
Why then is AIPAC now getting directly involved in the business of contributing to candidates? It can be partially explained by the way the proliferation of PACs has undermined the ability of the group to help lead Israel’s supporters. Yet the problem goes deeper than that.
In the current hyper-partisan era in which it is difficult, if not impossible, for members of Congress to work across party lines on any issue, the old model isn’t working that well.
Part of that involves the need for those with a more global perspective on the issues, rather than those with strictly partisan objectives, to get involved in actively promoting the interests of those candidates who will support Israel and oppose efforts to downgrade or discard the alliance. AIPAC, a group that is oriented towards seeing the big picture with respect to how Washington operates, needs a more hands-on approach to that aspect of activism that they used to distance themselves from.
In theory, that should enable AIPAC—an organization dedicated to getting large numbers of Democrats and Republicans on board with the pro-Israel agenda—to become more effective in its advocacy on key issues.
But the key question is not whether pro-Israel groups should be actively seeking to help those who are willing to stand with the Jewish state. Of course, they should. Nor should anyone be under the impression that doing so is wrong. The essence of democracy is holding those in power accountable, and the only way to do that in American politics is by supporting those who listen to the pro-Israel majority and doing their best to oppose those who seek to undermine the consensus in its favor.
The real issue is who AIPAC and others who align with the pro-Israel movement will be supporting.
Republicans who were once divided on Israel have, in the last few decades, become a lockstep pro-Israel party with virtually little or no dissent within their congressional caucuses. By contrast, Democrats are deeply divided on Israel. Their activist base, which buys into intersectional myths about Israel being a manifestation of white privilege and colonialism, has shifted to the hard left. While outnumbered in the Democrats’ congressional caucus, “The Squad” of leftists led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Omar have gained the sympathy of the far larger Progressive Caucus. Even worse, the divide within the Democrats is largely generational. It’s not hard to imagine that in the future, when octogenarian House leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) retire, the Democratic leadership will be a lot less sympathetic to Israel.
Just as important is the fact that many Democrats, including those who claim to be Israel’s “guardians”—like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York—prize partisan loyalty over their principles. That’s what led the overwhelming majority of them to support the dangerous Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and there’s little evidence that the same bunch will do much to resist any further appeasement of Tehran by the Biden administration.
So it’s reasonable to ask what the true definition of “pro-Israel” is at a moment when that designation is fairly loosely applied to some Democrats. That includes not only those who are traditional friends of the Jewish state but who are nowhere to be found when it comes to opposing their own party’s leadership on issues like Iran. It’s fair to wonder what it actually means when it’s applied to people like Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a member of the now expanded “Squad” who visited Israel and claims that he supports its existence, but takes stands that are antithetical to its survival and supportive of its foes.
The same question applies to some left-wing Jewish Democrats like Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) who speaks to groups like the anti-Zionist IfNotNow and downplays the threat of left-wing Jew-hatred while boasting of his friendship with anti-Semites like Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
AIPAC is right to continue to push for support for Israel on both sides of the aisle. Still, bipartisanship is not the only value. The options for pro-Israel activists in many deep blue districts may be unpromising, but it’s imperative that the movement make it clear that it will oppose all those whose positions put them more in the anti-Israel camp than among its supporters. AIPAC’s new fundraising efforts deserve the good wishes and support of friends of the Jewish state. The challenge going forward, however, is whether those efforts—from the lobby or other similarly-minded groups—are directed towards promoting genuine allies, regardless of their party label.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.