As the annual AIPAC conference convened this week in Washington, the lobby’s status as the lightening rod for the pro-Israel community was more in evidence than ever before. Attacks on the group have escalated in recent weeks after both 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 had grown too close to U.S. 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 with the group.
The lobby was unable to rally sufficient support from members of Congress who claimed to be friends of AIPAC to stop President Barack Obama’s 2015 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 vicious anti-Semitic attacks on both AIPAC and her Jewish colleagues. The same party leaders who were bulldozed by Omar, Tlaib and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are being given their usual warm reception at AIPAC. That’s infuriating to those who not unreasonably 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.
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 speak up to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s maneuver by which a party led by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane might make it into the Knesset in order to consolidate the right-wing vote and enhance his chances for re-election.
Still, the argument that AIPAC has become irrelevant to pro-Israel advocacy is mistaken. Just like liberals who have wrongly interpreted the lobby’s 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 against the 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 both left and right under the pro-Israel umbrella. That mission is not as satisfying as an ideologically pure approach that treats everyone as either friend or enemy with no gray area in between.
AIPAC is far too squeamish at times when it comes to its leaders or donors expressing opinions that might outrage either the left or the right. But those are the sorts of errors that are inevitable at any umbrella group where the leaders must always make an effort to keep the tent as big as possible.
Its mission is not the same as advocacy for one camp in Israel or one political faction in the United States, even when those stances are the most sensible. After all, if you are interested in preserving as much of a bipartisan consensus on Israel as possible, that inevitably is going to mean a willingness to forgive members of Congress that stray on key votes. It also means understanding that seeking to welcome Democrats and trying to strengthen their pro-Israel members, rather than writing them all off as an already hopelessly Corbynized band of radicals and anti-Semites, is absolutely necessary.
Evangelicals and other Christian conservatives are key to preserving the overwhelming 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 both political liberals and members of the non-Orthodox denominations. These groups still make up, along with the unaffiliated, about 90 percent of American Jewry. Those who want a more ideological AIPAC shouldn’t dismiss or needlessly alienate the bulk of the Jewish community.
That’s why 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 last ditch to prevent that from happening, not to accept it or to focus solely on pleasing the 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.
That’s why the 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’s still an essential element to the pro-Israel advocacy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.