For decades, AIPAC made a point of distinguishing itself from political action committees (PACs) that make campaign contributions. AIPAC always said it does not rate or endorse candidates, even though it was no secret who the organization supported and its supporters made their donations accordingly. It came as a shock then to receive an email from AIPAC’s president announcing a plan to launch two bipartisan PACS—a federal PAC and a Super PAC—“to make us more effective in fulfilling our mission in the current political environment.”
I was not privy to the AIPAC board’s discussions, but I suspect the decision was in part a reaction to the hostility towards Israel of newer members of Congress and the need to provide financial support to pro-Israel members and candidates. AIPAC is also likely to be responding to the campaign fundraising activities of J Street, which contributed more to candidates in the 2020 election cycle than any “pro-Israel PAC”—nearly $2.7 million.
Given that AIPAC raises more than $100 million for its organizational budget and claims more than 1.5 million members, including many major donors to political campaigns, its PACs can be expected to become the most significant contributors to pro-Israel candidates. The new AIPAC PAC can give up to $5,000 to a candidate, which is not likely to influence any race. The Super PAC, however, may donate an unlimited amount of money to support or oppose candidates but none directly to them.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)’s comment that “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” was anti-Semitic because it intimated that politicians support Israel solely because of campaign contributions rather than a belief that our countries share interests and values. Pro-Israel Americans have a right to contribute money to politicians whose views are consistent with their own, and Benjamins are required to help candidates who believe in the special relationship with Israel to be elected and stay in office. This is no different than other interest groups and industries, which spend much more than pro-Israel PACs, that contribute to politicians who support their causes.
So, how much is contributed to pro-Israel candidates?
According to OpenSecrets, more than $176 million was contributed by pro-Israel PACS and individuals since 1990. Among the 80 industries in the database, the pro-Israel category ranked only 52nd. By comparison, the pharmaceutical and health products industry, which ranked first, contributed more than $315 million in 2020 alone.
More than $33 million was contributed to the 2020 election cycle—$27.6 million by individuals and $3.3 million by PACs. That was more than double any previous cycle. We won’t know if this is a trend or was a function of the level of interest in the 2020 presidential election until 2024.
It is not easy to identify the pro-Israel political action committees since many have innocuous names such as the Maryland Association for Concerned Citizens or the Desert Caucus. Nevertheless, OpenSecrets has identified a total of 85 pro-Israel PACs (they include J Street) that have given money in at least one election cycle starting in 1990. Sixteen have made contributions in every one of these cycles.
Though J Street didn’t form a PAC until 2008, it has been by far the largest campaign contributor with $14.5 million. NorPAC is a distant second with $8.1 and the National PAC third with donations of $4.5 million, and both have been contributing for each of the last 16 cycles.
In the 2020 cycle, only the Republican Jewish Coalition gave more money than J Street—$3.1 million, which included nearly $1.8 million that went to conservative groups rather than directly to candidates. Overall, as I noted in my earlier article on J Street, pro-Israel contributors outspent J Street by more than 10 to 1.
According to the American Jewish Committee, roughly 50 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats and 18 percent as Republicans. Consequently, it is not surprising that 63 percent of 2020 contributions went to Democrats (J Street gave all its money to Democrats). More than might be expected (36 percent) was donated to Republicans. This is largely explained by the interest in supporting pro-Israel Republican incumbents.
In fact, five of the top 10, and eight of the top 20 recipients of pro-Israel contributions in 2020 were Republicans, including Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Joe Biden was the top recipient with more than $3.7 million. He was followed by David Perdue (R-Ga.) who received more than $1 million for the tight Senate race he lost to Jon Ossoff, who was fourth on the list with nearly $650,000. Between them was Donald Trump who received just under $900,000.
What about the pro-Arab/Muslim lobby?
As I’ve written before, the anti-Israel crowd is frustrated that the public and, with few exceptions, elected officials do not buy what they’re selling. They do not see Israel as the root of all evil in the Middle East; they are not sympathetic to the Palestinians; they do not support the agenda to destroy Israel; and they don’t have a following to match the pro-Israel community’s involvement in the political process.
The Jewish population of the United States is 7.3 million. By comparison, the Palestinian population was 83,000 in 2010 according to the Census Bureau. More than 485,000 Americans are of Lebanese ancestry, and most of them are Christians who are unsympathetic to the Palestinian cause after having been terrorized by the PLO in Lebanon.
OpenSecrets does not have a pro-Arab/Muslim category anymore; nevertheless, I identified 17 pro-Arab/Muslim PACs that have made campaign contributions since 1992. Only five of these made donations, totaling less than $100,000, in 2020, down from $260,000 in 2018. The largest donor at $60,000 was the Iranian American PAC. The next largest was Free Syria’s $16,100.
Contributions can certainly make a difference in campaigns but they are by no means a guarantee of victory. In the last election, for example, it is likely that pro-Israel donors helped Shontel Brown defeat Nina Turner despite being outspent, but they could not unseat members of “The Squad” (the fifth-highest recipient of pro-Israel money lost in the Democratic primary in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District to Ilhan Omar) or save Eliot Engel (the eighth highest recipient of pro-Israel money) from being replaced by someone who became associated with “The Squad” (and received money from J Street).
Still, no one argues that spending less money will help a candidate. If, as expected, the AIPAC PACs significantly increase the amount of money available for campaign contributions, it will be possible to support more pro-Israel politicians and put more money towards specific campaigns. The opportunity for candidates to build their war chest gives them an incentive to be pro-Israel, especially given the paucity of pro-Arab funds. It remains to be seen how much difference it will make to electoral outcomes. What is certain is that AIPAC will become the 800-pound gorilla in campaign financing for supporters of Israel.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”