Imagine that you run an organization devoted exclusively to a woman’s right to have an abortion. At election time, you identify candidates most committed to your cause and do whatever you can to help them get elected, including forming political action committees to help fund their campaigns.
There are thousands of such groups across America raising funds to help elect their candidates. This is not just perfectly legal and legitimate, it embodies the great American ideal of fighting for what you believe in. You won’t find any such group in Russia. If you’re a Russian citizen disgusted by your leader’s decision to invade Ukraine, you’re out of luck. Wrong country.
All this to say that the right to support candidates that best support your cause is one of the great things about living in a free country. Jewish activists across the board cherish and champion this right.
Some activists make an exception, though, when it comes to one group: AIPAC (the American Israel Political Affairs Committee), a venerable organization that believes passionately in strengthening the US-Israel relationship.
For its first 70 years, AIPAC stayed out of the political fray, relying mostly on building relationships in Congress rather than endorsing or contributing money to individual candidates. That changed last December, when it formed a PAC (Political Action Committee) and a super-PAC, called the United Democracy Project (UDP), that would allow AIPAC to directly fund candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — that best support its pro-Israel cause.
In short, they doubled down on their mission and did what thousands of other groups have done to help get candidates elected. End of story, right?
Well, not quite.
This “new AIPAC” did not go down well with certain people, who may not share AIPAC’s single-minded devotion to its cause. At first, some reacted with visceral anger — how could AIPAC support pro-Israel Republicans who have such deplorable positions on other issues?
What has played out in 2022, however, hasn’t been AIPAC running to the right. Rather, the big story has been AIPAC solidifying the pro-Israel left.
Take AIPAC’s support for Rep. Haley Stevens, a pro-Israel Democratic congresswoman from Michigan who worked for President Obama and has the backing of EMILY’s list, Hillary Clinton and local labor unions. She is a strong supporter of a two-state solution.
Her opponent in last week’s primary was Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a Jewish representative who has authored legislation that would place the Western Wall in “occupied Palestinian territory” on US government documents and open the door to political conditions on US aid to Israel, and who has frequently sided with some of the more anti-Israel members of Congress, such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich).
AIPAC decided to support Stevens rather than Levin, and Stevens won.
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What must be disconcerting AIPAC’s leftist critics is that so many of the candidates supported by AIPAC’s political action committees are classic liberal Democrats.
Here’s a quick rundown of the Democrats AIPAC supported:
Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) — a progressive black woman and a pro-Israel leader who, in last summer’s special congressional election, came back from being down 30 points to defeat Nina Turner, the candidate backed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Turner challenged Brown again this May, and with AIPAC and UDP’s support, she defeated Turner by 33 points.
Don Davis (D-NC) — a black Air Force veteran and Israel supporter. He was initially down 14 points to an Elizabeth Warren-backed candidate, Erica Smith, who was critical of Israel during the 2021 Gaza conflict and was one of only three North Carolina state senators to vote against the state’s anti-BDS bill. The pro-Israel community and UDP engaged in the race, and Davis overcame the deficit to win the primary by 32 points.
Valerie Foushee (D-NC) — a progressive, pro-Israel black woman. After initially polling at 17 percent, Foushee defeated by nine points Nida Allam, a pro-BDS candidate who blamed US aid to Israel for the conflict with the Palestinians.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) — a pro-Israel congressman who is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. His race against Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats-backed Jessica Cisneros came down to the wire, and Cuellar prevailed.
Morgan McGarvey (D-Ky.) — one of the youngest elected leaders in Kentucky’s history, defeated Attica Scott, who was outspoken in her criticism of Israel, including at a rally in Louisville in May 2021, where she condemned Israel’s defensive actions during the 2021 Gaza conflict.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) — a black man and vocal supporter in Congress of the US-Israel relationship. Scott defeated Vincent Fort, a candidate previously supported by Bernie Sanders.
Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) — Long Beach mayor, member of the LGBTQ+ community and Israel supporter. He defeated Cristina Garcia, who was the only state assemblywoman to oppose an anti-BDS bill in a 2016 committee vote and who expressed support for conditioning aid to Israel.
Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) — who has represented Nevada in Congress since 2009 and has worked closely with the pro-Israel community. She defeated Amy Vilela, a Bernie Sanders state campaign chair who endorsed the BDS campaign and advocated for stopping critical U.S.-Israel defense cooperation.
Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) — a black attorney and Israel supporter. After initially polling 21 points behind, Ivey came back to defeat by 16 points Donna Edwards, a former member of Congress who refused to vote with bipartisan majorities on pro-Israel legislation that affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense.
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Anyhow, you get the picture. AIPAC has identified Democratic candidates whom it believes will better strengthen the US-Israel relationship, and it’s doing what it can to help get them elected.
Of course, you can be pro-Israel and choose not to support any of those candidates. That is your right. J Street’s PAC did just that when it supported Donna Edwards and Andy Levin and many others. That is their right.
What is perplexing, though, is why AIPAC is not afforded the same right. Why is this one group in particular singled out for simply exercising its democratic right?
Levin himself accused AIPAC of going “completely off the rails” because “I won’t fall in line with their view of what it means to be pro-Israel.” Actually, it’s more like the reverse: It’s Levin who went off the rails because AIPAC wouldn’t fall in line with Levin’s view of what it means to be pro-Israel.
Much of the vitriol has come from J Street. In an article in The Guardian, a J Street spokesperson claimed that AIPAC and UDP were attempting to intimidate candidates into “feeling that they cannot offer good faith criticism of Israeli policy, that they cannot vocally support Palestinian rights,” adding that “it’s fundamentally anti-democratic when a group can influence this process in such a way.”
The weakness of this argument is three-fold. First, exercising a democratic right is hardly anti-democratic. Would it be OK to accuse J Street of being “fundamentally anti-democratic” just because you think it’s spending too much money on a candidate you don’t like?
The second weakness is the easy assumption of “good faith” criticism of Israel. The emergence in Congress of anti-Israel forces like the “Squad” makes this assumption more and more dubious. These anti-Israel players are not known for “good faith” criticism of Israel. They much prefer to play hardball and lobby the US government to pressure Israel, and if Israel doesn’t capitulate, to threaten to undermine Israel’s security assistance.
AIPAC has the right, if not the duty, to push back.
The third weakness is the nebulous meaning of “Palestinian rights.”
I’m a passionate believer in Palestinian rights. I’ve spent time in Palestinian refugee camps. I’ve listened to Palestinians tell me that their biggest enemy is not Israel but their corrupt leaders who couldn’t care less about their people’s welfare.
One can make the case that the best way for a member of Congress to promote “Palestinian rights” is to go after their leaders. History has shown that when one side glorifies terrorism, marinates its society in Jew-hatred and refuses to make peace with those they despise, it is folly to let them off the hook and pressure only the other side.
Israelis are well aware of the existential threats that surround them. When assessing its pro-Israel stance, AIPAC has every right to defer to Israel’s democratically elected government, including every right to not support candidates who only believe in pressuring Israel.
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What many leftist activists have missed is that Palestinian leaders have an enormous incentive to maintain the status quo. This status quo is what keeps Israel in a trap. As long as Palestinian leaders refuse to end the conflict, they can keep their lucrative victim status, spread BDS, fatten their Swiss bank accounts and take Israel to international criminal courts. What’s not to like?
For several decades, Palestinian leaders have heard Israel supporters say that a two-state solution would secure the future of Zionism by enabling Israel to remain a Jewish democracy. Has anyone asked: Why would the biggest haters of Zionism ever do anything to help save Zionism?
In other words, when leftist critics of AIPAC throw out glib phrases like “good faith criticism” and “Palestinian rights,” it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. It’s one thing to offer genuine criticism of Israeli policies; it’s quite another to ignore the Jew-hatred and corruption that lie at the heart of Palestinian intransigence and has contributed as much as anything to the undermining of Palestinian rights.
But all this is fodder for debates and op-eds. The crux of the issue is the obvious right of a pro-Israel group to form a PAC and super PAC and support the candidates of its choice.
On that front, AIPAC is in crowded company. According to OpenSecrets, a non-profit that tracks campaign financing, some 2,254 groups had organized as super PACs by July 25, and yet, somehow, AIPAC’s UDP is the only super PAC that has been put under such a microscope. Why?
In part, it’s because of the elephant in the room: For many in the leftist pro-Israel camp, Israel is simply not a top priority compared to other issues. Now that AIPAC is playing to win and leftist supporters are seeing their candidates lose, they’re throwing a hissy fit, and leftist media outlets, not surprisingly, are playing along.
What these AIPAC critics fail to appreciate is that the landscape has changed, and AIPAC has changed with it.
As Jonathan Tobin writes in JNS, “One of the main reasons why the far-left congressional ‘Squad’ exists is because extremist candidates, many allied with the Democratic Socialist Party, were able to steal a march on more centrist and establishment politicians who failed to take their challenges seriously.”
This year, AIPAC decided to take these challenges seriously by solidifying the pro-Israel left. This is consistent with AIPAC’s longtime mission to build bipartisan support for Israel, and, so far, it looks like it’s working. Its entry into the political arena has already helped 10 pro-Israel Democrats defeat candidates whom AIPAC deems are detrimental to the US-Israel relationship.
In this election cycle, the AIPAC PAC has contributed to 329 pro-Israel members of Congress and candidates, including the leadership on both sides of the aisle. Included among the 329 AIPAC PAC-supported candidates are 43 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, 27 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and 24 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
AIPAC has been candid about why it entered this tougher and more expensive political terrain.
“The DC political environment has been undergoing profound change,” AIPAC President Betsy Korn wrote in a letter announcing the move. “Hyper-partisanship, high congressional turnover, and the exponential growth in the cost of campaigns now dominate the landscape. As such, the Board has decided to introduce these two new [PACs].”
A revitalized AIPAC, long known for its savvy and discretion, is not even shying away from flaunting its early success.
Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC spokesperson, said that the PACs have achieved “extraordinary results in a short period of time. In just six months, AIPAC-PAC has established itself as the largest pro-Israel political action committee and has made a critical difference supporting successful pro-Israel candidates.”
He added that “Our PACs are also standing with pro-Israel progressive candidates because support for Israel is entirely consistent with progressive values. Bottom line: our political activity is demonstrating that being pro-Israel is good policy and good politics.”
The way I see it, however, AIPAC shouldn’t have to defend itself. It has every right to support candidates that best fit its pro-Israel mission, whether progressive or otherwise.
In terms of attracting more progressives to Israel, though, it’s worth noting that Israel’s booming innovation sector is addressing some of the most cherished causes in the progressive wheelhouse, from alternative energy to climate change to water conservation to food security. Regardless of what its critics say, Israel’s contributions to the planet will only grow with time, giving AIPAC another arrow in its progressive pro-Israel quiver.
For now, as terrorist bombs fall yet again on Israeli civilians, AIPAC is laser-focused on doubling down on its mission.
Professor Dov Waxman, Director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, captured some of the conflicted reaction to how AIPAC has managed to increase its already significant influence.
“By demonstrating its ability to help elect ‘pro-Israel’ congressional candidates and defeat those whom it considers being too critical of Israel, AIPAC will certainly retain, if not enhance, its influence in Washington, D.C., and among Democrats in Congress in particular,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
But, he added, “it risks paying a price with Democratic voters, especially progressives, who resent the group’s heavy-handed tactics, its narrow definition of what it means to be ‘pro-Israel,’ and the fact that it’s spending large sums of money from Republican donors in Democratic primaries.”
If taking that alleged risk is the price to pay for strengthening the U.S-Israel relationship during ever dangerous times, I’m guessing AIPAC will gladly choose to pay it.
The freedom to choose, after all, is why our ancestors came to this country.