AIPAC and J Street
AIPAC is a 100,000-member grassroots movement of activists committed to ensuring Israel's security and protecting American interests in the Middle East and around the world. AIPAC members are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. AIPAC does not criticize Israel, nor should it.
J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that believes a two-state solution is an existential necessity for a democratic, Jewish state of Israel. J Street criticizes Israel. I'm uncomfortable telling Israelis that we know better than they do, and I'm especially uncomfortable bringing political pressure on Israel to impose positions on Israel that Israeli voters have rejected--they, not we, will suffer the literally life and death consequences if we are wrong. J Street is right about the importance of reaching a two-state solution, but on several key issues, I disagree with J Street.
The pro-Israel community is a big tent that includes groups on either end of the pro-Israel spectrum with whom we may disagree with on major issues, including the Zionist Organization of America and J Street.
The idea that a member of Congress should not talk to J Street or take J Street money smacks of McCarthyism. We should focus on the issues, not organizational affiliations. AIPAC and J Street both support a secure democratic Jewish state of Israel and a two-state solution. They differ significantly on how to demonstrate that support and on some other issues, as explained below. But we can learn from both organizations, and we should respect both organizations.
The next election is two years away, so without the emotion of how this affects any particular candidate, and without pointing to specific races, perhaps we can have a more rational conversation about AIPAC and J Street.
This week's newsletter and last week's newsletter were unusually long, but these topics are important. You're on this list because you are capable of concentrating for as long as ten minutes at a time.
I have been a member of AIPAC my entire adult life. I like the staff and I nearly always agree with AIPAC's positions. I also have many friends who are active in J Street and people active in J Street tend to be people who share my political views on other issues. Please keep these biases in mind and discount my views accordingly.
AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC is a 100,000-member grassroots movement of activists committed to ensuring Israel's security and protecting American interests in the Middle East and around the world. AIPAC's priority is to ensure that both America and Israel remain strong and that they collaborate closely together.
At the top of AIPAC's agenda is stopping Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, supporting Israel's right to defend itself, and reinforcing American policy that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will only be achieved through direct negotiations. AIPAC strongly supports a two-state solution. If you're not familiar with AIPAC, please go to its website and see for yourself what its positions are on various issues.
AIPAC is registered as a domestic lobby and supported financially by private donations. AIPAC receives no financial assistance from Israel, from any national organization, or any foreign group. Despite its acronym, AIPAC is not a political action committee and it does not rate, endorse or contribute to candidates. But AIPAC members contribute to candidates both on their own and through political action committees whose agendas are similar to AIPAC's.
I served on the Board of one such PAC (CityPAC) for seven years, including two years as its President and two years as its Appropriations Chair. We never discussed our contributions with other PAC's or with AIPAC. Pro-Israel PAC's tend to contribute to the same candidates not because they are colluding, but because their criteria are similar.
Single-issue pro-Israel donors and PAC's who subscribe to AIPAC's philosophy give to Democrats and Republicans, including members of Congress whose views on other issues may be abhorrent. The theory makes sense: If your relationship with a member of Congress is based on one issue, and if that member of Congress is good on that one issue, then you risk damaging that relationship by refusing to support that member based on other issues.
If you don't feel comfortable with that giving philosophy, you can do what many people do: Only give to the candidates who share your views on other issues and only work with candidates who share your views on other issues. AIPAC is a big tent; there are AIPAC members on both sides of the aisle, so any given person does not have to give to any candidate he or she doesn't like. Or you can join a multi-issue PAC like JACPAC, which only supports candidates who are pro-Israel, pro-choice, and pro-separation of religion and state. I am no longer a single-issue giver but am an AIPAC member because AIPAC lobbies for positions I agree with.
I'm not bothered by AIPAC-inspired givers sometimes supporting candidates I don't like. I support AIPAC because of the positions it takes, not because of which candidates share those positions or because of the candidates that some AIPAC members choose to support. You don't have to give anything to any candidate to get involved with AIPAC, although if you have the means and if you want to help make a difference, political giving is important.
Then why are some people concerned about AIPAC? Some people believe that AIPAC is a right-wing organization. AIPAC does have right-wing members, it does invite right-wing speakers to some of its events (including fundamentalist Christians), and some of its members contribute to right-wing candidates. But AIPAC also has left-wing members, invites left-wing speakers to some of its events (including speakers endorsed by J Street), and some of its members contribute to left-wing candidates.
Israel is one of the few issues where bipartisanship is a reality, not an aspiration. On almost any other issue--choice, gun control, the environment--if you tell me where a candidate stands, I can tell you with near-certainty his or her political party. But not when it comes to Israel. AIPAC strives for bipartisanship and strives to take positions that the vast majority of members of both parties can support. If you are an environmentalist, you'll tend to see people who agree with you on other issues at your events. But at AIPAC events, no matter what your political views, you will find a lot of people who disagree with you on many issues.
AIPAC is a lobby. Lobbies build coalitions. This means working with people with whom one might not agree on other issues. That's how legislation gets passed and how democracies function. Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows, and when legislation passes by the overwhelming margins with support in both parties that is typical of pro-Israel legislation, one will naturally find legislators voting in favor with whom one disagrees on other issues. That's math, not right-wing bias.
And yet even knowing that, I am sometimes uncomfortable at AIPAC events. The applause for some right-wing speakers is a bit louder, sometimes much louder, than the polite applause to which I think they are entitled. AIPAC staff is amazing, as are the senior volunteers, but some of the general members are much to the right of me on many issues and don't seem to understand that part of being bipartisan is acknowledging that Democrats too, including President Obama, are pro-Israel. They hold those views in spite of, not because of, AIPAC's positions.
I'm a member of AIPAC because I focus on the cause, not the people who may be supporting the cause. The bottom line for me is that I agree with AIPAC's agenda. I look at AIPAC's website and I'm proud to be part of a grassroots organization that is fighting for the pro-Israel agenda as defined by AIPAC. And if fundamentalist Christians or Republicans or anyone else wants to join in, that's fine with me as long as I or AIPAC don't have to compromise our principles--and we don't.
Just as I would welcome the support of a libertarian in opposing government infringement on a woman's right to reproductive choice, so too I welcome the support of right-wingers in support of Israel's right to self-defense and in opposition to Iran. The positions AIPAC advocates for are truly positions that I believe in, including strong support for a two-state solution.
AIPAC does not criticize Israel. For reasons more fully explained below in the J Street discussion, I'm fine with that. One thing Israel doesn't lack is critics. Not only is Israel one of the most criticized countries in the world, but Israel itself has a fierce internal culture of criticism. AIPAC's task is to keep the governments of the US and Israel close. Public criticism of Israel by AIPAC would not contribute to that goal. It simply isn't AIPAC's mission to criticize Israel. In nearly every case, when we examine the rationale for Israel's actions, we discover that they make sense. Even where we may initially disagree with Israel, we owe it to ourselves to find out why Israel does what it does and then help others understand.
What is J Street? If you really want to understand J Street, you should read A New Voice for Israel by J Street's founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami. It's not too long, it's very well-written, and it will help you understand what J Street is and isn't. Read what other people (including me) say about J Street, but if your interest is sincere, you owe it to yourself to understand J Street from J Street's point of view. Please also peruse J Street's website to see for yourself, unfiltered, what it stands for.
The central and most critical element of J Street's philosophy is that failure to reach a two-state solution is an existential threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. J Street therefore believes it must do everything in its power to get to two states so that Israel continues to survive as a democratic state. Thus, J Street is always looking for ways to work toward a solution, even if it means criticizing Israeli policies that major American Jewish organizations do not criticize.
J Street describes itself as "the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans." J Street also has a PAC called J StreetPAC that is "the first and only federal Political Action Committee established to explicitly promote meaningful American leadership to end the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. The PAC's goal is to demonstrate that there is meaningful political and financial support available to candidates for federal office from large numbers of Americans who believe a new direction in American policy will advance U.S. interests in the Middle East and promote real peace and security for Israel and the region."
J Street believes "that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single best chance we have to secure Israel's future as a Jewish democracy. We believe in the original Zionist idea of a country where Jews could always go to be secure, and we hope that Israel will live up to and represent the core Jewish values of justice, equality, and democracy."
Then why are some people concerned about J Street? J Street says that "We also do not believe that agreeing with everything the current Israeli government does should be the litmus test for what it means to be pro-Israel."
They're right, but I believe that the bar for registering disagreement with the government of Israel should be much higher for those of us who live outside Israel and thus will not personally suffer the literally life or death consequences of Israel's actions. My kids aren't at risk of being blown to smithereens at a restaurant or playground and they don't serve in the Israeli army. Israelis, not us, will pay the immediate consequences if we are wrong. I tend to resolve doubts about the trade-offs between taking risks for peace and security in favor of the government of Israel because they stand to gain or lose much more than I do, and their attention is necessarily much more focused than mine.
I am uncomfortable telling Israelis that we know better than they do, and I'm especially uncomfortable bringing political pressure on Israel to impose positions on Israel that Israeli voters have rejected.
Respect for the citizens of Israel necessitates a proper respect for their exclusive right to be "wrong" when it comes to their security. What if we in America are wrong? We should not assume that we cannot be wrong about what is going on 7,000 miles away, and we certainly should not assume that we might be wrong but proceed anyway and let the chips (or, in this case, rockets) fall where they may. Israelis understand the risks they face. I think it is presumptuous for us to think we have to save Israel from itself--so I'm reluctant to criticize Israel from a position of less risk and less knowledge.
This goes for the right as well as the left. I was once on a trip to Israel where one of the participants asked the tour guide how Israel could possibly consider giving up Hebron. His voice rising in anger, he pointed out that Hebron was King David's original capital and that the holy Cave of Machpelah is in Hebron. The tour guide replied that many Israelis are getting tired of sending their children to serve in the army risking their lives to defend a few hundred settlers who insist on living in Hebron. But, he continued, if all 240,000 Jews from Chicago moved to Hebron, not only would Israel never give it up, but they would even put up a sign that said "Hebron--Brought to You by the Jews of Chicago." We're in no position to tell Israel it has to cede land for peace, but neither should we insist that Israel keep land so that it's there if we ever want to visit as tourists.
And then comes the question of what to criticize. You can find support for any position in Israel. Some want more settlements, some want no settlements. Some want active US involvement, some want no US involvement. Groups like J Street on one end of the spectrum and the Zionist Organization of America on the other end of the spectrum necessarily reduce their influence by becoming smaller tents, comprised primarily of people who share their policy prescriptions. AIPAC is effective in part because it consciously strives for bipartisanship (AIPAC never supports legislation that does not have Democratic and Republican sponsors) and in part because it does not criticize Israel and recognizes that the democratically elected government of Israel best reflects the will of most Israelis, thus allowing more people to feel comfortable joining AIPAC in advocating for a strong US-Israel relationship.
J Street is sometimes too quick to oppose Israel. J Street never condemned President Abbas's UN upgrade bid, but it immediately and vigorously opposed Israel's E1 announcement and expressed "grave concern over moves in Congress to force the closure of the diplomatic offices of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the United States." I think the Abbas UN upgrade was more deserving of "grave concern" because it represented an abrogation of his commitments under the Oslo Agreements and because the way to a two-state solution is through Jerusalem, not New York.
Previously, J Street did not support President Obama's veto of the anti-Israel UN resolution on settlements, prompting Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) to disassociate himself from J Street. J Street did not support the Congressional resolution opposing the Goldstone Report.
J Street opposes Iranian nuclear weapons. President Obama believes that all options, including the military option, must remain on the table. But J Street is "strongly opposed to the use of military force by Israel or the United States to attack Iran." That's a problematic position for those of us who believe that while military force should be the last option, it must be an option. Jeremy Ben-Ami did acknowledge the fact that all options are on the table in an op-ed earlier this year, but even there, he did not say that the military option could be a viable or legitimate option and it is still unclear from his op-ed whether J Street supports military action if that becomes the only way to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
J Street says that it is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. This does not mean that J Street supports the anti-democratic aspects of Palestinian governance and can be taken to mean that J Street cares about Palestinian rights. I am not anti-Palestinian, but I prefer to define myself solely as pro-Israel. The US (and J Street, for that matter) shares values with Israel that we just don't share with the Palestinians--our commitment to democracy, freedom of speech and religion, an independent judiciary, GLBT rights, and even our respect for Palestinian rights are just some examples. As President Obama said, "the bond between Israel and the United States is rooted in more than our shared national interest; it's rooted in the shared values and shared stories of our people."
Is J Street pro-Israel? Yes. Many J Street positions are consistent with the positions of the US and Israel, but even when J Street positions are not the positions of the democratically elected government of Israel or of the democratically elected government of the United States, J Street positions are typically subscribed to by many in Israel, including prominent journalists, politicians, and former military and intelligence leaders. Unless one is prepared to label them anti-Israel, I don't see how one can label J Street anti-Israel. If someone opposes the policies of the democratically elected President of the United States, is that person anti-American?
I've never met a J Street person who did not love Israel, but if there are such people, and if they hold these positions for the same reason many of us oppose them--that they weaken Israel--that does not mean that J Street itself is anti-Israel. We need to judge the positions themselves, not their motivations. Similarly, the fact that the Christian-right supports certain AIPAC positions because they believe the end-result will be an apocalypse followed by Jews going to Hell does not necessarily mean that the positions they support are incorrect.
The pro-Israel community is and must remain a big tent. Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote this with Peter Beinart in mind, but he might as well have been talking about those who would exclude J Street from the pro-Israel community when he discussed
a scary anti-intellectual trend in the Jewish community. These people believe that an increasingly narrow tent will best protect the state of Israel, and so they continue to move the tent's pegs. But they are doing just the opposite of bolstering the Jewish state: They weaken Israel and make it more vulnerable because they exclude enormous swaths of the community that we need...
Are there no limits to who's in the Zionist tent? Of course there are. For me, the litmus tests are Israel's Jewishness, democracy, and security. Anyone publicly committed to those three--even if I believe that their policy ideas are wrong-minded--is in the tent. There are many Israeli politicians whose ideas I believe are na´ve or dangerous. But should I say that they're not Zionists? That would absurd. For the same reason, Beinart is in my tent.
Jeff Goldberg, after detailing his frustrations with J Street, concludes that:
J Street is still a Zionist organization. I believe it is fighting for Shimon Peres's vision of what Israel should be, and Yitzhak Rabin's, and more to the point, it is fighting for the vision espoused by Israel's George Washington, David Ben-Gurion. Commit this to memory: While many Israelis were ecstatic about the victory over the genocidal Arab armies of 1967, Ben-Gurion issued a warning: This will not work. Ben-Gurion said that Israel cannot be an occupier of Arabs. He was right then, and J Street is right now. If Shimon Peres is to be considered a Zionist; if Rabin is considered to have been a Zionist; and if David Ben-Gurion is to have been considered a Zionist, well, then J Street is Zionist as well. It is not heroic in the manner of these men, but neither are most of Israel's current leaders, and nor are the leaders of American Jewry today.
How should AIPAC supporters view J Street-endorsed candidates? It shouldn't be a factor. Look at where candidates stand on the issues, not who endorsed them. Candidates endorsed by J Street can oppose particular J Street positions and still win J Street's endorsement; J Street seems to be looking for open-mindedness and a commitment to a two-state solution. Beyond that, judging from their donations, they are not rigid. Similarly, AIPAC-inspired donors focus only on the issues AIPAC actively mobilizes on (such as aid to Israel and Iran sanctions), which also means a range of candidates and positions qualifies for their support.
Most advocacy organizations follow the friendly incumbent rule: Incumbents good on the issue the group is advocating for will get money, regardless of their stands on other issues and regardless of who their challengers are. This means that challengers who are good on Israel from an AIPAC-inspired point of view will not be supported if they run against an incumbent who is good on Israel, and most incumbents are good on Israel. J Street sometimes jumps into that void by supporting challengers precluded by the friendly incumbent rule from receiving AIPAC-inspired money.
Many successful challengers supported by J Street in 2012 will find themselves the beneficiaries of the friendly incumbent rule in 2014 and will be supported by AIPAC-inspired donors to varying extents.
My view is that if J Street supports an incumbent whose record is good from an AIPAC standpoint, the last thing AIPAC supporters should do is reduce their support for that incumbent. Rather, AIPAC supporters should increase their support that much more, especially if the far right segment of AIPAC supporters refuse to step up and support that incumbent. The idea that a member of Congress should not talk to J Street or take J Street money smacks of McCarthyism. We should focus on the issues, not organizational affiliations.
I support a safe, secure democratic Jewish state of Israel and a two-state solution. So does J Street. So does AIPAC. AIPAC's expression of that support much more closely aligns with mine--I think that AIPAC's approach is better for the US and Israel. I am uncomfortable with J Street's philosophy and some of the positions it takes. But if anyone, including a member of Congress, wants to work with J Street, all that matters to me, and all that should matter to anyone concerned about the US-Israel relationship, is the merits of the policy at issue, not which organization's logo is on the letterhead. We can learn from both organizations, and we should respect both organizations.
Just for fun...your reward for reading to the end (and if you didn't, no fair clicking on the next link). It's still Hanukkah, but Christmas is approaching. Watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert compare the two winter festivals.