TIME faith

The AIPAC Wars are Underway Again

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the cheering audience as he arrives to speak to the AIPAC meeting at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2014, in Washington. Carolyn Kaster—AP

The latest attack on AIPAC is seriously flawed

AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—is a lobby created by American Jews and devoted to improving relations between the United States and Israel. Every 5 or 6 years a book or major article is published, containing an “exposé” on how AIPAC operates. The latest version, a 12,000-word article written by Connie Bruck and entitled “Friends of Israel,” appears in the September 1 edition of “The New Yorker.”

The problem with this most recent effort, like the ones that precede it, is that it tells us very little we don’t already know. The workings of AIPAC are not a secret. The organization was founded 50 years ago with a small office in Washington, D.C., but now has a hundred thousand members and a grassroots presence in every state and congressional district. It does not endorse candidates or raise funds for campaigns, but many in the Jewish community will donate or not depending on whether a politician backs AIPAC positions.

AIPAC is committed to the proposition that Israel is a vital ally of the United States, and it supports military aid and political backing for the Jewish state. It operates by initiating email campaigns, offering trips to Israel for politicians and community leaders, developing constituency groups that will contact their Senators and Congressmen, and providing educational programs. In short, it does what all lobbies do, and while it lacks the clout of the banking or oil lobby, it is enormously effective for the simple reason that the American people are supportive of Israel. In addition, AIPAC is very good at its job.

If this sounds admirable, it is. In America’s vibrant democracy, a group of citizens has come together to defend another democracy, a tiny state surrounded by enemies in the radicalized Middle East. What then is there to “expose”?

Bruck offers more or less the same far-fetched answers that we heard from the last major “exposé,” written by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in 2007. AIPAC, she suggests, basically controls American foreign policy in the Middle East. Members of Congress are victims of the AIPAC machine, forced by its political pressure to put the interests of Israel before the interests of America. Furthermore, as Israel has moved to the right, AIPAC has allowed itself to become a tool of rightwing Republicans who want to use Israel as a wedge issue to undermine President Obama. But, Bruck concludes, things are looking up. The American public, members of Congress, and even American Jews are fed up with the increasing extremism of both AIPAC and the Netanyahu government, and AIPAC’s support is declining.

The Bruck article does offer a few interesting insights, but its hostility to AIPAC and Israel is so intense that it is impossible to take seriously. Bruck professes to see AIPAC as a terrible bully, but the kind of arm-twisting that she describes happens every day in Washington. Since lobbying and tough talk on every issue imaginable are the very lifeblood of our political system, why exactly is advocacy for Israel any less legitimate than advocacy for any of the other matters, foreign and domestic, that come before Congress?

Furthermore, Bruck’s portrayal of Israel as the villain in Gaza is the best gauge of how she really feels about the Jewish state. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, more than 15,000 rockets have been fired at Israel’s civilian centers, traumatizing the population and bringing ordinary life in large parts of Israel to a halt. While the civilian casualties in Gaza are tragic, Israel is the victim of Hamas, and not the other way around.

And finally, the picture that she presents of members of Congress borders on the absurd. They do pay attention to AIPAC—and to other lobbying groups, their own sense of duty, and most important, what they see, rightly, as the pro-Israel sentiments of their constituents. Even an American public that does not hold Senators and Congresspersons in high regard is not prepared to accept as credible that they are mindless automatons, disregarding principle and blindly accepting AIPAC’s dictates.

Bruck gets some things right. While the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is a serious issue and a legitimate concern of Congress, we see from Bruck’s account that AIPAC bungled its handling of the matter. And she is right that despite its claim of bipartisanship, it has not always done well in that regard. As an example of AIPAC’s professed intentions, she quotes a statement by the AIPAC spokesman: “Our position in support of the Oslo process and the two-state solution have generated criticism from some on the right, just as our stand for strong prospective Iran sanctions has spurred criticism from on the left.” Fair enough. But while AIPAC leaders frequently talk about Iran sanctions, they hardly ever mention the two-state solution—or the settlements that may prevent such a solution from happening. These subjects are virtually absent from their educational materials and their annual conferences. If AIPAC is serious about bipartisanship and about bringing more Democrats, liberals, and young people into the AIPAC tent, it will need to advocate for the two-state solution that it already supports.

These virtues notwithstanding, the Bruck article is seriously flawed. AIPAC is one of American Jewry’s proudest accomplishments, and is invaluable for the survival of Israel—America’s most devoted Middle Eastern ally. An honest and thoughtful analysis of the organization would have been welcome. Sadly, what Ms. Bruck provides is a biased exposé, filled more with fantasy than with fact.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser