Tag Archives: AIPAC

Prepping for AIPAC

As the AIPAC Policy Conference begins this weekend in DC, I am thinking about a survey that’s creating a buzz in our world.

Last October, the Mellman Group reported that an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters – 92% - identify as “generally pro-Israel” while only a marginal 3% consider themselves “generally not pro-Israel.”

This has come up in recent months as we witness groups identifying as both Jewish and anti-Zionist providing cover for those employing anti-Semitic tropes that go beyond fair criticism of Israel’s government and polices. And when we see and hear some  political and interfaith leaders cite those groups as validators (e.g. “but I’ve met with my Jewish partners and they say…”) we can factually point out that: when some on the left say that they are engaging with and listening to the American Jewish community, but they are only talking to fringe anti-Zionist groups, then they aren't really interested in what American Jews think, feel, and experience.

There’s another data-point in this report, of even greater interest to me, regarding the 92%:

“fewer than a third (32%) say that they are also supportive of the current Israeli government’s policies. A majority (59%) say that they are “pro-Israel,” but critical of at least some Israeli government policies, with 24% critical of many of the government’s policies.”

In other words, American Jews have an overwhelming consensus on our commitment to the future of a Jewish state, but we are divided into three fairly significant camps over the direction of the Israeli leadership.

There is however, another layer, one not covered in survey questions; how do we understand our unique role as American Jews in giving voice to our criticisms?

Historically, our community has been organized around the understanding, most memorably articulated in the “Blaustein-Ben-Gurion” agreement of 1950, that “the State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens” and that “the allegiance of American Jews is to America alone, and should put an end to any idea or allegation that there is such a thing as ‘dual loyalty’…” We built a network of institutions, including AIPAC, that acted with an understanding that whatever our diversity of views and our differences with Israel’s leadership, we would mostly – and in particular on matters of security – express those views privately.

For the past 25 years, these norms and understandings have been fraying; both Jewish communities have been increasingly open about challenging each other. When Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, each had public tension with some portions of American Jews who didn’t rally behind their governments. Over the past decade, American Jews have formed institutions – both on the progressive and conservative side, and very much within our 92% consensus of support for a Jewish state – that have openly challenged Israeli security policies with which they disagree. More recently, many of us have been openly frustrated when Israel’s political leaders speak on behalf of all Jews, including us Americans, in ways that effectively absolve our own elected leaders of their role in amplifying antisemitism in our country.

In an era when any fool with a twitter handle can amplify any extreme idea, the norms of a relationship between two Jewish communities built on public comity and solidarity has become increasingly challenged. Legacy institutions, whether it be AIPAC, a JCRC, and others, are navigating these changing norms.

I perceive AIPAC as a coalition across at least some of those differences; a coalition that comes together to support the enduring bonds of the US-Israel relationship. AIPAC works because it relies on the notion that while we may individually be supportive or have critiques of any particular Israeli government, our agency with regard to criticism of Israel is best, and mostly, to be shared privately and always in loving and respectful ways. And while that notion of agency is changing - and others at the JCRC table come down resolutely on the side of public critique - this particular branch, representing large portions of the Jewish community, works because it bridges its internal divides over that critique.

So on Sunday I will arrive, as I do every year, in DC for the AIPAC conference; the single largest annual gathering in DC to advocate for any policy agenda, reflecting the depth and breadth of support for our nation’s connection to Israel.

There will be evangelical Christians, LGBTQ, African-American, Feminist, Latino and Labor leaders all together in one room. But mostly, there will be American Jews, and we Jews will be a diverse bunch. Many will be from among the 32% of us who generally support the policies of Israel’s government, and many of us will be amongst the 59% who are not.  But there will be some established understanding amongst those present that, at least in this space, our critiques or lack thereof do not unite us.

Next week we will hear conflicting voices including Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the Israeli opposition leaders - patriots each of them as well. And we’ll be there even in our disagreements about our role in publicly criticizing Israeli policies – including some millennial Zionist leaders who wrote a public letter to the Prime Minister this week.

I believe that Jewish community is best served when we remind ourselves that at the end of the day we’re a small people. We are bonded to each other by our history, our values and what unites us - including the vast consensus we hold as American Jews: to support and work for a Jewish, secure and democratic state of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

With Thunderous Applause

I was reminded this week of a scene in one of the classic science-fiction Star Wars movies:

A craven politician has sown revolts and terror, and has encouraged fear in the populace. At the opportune moment, he comes before the senate and announces that in order to ensure continued security, the republic will be reorganized as a galactic empire. Amidst the applause, the camera pans to our heroine, Senator Amidala who, watching the vast crowd, says:

“So This Is How Liberty Dies, With Thunderous Applause.”

This week we also saw fear. Fear in the aftermath of the Brussels bombing on Tuesday; a fear that sadly and quickly - though no longer surprisingly – was exploited by an outrageous statement from a Presidential candidate calling for an expansion of powers for law enforcement officers to patrol “Muslim neighborhoods” in the U.S.

In trying to make sense of the various events this week another scene from Star Wars came to mind. Master Yoda, meeting the young Anakin Skywalker for the first time, offers him some Jedi wisdom: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering."

This insight rings particularly true in this moment when in the wake of terrorism, opportunistic politicians offer rhetoric that plays on our deepest fears. We heard a call to hatred that would violate the bedrock freedoms of our nation, create suffering for the innocent, and that would, in all probability be counterproductive as our nation deals with the struggle against radical Islamist violence.

Too much of our political discourse in this election has been driven by fear - fear for our future and for our safety, for the quality of life our children will experience, and for the ability of our nation to face challenges in a changing world. Some candidates have manipulated these fears, played to them, capitalized on them to divide us and turn us against each other for political gain.

Fear and anger have already led to hate and suffering, including the beating in Boston of a Latino man by the supporters of one candidate last year.

In the Jewish community, we are all too familiar with fear, not only as a historical reality, but also as an organizing principle within our current politics. We fear for the future of Israel as a Jewish, secure, and democratic nation.  But rather than uniting us, our fear has deeply divided our community in recent years. Some of us fear more intensely for Israel’s democratic character while others prioritize Israel’s security issues. The alarming result has been that Jews passionately committed to Israel have turned against fellow Jews over the slightest nuance (from a global perspective) of what it means to be pro-Israel.

At this week’s AIPAC policy conference, a large and diverse community came together, united by our love for Israel and by our fear for her survival and security. Much of the content over three days spoke to our hope and aspirations for Israel. But as has happened so often in this political season, a candidate pandered directly to the fear in the room. We heard coarse and angry sentiments that, though taboo in our discourse, resonated with many listeners. We were invited to ignore any considerations beyond our own fears – including the fears carried by others outside that room - and to join in a raucous and dangerous movement.

Many American political leaders bear responsibility for cultivating the culture of fear that has ripened into this moment. So too, many of us – Jewish leaders and leaders of Israel – share the responsibility for this moment. In rallying support for Israel, we’ve too often called our community to action from Pachad (fear), rather than from Tikvah (hope).

So as leaders this is our time for soul searching as we determine what action to take for the sake of our nation. And for me, candidly, that action is still in part coming from fear; because experiencing that moment at AIPAC was terrifying. I didn’t fully appreciate how the political phenomenon of appealing to our basest instincts to salve our fears has taken root until now. I thought this election was a fantastical fiction. Now I see it is all too real.

And still I believe that we can renew our hope, and that by doing so we can overcome our current reality. This is the task before us.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Note: This post also appears on Times of Israel

Dilemmas in a Dark Moment

In 2012, when Barney Frank decided to leave Congress, JCRC organized a candidates’ forum with the Democratic and Republican candidates running to succeed him. We heard from a few people in our community who objected to our engagement with one of the candidates who held strong views on a range of issues in opposition to stances taken by JCRC.
 
We took that opportunity to remind our Council that as a 501 (c)(3) organization, the IRS code allows us to advocate for our priorities but bars us from showing preference to a particular candidate. And we pointed out that although the likelihood of this particular candidate being elected was low, it was still a possibility, so we had an obligation to our community to find a way to be in a relationship with him should he win.
 
I’m reminded of this exchange as we and many of our member organizations are facing the far more significant dilemmas posed by this year’s presidential election.
 
This weekend I will be at the AIPAC Policy Conference, where most major candidates are confirmed to speak and all have been invited. The inclusion of the Republican front-runner has brought reactions, including the Reform Movement’s vow to “engage” him, while there, “in a way that affirms our nation's democracy and our most cherished Jewish values.” ADL’s national director this week published an op-ed calling the candidate’s ideas “bigoted, revolting and simply un-American,” and expressing the hope that it is this behavior that “all people regardless of their political affiliation call out at every instance.”
 
Regardless of how troubling many of us find the rhetoric and behavior of this candidate, by inviting him to its conference, AIPAC is simply doing its job.
Those who tell you today that there is no way that this candidate could become President are the same people who were saying six months ago that he could not possibly come as far as he already has. As a focused, single-issue organization, AIPAC has a responsibility to engage the next President of the United States and clarify that person’s view on the U.S.-Israel relationship without indicating any bias or preference. We need to fully hear his views on this matter in more than debate one-liners.
 
It is also true that this is a profoundly troubling moment in our history.  Never have we seen such a degradation of this nation’s political discourse. The qualities that have made this country great for Jews and in fact, for all Americans – robust liberal democracy, constitutional freedom, a commitment to civil liberties and the protection of minority rights – are under direct challenge. Our nation without these qualities would become a more dangerous place for all of us. Beyond our shores, America would become further diminished in the world (including, for what it is worth, as an effective advocate for Israel in international arenas). Let’s not kid ourselves — those who said we could afford to ignore a candidate’s comments six months ago are no longer laughing at them.
 
It is within this context that I have profound admiration for leaders who are speaking to this political moment. I deeply appreciate those in our community who are not limited by their responsibility to particular institutional roles and who are giving voice to a robust critique of some candidates. I honor the way in which the URJ is approaching a moral calling without diminishing the importance of AIPAC’s obligation to the pro-Israel community.
 
I don’t know what will happen during this coming week or over the course of the campaign. I do know that when I show up at AIPAC on Sunday, I will be there as the director of this institution. As such, I will honor the responsibility placed on me by our community to steward our public voice in all its breadth and diversity without partisan bias or preference for any candidate. I’ll also honor being entrusted to articulate our values and interests with as much clarity as circumstances allow.
 
Even in this dark moment – when I’m continually asked, “What should we do? What can we do?” - I take some heart in the respectful ways in which our various member organizations are navigating a difficult dilemma without demeaning and denigrating each other and in the seriousness of thought with which our community is confronting the moment.
 
I draw strength in the unity of purpose that I see emerging. We are renewing our shared commitment to an American idea that has served us so well and that, if we fight to ensure its survival, will continue to renew our nation in the years to come. In that, and in the knowledge that we as a nation have faced dark political moments before and are today stronger for them, I have hope for a better future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy