AIPAC Alternative?

5 April 2007


You might call it the Great Jewish Hope. This is the belief that because Jewish public opinion is well to the left of mainstream Jewish organizations on such questions as the Iraq War and a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, the misrepresentation has to end. Someday soon, the grassroots Jews are going to say Enough, and the hawkish leaders will turn into pillars of salt. Any day now.

The Great Jewish Hope has risen again this spring because of several new signs of dissatisfaction with the leadership. “There is a growing realization that the more hawkish elements of the pro-Israel community — I’m picking my words because it’s a minefield — have too much of an influence within that community,” says Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now. Adds Charney Bromberg of Meretz USA, “The issue to me is what I believe has been a gross failure on the part of the leadership.”

So far it’s just rumblings. When Senator Barack Obama was pressured in March into backtracking on a sympathetic statement he made about Palestinians, there was grousing even in Jewish quarters about “the Israel lobby.” Around the same time, two articles appeared, one by financier George Soros in The New York Review of Books, the other by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, both arguing that open debate of Israel’s policies was being suppressed and that this was bad for all concerned.

Soros has a special status. It was rumored that the financier might be the actual Great Jewish Hope: that he would fund an alternative Jewish lobby challenging the two leading Jewish organizations, which take an Israel-right-or-wrong position: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Soros has absented himself from that effort, partly because he hasn’t been identified enough with Jewish causes, he says. Still, talk of an alternative lobby continues.

Mitchell Plitnick of Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace says: “Efforts are definitely continuing, not as fast as some might hope. There is major Jewish money coming to the Democrats that does support peace, but there’s no lobby to focus it.” Focusing Jewish political money is what AIPAC has long done. Though it is not a PAC, it has a huge membership of individual donors it can claim to represent when pressing Congress to adopt legislation that makes Israel out to be the good guy in the Middle East.

The people who talk about an alternative lobby don’t want to smash AIPAC. Bromberg, who has been involved in the talks, notes, “There is profound concern that Israel is still desperately alone and vulnerable in the world, despite its military strength and economic strength, and its one real political strength is the relationship to the United States.”

Still, left-wing Jews feel alienated from Jewish organizations that supported two disasters — the Iraq War and Israel’s war in Lebanon. “The virtually unqualified support of organized American Jewry for Israel’s brutal actions…is not new but now no longer tolerable to me,” Sara Roy, a scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, writes in a new book, The War on Lebanon. Roy’s views are increasingly common. Dan Fleshler, an activist in the pro-Israel peace community, says that Middle East violence has helped awaken a large “universe” of liberal, politically active Jews. “Many of them are alienated from Israel and want nothing to do with it,” he says. “Maybe the most important thing to them is the Sierra Club. They’re cultural Jews, they’ve never been involved” with Israel per se. Their passivity has allowed right-wing Jews who care more about the issue to affect policy. Fleshler says the challenge to an alternative lobby is figuring out how to capture “the moderate Jewish left” on Israel issues.

Tapping into the restlessness among young left-wing Jews might be a place to start. “I meet these kids all the time on campuses all over the country,” says author Ali Abunimah. “This generation of young Jews is not as tied to the romantic Exodus story of their parents. They want a free and open debate about the rights and wrongs of supporting a country that privileges people based on arbitrary characteristics.”

Jewish peace groups involved in the lobby talks are apprehensive about these new currents. Those groups want to bolster support for Zionism even as they try to undo the forty-year occupation. Bromberg likens the discussion about Israel to a backed-up swamp full of noxious ideas—from critiques of the Israel lobby to calls for a one-state solution. “All of this is happening because the process has been so stagnant for so long,” he argues, and blames the American Jewish leadership for not openly questioning some of Israel’s decisions.

Yet here we are, in what Bromberg agrees is a time of perestroika for American Jews who want to criticize Israel. What are the electoral consequences? Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, says that the Democratic base is dividing in ways that recall the Lamont-Lieberman battle of last summer, when many major Jewish donors stuck with Lieberman even after he lost the primary. “You’re starting to see more and more division in the base even among supporters of Israel over [the Iraq] war,” he says. “It’s a split, it’s a schism…. It’s more like a family squabble at the dining table. No one wants a divorce.”

The Great Jewish Hope is that the liberal Jewish money in the political process will separate itself from hawkish Jewish money. Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant in DC, describes the potential pool: “AIPAC is enormous in terms of influence, in terms of guiding the money. The numbers are gigantic … whether you support them or not, you have to be awed by the success when you see it in action. And yet I think there is even more Jewish money that is not AIPAC affected, affiliated, just because there is so damn much money that happens to be Jewish.”

So far, the Soros article is the biggest sign of such a divide. His defection has created concern in the Jewish leadership that American politicians will cease to think of Jewish money as a monolith supporting a hard line for Israel, thus granting the politicians more freedom to try out better ideas. Indeed, when I talked to AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, he pointed me, unprompted, to printed criticisms of Soros’s claims.

“The danger for AIPAC is that once Humpty Dumpty drops off the wall, you can’t put him together again,” says Abunimah. “And what is keeping the debate from happening now is political brute force. That’s what we see in the Obama case.”

In March an activist at a small gathering in Muscatine, Iowa, asked Obama about his views on the Palestinians, and he answered that they were suffering more than Jews. A reporter for the Des Moines Register printed the statement, and it was widely circulated. Several activists condemned Obama, and Obama promptly retrenched. “Hillary is very practiced about talking about these things,” says AIPAC’s Block. “Obama’s lexicon is broader. People are going to be hurt” by that kind of statement.

The Obama episode creates despair among those who want to get Arab grievances taken seriously in American politics. But Plitnick says the only answer is to work with the people who are most involved in the issue: Jews. “There’s a strong sentiment on the left that says, Forget about the Jewish community, they don’t listen,” says Plitnick. “But politically that’s impossible. I don’t think we’ll be able to stem the influence of AIPAC without Jews taking a major leadership role in doing that.” The birth of an alternative lobby, he notes, would be a major turning point in American politics. And it’s going to happen. Any day now.

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