AIPAC’s Critics

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

On Monday afternoon, a dozen or so pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside the conference in anticipation of the gala dinner. They blocked the path that the well-heeled AIPAC delegates must walk from the convention center to the Renaissance hotel, carrying signs with slogans like “Free Palestine” and “Judaism against Zionism.”

Some of the delegates stop to argue with them: “If you lived in Palestine they would cut your throat,” says a middle aged Iranian man to the black-hatted Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a Neturei Karta rabbi who said he has met Ahmadinejad several times. “How could you sit with that animal?” the man asks.

Weiss replies: “The Torah says that even if you have someone whom you think is your enemy, you should approach him,” adding that the Jews should have approached Hitler and that Zionist boycotts against the German leader are what brought out his anger. In other words, Zionism caused the Holocaust.

Aside from the protesters outside the conference, AIPAC has more respectable critics in Washington these days. “There has been denigration in mainstream culture of the US-Israel relationship,” Senator John Kyl said in his speech tonight. These critics depict the Jewish lobby “as a narrow self-interested ethnic lobby.”

But in fact, he insisted, anyone at the conference tonight can see that the pro-Israel movement consists of “Americans from many walks of life, ethnic and religious backgrounds.”

Books like The Israel Lobby and the recent Transforming America’s Israel Lobby lay out the critique Kyl refers to in detail. Basically, the idea it posits is that a bunch of hawkish neoconservative Jews with dual loyalties are putting America’s best interests and security at risk in order to promote the interests of a militaristic foreign entity that is visiting injustice on the Palestinians.

Is there any truth to this critique? A full analysis would require more space than I have here, but I’ll say this. Although there are indeed participants from all ethnic backgrounds at the conference, the vast majority of the people here are Jewish. Their love for Israel is motivated by Jewish motivations—in other words, it is something irrational, ineffable that they feel and can’t necessarily explain why. “It’s something bigger than me,” one 60-something delegate said. They also happen to be a very impressive crowd: well-dressed, well-degreed, articulate, attractive, driven — far more so than any group of people you’d meet in your day-to-day life — depending on what you do day to day. Many of these people, I am given to understand, are well off.

Now here’s the question: Is there anything wrong with a group of successful people banding together to promote a cause they care about? Wouldn’t anyone do the same if they could? Lawyers and retired people band together to lobby Congress, and in a way lobbying for Israel is more selfless because it is a cause of the heart rather than the pocketbook. And yet AIPAC’s critics consider the organization particularly nefarious. The question is: is it their fault if they’re good at playing the political game?

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 5, 2009

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