Bernie Sanders’s announcement that he would not attend this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (aipac) conference in Washington set off the usual round of recriminations, but it should not have come as a surprise. On his Twitter feed, Sanders described the annual pro-Israel gathering—typically well-attended by presidents, presidential candidates, and elected officials of both parties—as a platform for “leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” Other left-of-center politicians and media outlets tend to bandy about even harsher language and increasingly use the word “authoritarian” to describe the current government of Israel.
It did not take a great deal of imagination for critics to accuse Sanders of bad faith and hypocrisy. The tweet came fast on the heels of the first wave of “oppo research” regarding Sanders’s less-than-Tocquevillian observations about life in Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Further, as David Wolpe noted, the insinuation that aipac is a right-wing enterprise is simply inaccurate. The annual conference always includes speakers from across the political spectrum. Until quite recently, such a lineup of speakers was not difficult to produce nor politically controversial. Support for the Jewish state among the American public has, for most of Israel’s existence, been both bipartisan and broadly based—whatever realpolitik calculations are made in the West Wing. But such support should no longer be assumed.
The most vocal members of Sanders’s rapidly expanding base gave their champion full marks for his decision. And this is no aberration. It is merely the latest indication that America’s long history of bipartisan support for Israel is eroding. Alas, many of Israel’s friends have been among the slowest to recognize this, and even slower to respond. Political figures and community leaders repeat slogans about the unbreakable bond between the two countries. Policing the internet, the pundit class denounces anti-Israel opinion or sentiment in a rote and uncreative way, with ever diminishing returns.
What is required, however, is serious analysis of whether America’s pro-Israel institutions—indeed, the whole infrastructure supporting U.S.-Israel relations—is functioning well for either country. If it is not, what alternatives to the current arrangement might be contemplated? This essay does not pretend to offer a comprehensive treatment of this question. Yet an honest appraisal of aipac reveals some troubling insights into the state of pro-Israel advocacy in America, and the need for a reconsideration of priorities.
A Broken Consensus
Am I, an unabashed Zionist writer, being alarmist? After all, surveys still show that Americans remain pro-Israel—indeed, more pro-Israel than citizens of all other Western nations. In arguing why that’s the case, scholars have produced impressive research about how the Puritan origins of the United States—and the Constitutional foundation of secularized Puritanism a century and a half later—pushed philo-Semitism and sympathy for Zionism into the American DNA. Culture warriors, meanwhile, imply that declining support for Israel is only a problem on the radical left, and once that Left is defeated we can return to the status quo ante. Defenders of aipac would also say that, even if Bernie Sanders is unwilling to attend its annual conference, no other event could bring together such a politically diverse cast of supporters, from a Ted Cruz to a Chuck Schumer. The evidence of the fiscal agility of aipac remains similarly impressive; it is as adept as ever at connecting donors large and small with members of Congress from both parties. Finally, it might be argued that, currently, there is no alternative. Aipac’s annual conference remains the major pro-Israel event in the United States.
Yet, out there in the broader country as well as in Washington, on the level of day-to-day politics as well as in the amorphous but ultimately most important realm of popular opinion, things are changing rapidly. Those same surveys that show Americans are pro-Israel also show a large age gap and a growing partisan divide. Democrats are now almost as likely to support the Palestinian position as they are to support Israel. The Pew Forum’s 2018 survey found that among those who identify as liberal democrats, there was twice as much support for the Palestinians as there was for Israel.
And much more revealing than the surveys is what political scientists call “discourse analysis.” If one pays attention to what members of the ideological vanguard on both sides of the political spectrum are saying in their meetings, university courses, and on Twitter, one sees that the criticisms of Israel uttered by today’s national Democrats are delicate by comparison.
Following their European comrades, American leftists are currently making anti-Israel activism a central plank of their anti-imperialist agenda. Fealty to “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS)—which Sanders, to his credit, has so far opposed—is now part of the price of admission to left-wing organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America. Moreover, anti-Zionism is gaining in strength among young Jews in America; anti-Israel groups such as Jews for Economic and Racial Justice seek to recreate a Jewish unionist politics that hearkens back to the days of the Bund. (Centered in Europe, the Bund’s leadership was decimated in the Holocaust.) The more moderate center-left position—expressed in the current campaign by Pete Buttigieg above all—seems for now satisfied with equating Benjamin Netanyahu with other “authoritarian populists” around the world, such as Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and, most amusingly, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey and Israel—together again at last! Gone are the days when Bill Clinton could blame Yasser Arafat for his obstinate refusal to accept a state in most of the West Bank. The new line is that the Israeli people may be good, but their leadership is bad. One wonders how and whether the discourse will change if the next prime minister of Israel is not Netanyahu but former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, whose party Kahol Lavan is called centrist in the foreign media but which on many security issues has actually run to Netanyahu’s right.
On the surface, the American Right seems more solidly pro-Israel. Just below the surface, though, the situation looks more complicated. Dismal “race science” and other stereotypes of Jews have proliferated in recent years, though the impact of such crude right-wing racism remains limited. A more popular and revealing alt-right meme is the one calling for “open borders for Israel.” The implication is that American Jews as well as Israelis are hypocrites since they support an (allegedly) ethno-national Jewish state while denying the right of Americans to have their own ethno-national state with its own clear borders. Whether Israel is in fact ethno-national is something I dispute. Regardless, however, given the state of right-wing opinion today, is it possible to have any confidence that this line of thinking will not gain in currency?
Meanwhile, right-wing attitudes are also shifting on matters of foreign policy. So far, Tucker Carlson’s pro-Iran monologues on Fox News have not veered into anti-Israel positions. But it is not that great of a leap to imagine another TV host—a Tucker of the near future or even Tucker himself—who blames the instability of the Middle East, and America’s inability to cleanly extract itself from it, on an allegedly warmongering Jewish state. It is not pleasant to imagine what the proliferation of this opinion would mean for American Jews.
To be sure, pro-Israel organizations have spent money not only on lobbying but on other efforts of Israel advocacy aimed at countering such opinions and presenting the positive side of Israel. These efforts often aim at “winning the war of ideas in the age of social media,” to quote a very popular and very practiced approach to pro-Israel lobbying. Some of these efforts have been constructive; most have been futile or worse. Neither political lobbying nor broader ideological efforts have really helped stop anti-Israel opinions from gaining ground.
The fact that the pro-Israel side seems more and more to be losing the battle of ideas might reinforce the view that Israel’s supporters should focus on political lobbying and advocacy. This nuts-and-bolts approach might promote concrete measures like anti-BDS legislation and other efforts to halt a political turn against Israel. Yet, looking at the ledger and considering aipac’s record in recent times, it is also difficult to have much confidence in the efficacy of these operations as they are currently constituted. As is well known, aipac failed to prevent a determined President Obama from signing the so-called Iran Nuclear deal, nor from moving American foreign policy into a de facto position of cultivated neutrality between Iran and its proxies on one side and Israel and its (unofficial) Arab allies on the other.
During the Trump presidency, aipac might appear more effective due to Trump’s simple pro-Israel instincts. Yet Israel could do nothing to stop a determined Trump from withdrawing troops from Syria and discontinuing support for the Kurds, moves which, if they present Israel with some interesting opportunities as well as challenges, were certainly not welcomed by Jerusalem. What about aipac’s supposed central claim to fame: ensuring that Congress renews financial aid to Israel? At this stage, one has to say that this is, at best, a double-edged sword. Does Israel currently need American aid, the vast majority of which it must spend on (often outdated) American military equipment anyway? Is the cost to Israel in terms of freedom of action worth it?
One might argue that Israel’s standing in Washington, and America at large, would be even worse were it not for aipac holding the line in Congress and for other political lobbying efforts. I concede that this is possible. Yet, at the very least, one could argue that aipac’s influence and effectiveness seem to be declining.
Pride of Place
I do not wish to suggest, however, that aipac has never served a constructive purpose. Founded in 1951 by Si Kenen, aipac came to play a crucial role in the 1950s as the Eisenhower administration, under the sway of myopic realpolitik doctrines, came to believe that Israel was impeding its anti-Soviet and “anti-imperialist” efforts in the Middle East. Beyond working through Congress, which, closer to the people, was more naturally pro-Israel, Kenen’s aipac served an important political and especially social function. In the 1950s, accusations against American Jews for holding “dual loyalties” were commonplace. Aipac allowed Jews, and others, to speak confidently and in their own name regarding their foreign policy interests—just as other ethnic diasporas had done and would continue to do. Aside from questions of efficacy related to American policy, one could say that aipac served as a constructive vehicle for domestic political organizing.
To some degree, that logic still obtains. Indeed, it is probably the existence of aipac as a kind of social club that explains its staying power. Supporting aipac is what successful, pro-Israel Americans have done for generations. Participating in its conference, and other comparable institutions, has been an antidote to “bowling alone.” Aipac has given American supporters of Israel, Jewish or not, a sense of pride, along with a belief that what they’re doing matters. Yet sometimes that pride has bled into vanity. I suspect that for many attendees of the aipac conference, particularly those high-net-worth individuals invited to exclusive meetings and interviews, the experience offers the pleasing sentiment of having made it in America.
But meanwhile the world turns. And young Americans, Jewish or not, are increasingly turning away from Israel, or indeed forced to keep their opinions to themselves. The contempt for aipac among the new Jewish Left is hardly surprising. But what is most notable is that even many of the Zionist or pro-Israel younger Jews that I come into contact with find aipac stodgy and uninteresting, an increasingly irrelevant parlor game whose leaders are often ignorant of basic facts about Zionism or the history and politics of the country they support.
The Roof and the Foundations
Indeed, I would argue that pro-Israel organizations like aipac are in a weak state. I would further claim that the pro-Israel position is likely to become even weaker in the years ahead. For Israel supporters, the situation thus calls for fresh and imaginative thinking. New ways of conceiving of political engagement should be examined.
To be sure, some high-level diplomatic efforts must always be part of the equation. Basic research and policy advice conducted by organizations such as the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (jinsa) should be encouraged, provided the quality is high. Certain elite-level venues that permit research into and dialogue about policy issues remain as vital as ever.
But perhaps the central focus of pro-Israel activity in the United States should shift toward “community reconstruction”—to the rebuilding of core institutions from which future pro-Israel leaders are likely to emerge in the first place. It is no accident that declining support for Israel among young Jews corresponds to the weakening of the Jewish day school network around the country—a weakening both in terms of quality of instruction as well as an affordability crisis that has pushed many potentially interested Jewish families away from Jewish education. It would be a refreshing change, and potentially highly salutary, if “big ticket” aipac donors were to turn their attention to this crisis rather than increasingly ineffectual efforts to influence national policy. Effective advocates for Israel are at the end of the day well-educated ones—and well-educated ones emerge out of the contexts where meaningful skill development in Hebrew language, Jewish history, theology, and Zionism can take place. What if Jewish community leaders invested their efforts in ensuring that Hebrew language instruction was more widely available to anyone who wants it, knowledge of Hebrew being necessary (though certainly not sufficient) for understanding Israel? What if instead of focusing on winning an amorphous “battle of ideas,” community leaders sought to expand and improve failing Jewish high schools, both through the hiring and development of better teachers and providing scholarships for the most talented and promising? The “return on investment” of a back-to-basics approach such as this would be hard to be measure. And one reason why donors might wish to fund aipac rather than Hebrew schools is that hobnobbing with political figures in Washington is more glamorous than visiting a high school gymnasium in suburban Cleveland. But the case that the money is better spent on political lobbying in Washington is getting harder and harder to make.
Israel advocates are often focused on the best “arguments” for Israel. But arguments are conducted by people. And, at the end of the day, the best argument for Israel in the United States must ultimately be a reasonably sized cadre of educated young people, Jewish or not, who know things about the Jewish state and its meaning in Jewish history. Rigorous education in things Jewish or Israeli will not always produce the students one might hope to get. Some who go through such an education might come to hate the Jewish state. Others might be indifferent. But many who are exposed to it might come to see its defense as a priority. And, unlike many in current positions of leadership, they may, by their conduct and example, be able to better explain to their fellow Americans why support for Israel remains in the national interest.
On the current trajectory, one has reason to fear that Israel supporters—and, indeed, American Jews on the whole—will be increasingly squeezed politically, both from the Left and from the Right. Whatever happens in the 2020 elections, American Jews are already experiencing a feeling of political homelessness which is only likely to increase. It is time for more fundamental consideration about the state of Jewish and pro-Israel institutions in the country. Somewhat less of an emphasis on “playing the game” in Washington would, I think, be healthy. It is only out of well-functioning core communal institutions that a future elite can emerge that might actually be able to play the game well.