Rabbi Marc Israel got his first taste of AIPAC when he was 17. And for the next 35 years, Israel was an AIPAC man in his pro-Israel affiliations. The organization, he believed, did well in strengthening relations between the United States and the Jewish state.
Then in his Aug. 12 Shabbat sermon at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, which he has led since 2019, Israel announced that he had broken his ties with AIPAC 15 months earlier. And more recently, he had joined J Street, the liberal pro-Israel organization. An op-ed in the Forward explaining his move quickly followed.
So what happened? What pushed Israel “over the edge,” as he put it in an email to his Conservative congregation, into the fold of J Street — an organization loathed by many pro-Israel Jews who feel that to criticize Israel, which J Street is willing to do, is to hand the Jewish state over to its enemies?
In the following interview, Israel explains his decision — which he says is personal and does not amount to a policy change at his congregation — and his way forward as a supporter of Israel.
You didn’t defect to the Soviets. (laughter) But what did you do?
I’ve been involved with AIPAC for a long time. And I would defend AIPAC, because many people said, “Oh, it’s just a rightwing organization” because they did, and still do, try to work across party lines.
My difficulty came when they became a PAC. I thought it was a terrible idea because I thought it weakens their ability to be the convener for everybody… and when they lose [an election] they’re going to lose that access to some of those people.
They also supported people who — not just who voted not to certify the [2020 presidential] election — there are always a handful of people who do that as a protest vote — but the people who are truly election deniers, who undermine our democracy. And our democracy and Israel’s democracy truly are key to the American-Israel relationship.
And you were drawn toward J Street, which does have its own PAC.
Yes, it does. I’ve been following J Street since its inception. Unfortunately, for a long time I felt that their focus was more on criticizing the Israeli government than working for a two-state solution. I followed it but was not able to consider myself a part of it.
I think that J Street has matured as an organization. And I think there’s an effort to engage more of the American Jewish community as well as more of the pro-two-state solution Israeli community.
Just as I didn’t agree with everything AIPAC did in the 35 years I was involved with them, I’m sure that I’m not going to agree with everything that J Street will do or every endorsement that they will make.
I was moving toward J Street before the AIPAC fundraising letter came out, but I probably wouldn’t have done so in as public of a manner. And I felt like part of a rabbi’s responsibility is not only to speak from our soul about where we are on matters, but also to speak up when others are trampled upon in an unfair way. And I thought AIPAC had crossed the line in that fundraising letter.
You called it “egregious.” What made the fundraising letter egregious for you?
Calling J Street “the Number 1 threat to the Israel-American security relationship” — I just thought that was egregious. There are many things that I think are greater threats than J Street. And J Street supports Israel. And supports Iron Dome. And supports the aid that America gives.
My standard line is, J Street was never as bad as people made it out to be. And I thought that this pushed so far in the wrong direction. Part of my hope is that through speaking out, I will in some small way encourage others of my colleagues who feel similarly to give them space to be public about their support for J Street. At some congregations, people simply cannot do that and maintain their job, and I understand that, but I think there are others who are afraid to do it but have a powerful voice that could be used.
What’s been the reaction – among the congregation, among other rabbis, among people wherever you travel?
The overwhelming reaction has been appreciation. For sharing my journey in an open and honest way. And that’s been true even of people who disagree with me. The vast majority of responses I have received have been in the nature of, “We agree with you about some of the issues with AIPAC, but I don’t know if we’re ready for J Street.” And I get that, because that’s where I was for a long time. But there were a lot who said, “I’m going to give J Street another look.” That was gratifying, because I think they do a lot of good work, especially around issues of democracy.
This is one of those topics that can make people crazy. J Street, in some ways, is the group that people love to hate. It’s the stand-in for some people for the enemy of Israel – just like in the egregious letter. What do you make of that? What’s it a symptom of?
I think it’s a symptom of our country right now. If you are A you cannot be B. And we see that play out in many different ways, including, very upsettingly, on college campuses, where many students are told, “If you’re pro-Israel, you cannot be part of the progressive movement.” My daughter is at the University of Michigan and experienced some of that.
To have an enemy to rally against, and to a certain degree it is a sign of J Street’s growing success. And a concern that they are being seen as mainstream and that they’re going to be more influential and that may come at the cost of others.
You’ve been involved with AIPAC for 35 years. Do you regret that?
No. And I want to say very clearly, I think that AIPAC continues to do very important work. I don’t wish AIPAC ill. But I wish for AIPAC to return to its mission as the place that brings together a broad range of the Jewish and pro-Israel community. Their ability to get language into certain bills that are going to be beneficial to the American-Israel relationship is unmatched. But if either of our countries goes in an un-democratic way, I think it’s going to be difficult to maintain that relationship. ■