In search of the pro-Israel lobby’s center

Elephant/donkey: stevezmina1, DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; Flag: Ekaterina_Lin, iStock / Getty Images Plus

Suppose you are a strong advocate of women’s rights, LGBT rights, universal healthcare and other social and fiscal reforms. You call yourself a liberal or a moderate. Odds are that you vote Democratic. You’re also passionately Zionistic — Israel is a big part of who you are.

Is there a pro-Israel organization that represents your views?

AIPAC has a long history of influencing U.S. politicians in what it sees is Israel’s best interest. The group, often referred to as the pro-Israel lobby, talks tough on terrorism and other threats facing the Jewish state. But AIPAC rarely mentions the two-state solution anymore, the organization is opaque and crowds at its annual convention may cheer or boo depending on who is speaking.

As you see it, J Street puts the two-state solution front and center, but the group is too hard on the Israelis when it comes to settlements and it doesn’t take an equally hard enough line against Hamas and Hezbollah. And J Street’s political action committee only supports Democratic candidates. (Reportedly, Republicans that the group has approached turned down J Street PAC’s support.)

Is there room for a pro-Israel organization between these two established groups? The Washington Jewish Week set out to find the answer, speaking to Jews involved in the communal and pro-Israel worlds and asked them to participate in this thought experiment.

What they said was not expected.

You can be pro-Israel and progressive

AIPAC continues to call itself bipartisan, as Democratic as it is Republican. But critics point to the organization’s unwillingness to criticize Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and other Israeli government policies. This has created friction between liberal and conservative Jews who may both support the Jewish state but differ on the specifics of how to ensure its future as a Jewish and democratic state.

That friction spiked during President Barack Obama’s administration when he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently butted heads, notably on the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Republicans sided with Netanyahu and opposed the deal, while most Democrats supported it. AIPAC opposed the deal and reportedly spent millions of dollars on TV ads to reach legislators in 35 states.

In 2016, AIPAC experienced a public relations fiasco when at its annual policy conference in Washington some of the 18,000 attendees booed Vice President Joe Biden and cheered presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speech, in which he strongly criticized Obama’s Middle East policies.

J Street was founded in 2008 as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, far more willing to criticize settlement expansion and sympathize with the struggles of the Palestinians.

Despite the political theater of the last couple years, veteran Democratic strategist Ann Lewis rejected the premise that AIPAC is moving increasingly to the hawkish, intransigent right.

“I think that’s a little skewed because that [premise] suggests AIPAC represents the right,” she said.

Rather, the Republican Jewish Coalition, a political lobbying group, represents the right, she said.

Lewis, who participates in AIPAC discussion panels and trips to Israel for progressives, noted that the lobby has had a long tradition of inviting both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to its conference. Despite the reception for Biden and Trump, she thought 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “got the biggest applause.”

Lewis worked for a few years as the White House communications director in the Clinton administration; as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign and in 2008 to her presidential campaign, and did Jewish outreach for her 2016 presidential campaign.

But not all of AIPAC’s members are in lock-step with the organization. Steve Sheffey, a pro-Israel activist in Chicago, said that if the question had been asked a decade ago, he would have answered, “How would that [organization] be different from AIPAC?”

But things changed for him in 2015.

“Until the Iran deal, AIPAC pretty much was that [bipartisan] organization,” he said.

Sheffey considered quitting AIPAC at the time but ultimately did not. He wrote about his frustration in an op-ed for The Hill in September 2015.

“AIPAC’s past work has earned it the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote. “But there is a limit to how long voices like mine can be marginalized.”

How do you get the money?

When asked what the first ingredient in any successful organization is, many answer pretty much universally: a large donor. Or better, two.

But it can’t be just any billionaire. To create a powerhouse pro-Israel organization, you need a donor with political influence. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated at least $20 million to the hawkish Israeli American Council, according to a 2015 story in New York Magazine, or entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who supports AIPAC, come to mind.

A donor with political clout who knows something about carving out a niche is the key.

“That allows you to set up and brand an organization and try to differentiate yourself from other similar groups,” said Republican strategist Charlie Spies.

A successful pro-Israel organization needs more than just money, of course. It needs a base — thousands to respond to political appeals and turn up at morale-boosting conferences. And there lies the rub.

According to Democratic fundraiser Barbara Goldberg Goldman, that base doesn’t exist. A moderate, pro-Israel lobby will succeed only if enough members feel dissatisfied with J Street or AIPAC. And she doesn’t see that in the cards.

“I think one has to assess the landscape and look at the level of dissatisfaction with either group,” she said. “Both groups have large memberships.”

Politics are not moving to the center in 2017

Talking about Israel in a way that is not partisan is an enormous challenge, said Susie Gelman, who chairs the nonpartisan educational and advocacy group, the Israel Policy Forum. (Gelman is a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week).

IPF holds public discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and advocates for the two-state solution but does not have a lobby on Capitol Hill.

“Bipartisan support of Israel is still a reality on the Hill,” she said. “But in terms of the Jewish community, those who support the two-state solution are increasingly labeled as leftist. This is true in Israel as well.”

Any chance of forming a centrist organization that has the teeth of AIPAC or J Street is all but dead, according to Peter Beinart, a liberal commentator and columnist for The Forward.

The reason, he said, is that the center is shrinking.

“I don’t see a big constituency for that view. I think the growth is to AIPAC’s right and J Street’s left.”

Beinart pointed out that there are other Jewish organizations in addition to IPF, such as the American Jewish Committee, that do not criticize Israeli policy in the West Bank but have a liberal stance on issues such as LGBT rights and immigration. These organizations do not have broad appeal, he said.

“Among more secular, liberal people, I think you generally find that people who are to the left on domestic issues in the younger generation tend to be to the left on Israel as well,” he said. “So the whole category of liberal on everything but Israel really exists among older American Jews, but much less among younger American Jews.”

If that view on American Jewry and Israel is correct, the original hypothesis may need revision.

In Beinart’s view, Israel advocacy will eventually take the form of “groups that support one state [and permanent] Israeli control of the West Bank” versus “groups that question Jewish statehood itself. I think that’s probably where the greatest growth is going to come.”

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here