It didn’t take much to notice the changing face of the pro-Israel activist community. A walk through the packed ballroom at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference revealed a crowd more diverse than the stereotypic image of the Jewish lobby.
AIPAC is still the prime location for pro-Israel Jewish activism, but an aggressive outreach effort has made it home for many non-Jewish supporters of Israel, as well: Christian evangelicals, African Americans, Latinos and student leaders from many top colleges.
There are sound political reasons for the pro-Israel lobby’s decision to turn outward. Senior officials acknowledged that the pool of non-Orthodox Jewish backers is dwindling and that Jewish support will no longer be enough to carry the pro-Israel political message.
“We’re already planning our growth elsewhere,” an AIPAC official said.
Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna said AIPAC is simply playing politics the way other groups have done in the U.S.
“Building coalitions is the American way, and what we are seeing is a decision to follow this American practice in order to benefit Israel,” he said. Sarna noted that in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, pro-Israel activism was seen as a source of revival for the Jewish community, and therefore outreach beyond the community was ruled out. This policy has changed in recent years.
Several demographic and political trends now guide the pro-Israel lobby as it seeks to grow and maintain its role as one of the nation’s leading political powerhouses. First is the mere fact that the proportion of Jews in America is constantly shrinking. In a March 4 presentation at the AIPAC conference, the lobby’s national political director, Robert Bassin, noted that while in 1940, American Jews made up 3.5% of the population, they are currently 2.1% of all Americans, and if the trend continues, by 2080, Jews will be only 0.8% of the population.
Compounding the problem are geographical trends that have weakened the political power of American Jews as more Americans have moved to the Southern and Western regions from the Northeast and the Midwest. In terms of Jewish political clout, this is yet another source of concern. In his presentation, Bassin gave the example of North Carolina. The state is home to a Jewish population of only 30,000 people but has more congressional districts than New Jersey, which has a Jewish population of 500,000.
The bottom line is clear: A shrinking Jewish population with less local power requires a boost from outside the community to get across the message.
Among Jews, AIPAC’s support also seems to be strongest among Orthodox Jews. While there are no firm numbers of Orthodox Jews active in AIPAC, kippa-wearing participants play a dominant role in all meetings. In 2006, AIPAC appointed its first Orthodox president, Howard Friedman of Baltimore, who is still a key member in the organization’s board.
This year, more than 70 Orthodox synagogues from across the country sent representatives to AIPAC’s policy conference and a reception organized by the Orthodox Union was attended by 400 participants. AIPAC even printed prayer books for observant Jews wishing to attend services during the conference.