AIPAC Not Just for Jews Anymore

Group Grows Israel Advocacy to Evangelicals and Minorities

Bigger Tent: With an eye to the future, AIPAC is expanding beyond its traditional Jewish base. Its membership now  include large numbers of blacks, Latinos, and evangelical Christians.
courtesy of aipac
Bigger Tent: With an eye to the future, AIPAC is expanding beyond its traditional Jewish base. Its membership now include large numbers of blacks, Latinos, and evangelical Christians.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 15, 2012, issue of March 23, 2012.
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The policy conference’s program offered a medley of gatherings and sessions tailored for the various groups that now make up the pro-Israel lobby. Activities ranged from “friends in faith” discussing evangelical support for Israel to “the progressive case for Israel,” which was aimed at answering questions raised by AIPAC supporters from the liberal wing. On the sidelines and in smaller conference rooms, meetings were also held for African-American and Latino delegates.

AIPAC’s outreach effort to the African-American community has intensified in recent years and is focused mainly on a younger generation of leaders from historically black colleges. This year, AIPAC hosted at its annual conference representatives from 23 such colleges as well as from 37 Christian- and Hispanic-centered campuses.

In reaching out to non-Jewish supporters, AIPAC provides specific messaging that could resonate well with other communities. To African-American and Latino supporters, key themes include Israel’s diverse society, the absorption of Jewish immigrants from across the world, and Israel’s adherence to principles of democracy and equality. “Israel’s diversity is beautiful,” stated Brandon Jessup, an African-American AIPAC activist, in a video message produced by AIPAC. Eddie Aldrete, another activist, said in a clip made for Latino supporters, “Latinos across the country are becoming more and more of a factor, in positions of power, in positions of elected office, so it’s critical that they’ll understand why it’s important to have a positive U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Christian evangelicals are another key constituency in AIPAC’s outreach beyond the Jewish community, although this is a loose alliance. Most evangelical pro-Israel activists work under the umbrella of Christians United for Israel, a national organization that is led by the Rev. John Hagee and has more than 900,000 supporters on its lists. AIPAC hosted Hagee at its policy conference several years ago and has since made a point of holding at least one session devoted to Christian evangelical supporters. “We certainly communicate,” CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern said. “CUFI enjoys great working relations with AIPAC.” In general, pro-Israel evangelicals are considered to hold political views right of center and are seen as a stronghold of the Republican Party.

On the other end of the political spectrum, AIPAC is also trying to keep liberal Americans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, on board. An AIPAC official who spoke at the sidelines of the policy conference rejected the notion that the organization has lost much of its liberal base to J Street, a competing pro-Israel lobby known for its dovish views. The official said that if anything, liberal activists are turning away from the issue of Israel altogether and are not seeking a different kind of political approach.

“Jews in America now mirror the political spectrum in Israel, and AIPAC, therefore, doesn’t have quite the same following as it had before,” Sarna said. “AIPAC’s clout will grow to the extent it can bring in new coalition partners.”

AIPAC would not provide a breakdown of participants in its policy conference based on faith or ethnicity. An unscientific survey of the audience made clear that American Jews still remain the overwhelming majority, serving as the backbone of the pro-Israel lobby. AIPAC’s board, which reflects the group’s largest donors, is made up entirely of Jewish activists.

AIPAC does not contribute to politicians and does not endorse candidates. It does, however, encourage its members to become involved and to make sure their local representatives on all levels show support for Israel. Part of this involvement also includes making political contributions by individuals, and there, too, the lobby feels a changing trend that requires diversification of the ranks of supporters.

The cost of an average election campaign for the House of Representatives has doubled in the past two decades. Similarly, a Senate race now costs 60% more than it did 20 years ago. In terms of lobbying, this means activists need to give more in order to be noticed by candidates. “The costs of campaigns are skyrocketing, but the number of activists has not been skyrocketing,” Bassin said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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