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Ilhan Omar Just Doesn’t Understand AIPAC — Here’s How It Works

Freshman Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has once again been accused of anti-Semitism and castigated by members of her own party, this time after she suggested on Sunday that politicians only support Israel because of financial contributions from pro-Israel groups.

Omar specifically called out the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the largest pro-Israel groups in Washington, in response to criticism from Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon.

Critics have called Omar’s statement anti-Semitic because they say it plays up age-old canards about Jews using their money to manipulate governments, while supporters have said that Omar was accurately describing the activities of the “Israel lobby.”

Omar’s office has not responded to an interview request as of Monday morning. But her claim that AIPAC is paying politicians to be pro-Israel misunderstands how it works. (Full disclosure: I interned for AIPAC for a college semester) Here’s what many misunderstand about that organization:

AIPAC Doesn’t Give Money To Candidates

AIPAC as an organization has literally never donated any money to any candidates. Unlike its dovish rival J Street (or, for that matter, the National Rifle Association), AIPAC does not have a political action committee (PAC) that funnels campaign donations to political candidates supportive of their cause. What AIPAC does have is a collection of tens of thousands of members who, as American citizens, can decide to donate the maximum legal amount to candidates whom they prefer.

To be sure, AIPAC certainly does spend lots of money itself: As the Post noted, the organization spent around $3.5 million on lobbying in 2018 – that’s about the same amount as was spent by 3M, the conglomerate that makes Post-It Notes and Scotch Tape. AIPAC’s affiliated educational organization also frequently takes members of Congress (as well as local politicians, activists and other leaders who may one day become members of Congress) on junkets to Israel to meet with government officials and activists.

But much of AIPAC’s power comes from citizen activists willing to spend their own time and resources on an issue they care about. As a 2017 Tablet article details, some AIPAC lay leaders are trained to develop close relationships with their members of congress, who would then theoretically know to return their calls if an urgent Israel-related matter came up.

Israel Doesn’t Lobby As Much As You Think

Illicit foreign meddling in American politics has been a prominent concern for the last two years, with some elements of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation reportedly touching Israeli figures.

But when it comes to legal expenditures, Israel spends almost nothing.

Foreign governments are allowed to lobby in the United States provided that they disclose their spending. A Sunlight Foundation analysis found that the Israeli government spent a grand total of $1,250 on lobbying in 2013.

The Center for Responsive Politics found that that amount had risen to $15.8 million in 2018 – but almost all of that money was spent on tourism promotion (which is, technically, lobbying Americans to spend their money in a foreign country).

The government of Japan also spent around $15 million last year, but a much higher percentage was earmarked for what most Americans would think of as lobbying – arranging meetings with politicians and government figures, and promoting their country’s businesses.

Qatar, the Arab sheikhdom that sponsors the terrorist group Hamas, spent around $6.7 million in 2018 on lobbying efforts as it attempted to improve its PR – including by hiring lobbyists to improve its perception in the Jewish community.

Why complaints about pro-Israel lobbying vastly outstrip complaints about pro-Japan or pro-Qatar lobbying is a question best left for others. Suffice to say that Israel is unique in that much of its lobbying is done for free, or through the munificence of American citizens exercising their rights to donate to candidates of their choice. The pro-Israel lobby, which spans from J Street to the Zionist Organization of America to local grassroots groups around the country, is built on the strength of ordinary Jewish and Christian Americans – indeed, the pro-Israel group with the largest membership is Christians United for Israel.

Most Politicians Support Israel Because Most Americans Support Israel

Polling on this issue is inconsistent depending on who conducts the survey and how questions are phrased, but the numbers show that most Americans support the Jewish state. The most recent Gallup poll found that 64% of Americans have more sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians, while Pew found that number to be 46% – far higher in both cases than the number that have more sympathy for the Palestinians. (And this framing doesn’t take into account the large number of people who surely have sympathy for both sides) An October 2018 poll from the Economist/YouGov found that 64% of Americans consider Israel an ally or friend, with only 14% considering it unfriendly or an enemy.

It is true that many polls show that support for Israel is slipping among Democrats and young people. However, polling has also shown that most American Jews don’t list Israel as among their most important priorities when they decide whom to vote for – only 4% of Jewish exit poll respondents put Israel as one of their top-two issues for deciding their vote in 2018. If the vast majority of Jews don’t prioritize Israel in that way, it stands to reason that most non-Jews don’t either – freeing politicians to vote their conscience on this issue (or, more cynically, vote in a way to draw more donations to themselves) without much fear of electoral consequences.

AIPAC Is Less Powerful Than It Used To Be

If anything, the lack of consequences on Israel-related votes has proven to hinder AIPAC.

Most Democrats bucked the lobby and voted in favor of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which was vociferously opposed by AIPAC and the Israeli government. The Combating BDS Act, another AIPAC priority bill, passed in the Senate but with only the support of half of the Democratic caucus.

The House of Representatives is unlikely to pass that bill, which has drawn concerns on free speech grounds, but is likely to overwhelmingly approve a separate bill codifying U.S. military aid for Israel – which has passed with overwhelming bipartisan support for decades. Incidentally, the latest military aid deal mandates that Israel spend 100% of the $38 billion it receives on equipment bought from American defense contractors – essentially turning the aid deal into a stimulus package for the American manufacturing industry, which most politicians, regardless of party, are likely to support.

While AIPAC may or may not have the strength it used to, its reputation is still feared by many on Capitol Hill. Political veterans remember when Jewish activists helped fund a successful primary challenge in 2002 to Israel-critic Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia.

Such an option is being considered by at least one pro-Israel group. NORPAC, a New Jersey-based PAC, would “probably” work to primary Omar and fellow pro-BDS Representative Rashida Tlaib “if the opportunity presents itself,” NORPAC national president Dr. Ben Chouake told the Forward last month, before the latest controversy erupted.

“They have at least a year to get themselves into a turnaround and apologize for their misdeeds,” Chouake said. “But if what’s going on so far is any indication, if the opportunity presents itself…but there has to be a viable candidate [in a primary] who’s going to be better.”

Contact Aiden Pink at [email protected] or on Twitter, @aidenpink


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