Updated June 8
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee released a public statement about the killing of George Floyd on Sunday, after more than a week of internal and then public outrage from volunteers and current and former employees over its silence on the issue up to that point.
“On the eve of George Floyd’s funeral, we join with millions of Americans who continue to mourn his murder,” the statement read. “His death is a shattering reminder of the injustice and inequities that Black Americans still endure in our society. The scourge of racism, intolerance and inequality must end.
The statement is similar to a message AIPAC disseminated internally to African-American supporters last week.
AIPAC almost never makes statements unrelated to its core issue of American support for Israel. But many current and former employees and advocates, who are otherwise supportive of the organization, felt that their refusal up to that point to make public their official views on the most pressing issue of the day was shocking and upsetting.
Tiana Woods, an African-American former AIPAC employee who started a petition last week for former and current employees and activists to urge the lobby to make a public statement, said she was happy the organization had finally come forward. “However, we know that being an ally does not stop at words, it requires action,” she wrote in an email. “AIPAC has called on the black community for help numerous times in the past. Now, the black community calls on AIPAC. Tweets and statements of acknowledgment are a start, but are not the only form of bilateral advocacy, and certainly not the most powerful or meaningful. We look forward to seeing how AIPAC rises to the challenge and takes action.”
AIPAC, the country’s most powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, was virtually alone among Jewish or Israel-focused groups not to have made public comments about Floyd or the ensuing wave of protests against police brutality (though it is a part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a 51-member group that made a joint statement last week).
J Street, which often criticizes AIPAC from the left, and the Zionist Organization of America, which does the same on the right, rarely make statements about subjects outside foreign policy, but both did so in this case.
“AIPAC will argue that it’s outside their purview. But they often rely on the African-American and Latino communities to advocate on their behalf in communities with little to no Jewish presence,” former AIPAC employee Julian Viso, who is white, told the Forward last week. “I would imagine there will be many difficult conversations ahead with these activists, as there should be.”
An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment before this article was published on Thursday. (Full disclosure: I interned at AIPAC for a college semester).
But less than two hours after the article was originally published, Jewish Insider reported on a privatee letter that AIPAC leaders sent to African-American members on May 31, expressing solidarity with the black community.
“Like you, we are horrified by the violent death of George Floyd and are angry, sad and hurt over the inequities that still exist in our country,” CEO Howard Kohr and co-CEO Richard Fishman wrote in the letter.
AIPAC’s website boasts of its African-American outreach program. It frequently sponsors events and Israel trips for African-American leaders, and has panel discussions at its annual policy conference about the importance of African-American activism.
AIPAC’s public silence was criticized in a Facebook post by Matthew Epstein, a law student who worked as an AIPAC field organizer from 2017 to 2019.
“We must show the Black community that we actually care about them, make spaces for them, and recognize that systematic racism is real and must end,” Epstein wrote. “Allyship means nothing if we don’t use our platforms to amplify THEIR voices. Time after time we ask from our Black brothers and sisters. I know too many incredible Black people who have sacrificed years of their lives to support the Jewish community. So, where are you AIPAC?”
He called on white Jews to be allies to African-American activists, support black-owned businesses and join peaceful protests, among other measures.
Epstein declined an interview request, saying that he didn’t want to detract from his call for allyship by focusing solely on the silence of one organization.
The post has received more than 180 likes and dozens of comments. Other former AIPAC activists shared his frustration over the organization’s lack of statement.
“How can AIPAC post millions of photos about our African American allies without speaking out???” asked one commenter, a college student who interned for AIPAC last summer.
“‘We’re a single issued based organization’ can no longer be an excuse when you’re actively recruiting Black students at HBCUs to advocate for Israel,” added another commenter, an African-American man who went on a AIPAC-sponsored Israel trip in 2018.
AIPAC took days for public statement on George Floyd