As the members of the National Rifle Association gathered in Cincinnati for their annual convention in May 1977, the group superficially resembled the same bunch of hobbyists it had been for most of its century-long history. Two Civil War veterans had founded the NRA in 1871 out of a concern about how few Union soldiers capably used their weapons. The nascent organization’s stated goal was to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.”
Over the succeeding decades, the NRA offered marksmanship contests, hunter-education programs, and sport-shooting classes for young people. Its members donated several thousand guns to the beleaguered British people as a Nazi invasion looked imminent in 1940. Even when Congress began to pass gun-control legislation in the 1930s, the NRA did not formally lobby.
Yet in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, when national revulsion at gun violence rose to an apogee, a faction within the NRA decided the group was, in fact, much too acquiescent. These dissidents fumed over the association’s tacit acceptance of the Gun Control Act of 1968, deriding the NRA as a “give-away” outfit. In 1975, the NRA set up a lobbying arm for the first time in its history.
And on that spring night in 1977, the radicals staged a coup, marching into the convention in hunting caps to present a list of 15 demands. By 3:30 the next morning, the insurgents had won control of the NRA in a series of floor votes. The overthrow’s orchestrators proudly called it the “Cincinnati Revolt.” Some months later, one of the newly installed officials, a gun-magazine publisher named Neal Knox, walked into the NRA’s Washington office and announced, “Good morning, Gun Lobby!” (The capital letters and exclamation point, by the way, are from his autobiography.)
We all know what has happened since then. With four million members, the NRA is one of the most potent and despised lobbies in American politics, the sort of organization that actually gained 100,000 new enlistees in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. Indeed, the NRA applied pressure from both above and below — mobilizing constituents and pressuring incumbents — to scuttle a common-sense gun-control bill calling for background checks on buyers, which had massive support in national public opinion polls. If you don’t think every Tom, Dick and Mary ought to have the right to an assault rifle, then you can only look on the NRA’s clout with awestruck disgust.
Now AIPAC has had its own version of the Cincinnati Revolt, and American Jewry will have to live with the consequences. Like the NRA’s tilt from moderation into extremism, AIPAC’s transformation occurred in gradual stages over an extended period of time before its public crescendo. But make no mistake: the recent AIPAC policy conference, with the group’s warm embrace of Donald Trump and ridicule of President Obama, amounted to the lobby’s own Cincinnati Revolt. Never again can AIPAC be seen as bipartisan in nature; even its fundamental commitment to tolerance must be called into question.
As acute observers of AIPAC from Connie Bruck in The New Yorker to J.J. Goldberg in The Forward have pointed out, the rightward shift of AIPAC started more than 30 years ago. Certainly, whatever peace camp existed within AIPAC, like the peace camp in Israel, was chastened and undermined by the Palestinians’ rejection of Ehud Barak’s peace offer at Camp David and their terror war in the Second Intifada. AIPAC also mirrors some of the demographic and political trends within American Jewry at large, like the growth in terms of numbers and influence of the Orthodox and the waning attachment to Israel on the part of less-observant and secular communities.
Yet none of those factors, even weighed together, can account for the recent debacle in Washington. That episode can only be understood as the end product of Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategic decision to align Israel with the Republican Party in its current fanatical iteration and to build a “pro-Israel” coalition of right-wing evangelical Christians and the politically conservative minority of American Jews.
This version of AIPAC fought and lost in last summer’s battle over the Iran arms deal. The intra-Jewish rancor of that debate led AIPAC’s leadership to title the 2016 conference “Come Together” in the hope of repairing the partisan and ideological rifts.
The most significant coming-together in Washington, though, was between Donald Trump and most of AIPAC’s 18,000 attendees. By now, it is hardly news that Trump has run his campaign on misogyny, anti-Mexican bigotry, Islamophobia, mockery of the disabled, and the encouragement of violence against peaceful protestors. By inviting him to speak — an offer that admittedly was made to all the other remaining presidential candidates — AIPAC conferred legitimacy to a dangerous and hateful demagogue. It allowed Trump, for once reading a prepared speech from a teleprompter, to look presidential.
Yes, several dozen admirable rabbis refused to attend Trump’s speech and held a prayer service outside the convention hall. Yes, a number of rabbis from all of the movements signed formal letters denouncing Trump. But the overwhelming majority of AIPAC stayed to hear Trump and repeatedly applauded his litany of absolutely predictable talking points: tearing up the Iran deal, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, etc. He bragged on his Jew-by-choice daughter, her Modern Orthodox husband, and their impending Jewish child. And, of course, when Trump ad-libbed his dismissal of Obama as “the worst thing that ever happened to Israel,” he got one of the loudest ovations of the night. The crowd joined Trump in cheering the fact that Obama is in the last year of his term.
In the aftermath, not much could have been more pathetic than the apology by AIPAC’s new president, Lillian Pinkus. AIPAC’s rank-and-file had simply shown what it believes. It had merely confirmed the political direction the group has been taking since the early 1980s. So why should Pinkus wring her hands about the disrespect shown to a sitting president and the hurt feelings of AIPAC’s remaining liberals, however few there are?
Ask yourself: Would the NRA ever say it’s sorry?
Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to The Forward, is the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”