For the past three days, American Jewish lovers of Israel have been enjoying each other’s company, en masse. Eighteen thousand of them, including 3,500 students, were funneled through the well-oiled machinery of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C.
Every detail of the event was diligently attended to. In the morning, non-Jewish ushers wished conference-goers “boker tov.” In the basement, a Disney-ified Start Up Nation awaited in the form of “AIPAC Village,” which boasted an actual Iron Dome defense missile, plus other Israeli technologies on display for investigation.
Less well-oiled was the message. On the one hand, a conscious decision to emphasize bipartisanship led to much talk of peace and a two-state solution, priorities that had been absent from AIPAC’s platform for the past few years. At times, speakers even sounded like they were borrowing from AIPAC’s bête noir, J Street, with its “pro peace, pro Israel” brand.
So it was shocking when, on the final day of the conference, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, trashed everything the conference had worked so hard to build when he called the phrase “pro-Israel, pro peace” “blasphemous.”
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“Using that phrase plainly implies that there are people who are pro-Israel and anti-peace,” Friedman said. “These people do not exist. Pro Israel and pro peace is nothing more than a redundancy.”
No doubt, this proclamation was intended as a dig at J Street, a left-wing organization Friedman called “worse than kapos” in the past. But it was also an unintentional dig at AIPAC’s attempt to rebrand itself as a place where Jews committed to peace and security have a home.
Indeed, AIPAC’s own bylaws, flashed on a screen during one of the plenary sessions and voted on with a chuckle of assent, state clearly that “AIPAC will support U.S-Israeli joint efforts to build and maintain peace with security and normal relations between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states.”
#AIPAC2018’s bylaws, just voted (the Ayes had it) pic.twitter.com/j8qHcioN6A— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) March 5, 2018
In other words, blasphemy, à la Friedman.
There’s a delicious irony to Friedman sub-tweeting J Street at a conference where AIPAC was trying to brand itself as something akin to J Street. But Friedman’s words weren’t so much a gaffe as an illuminating portrayal of the stakes of AIPAC’s attempt to reclaim bipartisanship.
For the world is not the world it once was. President Trump has had a deeply polarizing effect on all Americans, Jews included. The Israelis, too, are getting more and more hawkish and less willing to consider a Palestinian state. If AIPAC is truly committed to courting progressive American Jews, it will face a looming crisis as Israel increasingly alienates them.
It’s a crisis that strikes at the heart of AIPAC itself, and the bigger question of who it serves.
From day one, speakers at the conference put a heavy emphasis on reclaiming bipartisanship. It wasn’t easy. Trump, for whom the vast majority of American Jews did not vote, has proved himself quite an ally to Israel, which put AIPAC in a tough position if it wanted to appeal to anti-Trump progressives while also giving praise where its pro-Trump base feels it is due.
Even more important, AIPAC seemed to want to leave behind the contentiousness of the Obama era and the Iran nuclear deal, which split Democrat and Republican supporters of Israel largely along party lines.
To this end, throughout the talks, Israeli speakers emphasized their progressive bona fides, while U.S. politicians spoke of the importance of Israel as an issue that reaches across the aisle.
Not everyone got the memo. Vice President Mike Pence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Friedman and Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, all praised Trump. And Chuck Schumer surprised many with remarks that would have made Naftali Bennett and the settler movement proud, when he said that the reason there isn’t peace has nothing to do with settlements and everything to do with the fact that the Palestinians don’t want it, because they don’t recognize that Israel belongs to the Jews. “Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah,” Schumer said. “So that’s the reason there is not peace.”
But overall, the focus was squarely on rebranding AIPAC as a place where progressive Jews had a home.
“To my friends in the progressive community, I want you to know we are partners in this project,” AIPAC President Mort Fridman said the first night of the conference. “The progressive narrative for Israel is just as compelling and critical as the conservative one,” he went on. “There are very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall and out of this movement and we cannot let that happen — we will not let that happen!”
AIPAC for its part insists that there was no change. “Bipartisanship has always been at the foundation of AIPAC’s work,” an official told me. “It is the most effective way to build a lasting consensus to support Israel.”
But it was something many noted, including Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama. “Credit where it’s due,” Shapiro told me. “AIPAC has made a concerted effort at last year’s, and especially this year’s, policy conference to demonstrate in word and deed that progressives, Democrats, supporters of a two-state solution, are integral parts of the pro-Israel movement. That traditional bipartisan approach is best for Israel and its security, for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and for prospects for peace.”
It wasn’t just in speeches. The head of a progressive Israeli organization told me that in the past, she couldn’t get AIPAC to sneeze in her direction. This year, they rolled out the red carpet, sending no fewer than eight delegates to greet her upon her arrival.
Of course, there’s a cynical read to this emphasis. AIPAC is first and foremost a lobbying joint, and as such, they need access to whoever is in power, be it Republicans or Democrats. But the efforts at the conference seemed genuinely targeted at the progressives themselves, too.
And it makes sense that AIPAC would pursue this strategy. In recent years, Israel has been hemorrhaging Democratic support. And young American Jews are growing alienated from Israel, thanks to the Israeli right’s increasing illiberalism and the continued occupation of the Palestinians.
Though no one at AIPAC mentioned of “the occupation,” the two state solution came up a few times — though not at any of the plenary sessions. At an after-party hosted by the Peres Center for Peace, an AIPAC delegate spoke of her organization’s commitment to two states, after which Israeli Labor leader Avi Gabbay thanked her for clearing up the record.
Across town, Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, was giving a speech on the same topic, JTA reported. “We must all work toward that future two states for two people, one Jewish with defensible borders and one Palestinian, with its own flag and its own future,” Kohr said.
This was quite a reversal for AIPAC, seeing how two years ago, the organization scrubbed the two-state solution from its talking points, though this may have been in error. “AIPAC’s support for two-states for two peoples has never changed, and has been continuously reflected on our website,” the official told me. “In December 2016, the policy was dropped temporarily from one page of the website when there was an inadvertent modification of the site.”
But bringing the two-state solution back to center stage is not going to be simple for AIPAC, as became abundantly clear when some of Israel’s right wing politicians immediately expressed dismay, with Likud MKs joining the fracas.
It wasn’t only Israelis who felt this way. “The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has strongly criticized the America (sic) Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for calling for the establishment of an Abbas/Palestinian Arab state, a position that contradicts those of both the Trump Administration and the Israeli government,” the ZOA wrote in a statement.
The ZOA is right: Both President Trump and Netanyahu have stepped back from the two state solution. This forces AIPAC into a bind. If it abandons the two-state solution to play to its right flank, it loses the progressives it was so heartily courting last weekend, for whom Palestinian civil rights are crucial. If AIPAC has any intentions of growing, that means making itself more palatable to younger progressive Jews, who have even less patience for hawkish views that exclude Palestinian self-determination.
But if it pursues the two-state solution, it risks its role as cheerleader of the Israeli government, and even a break with the Israeli public.
If advocating for a two-state solution is going to be the fault line separating American and Israeli Jews — as increasingly it seems like it is — AIPAC may have to make a very tough, existential choice.
This choice gets to the tension at AIPAC’s core. Is it a group that represents the American Jewish community? Or does it represent Israel’s interests on Capitol Hill, as the Israeli electorate defines them? And if the former, does it have a responsibility to reflect the Jewish community in its entirety, or only those who really, really care about Israel?
It’s a complicated challenge. One Jewish community leader I spoke to at the conference believes that one’s weight in the lobby should mirror one’s engagement. “The Pew [Research Center] study and other data suggest that well over half of American Jews do not participate in Jewish life,” he told me. “In the course of a year they do not step foot in a JCC or a synagogue, they do not send their children to Hebrew school or Jewish camps — basically they do not act or live any differently than their non-Jewish neighbors.” Their beliefs should inform the conversation, he argued, but disengaged Jews should not be given leadership roles. “It is preposterous for the community to give them the same degree of decision-making in the direction of the Jewish community that is given to those who are involved, invested and engaged.”
Certainly many others at AIPAC agree. And yet, AIPAC does seem to want to make an honest effort to get progressive voices in its tent. And there’s no doubt that this could prove a powerful way of getting young Jews engaged in Israel and Judaism. It would require that AIPAC stand its ground, and continue allowing progressive priorities — including a two-state solution, an end to the occupation of the Palestinians and a resolution of the African refugee problem — to be acknowledged.
As a progressive Jewish leader at the conference told me, “I’ve heard again and again these past few days a genuine desire on the part of the AIPAC leadership to show true openness to the overwhelming majority of our Jewish community,” he said. “I believe that they truly intend to show this. But if you don’t actually do the hard work of listening, or you dismiss what you’ve heard, then you’re doing more harm than good. If you don’t genuinely grapple with the distaste and disgust that the Trump administration and its values are being received with in our community, then you’re causing damage.” He went on: “If you don’t genuinely grapple with the continuing attacks on our values, ideals and institutions from the current Israeli government, then we have a problem.”
There were many moving moments at the conference, too. At one point, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise thanked the AIPAC crowd for their prayers after he was shot. There was a vigorous standing ovation for the U.S. military. A blind Arab Israeli spoke of how his life was changed by a seeing-eye dog, trained by Israelis. But the most moving episode of the conference was a short documentary about Natan Sharansky. Footage of American Jews united in their attempt to help their Soviet brethren brought tears to my eyes.
It made me long for a day when liberal Jews would be asked what we would like to see our elected officials lobby for when it comes to Israel.
The vast majority of us would no doubt agree: peace and security for Israel.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.