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How To Criticize AIPAC Without Being Anti-Semitic

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, recently made headlines when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that they used “Benjamins” to influence U.S. politicians. Omar subsequently apologized, acknowledging that she had veered into the territory of anti-Semitic tropes. But the episode left lingering questions about how to talk about money in politics and U.S.-Israel relations in a way that doesn’t offend American Jews.

These questions will be all the more urgent next week, as 20,000 people descend onto Washington D.C. for AIPAC’s annual policy conference. The conference is nothing if not a spectacle of the lobbying group’s power; AIPAC boasts that two-thirds of the U.S. Congress will be present.

How to navigate the muddy waters of discussing a powerful Jewish lobby for Israel without using anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish control and dual loyalties?

On the one hand, we have a responsibility to dial down the drama, especially from well-meaning politicians anxious to pursue ends that many Jews may agree with.

On the other hand, it’s crucial to navigate conversations about Jews and money (and Jewish money) in a way that doesn’t devolve into anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The truth is, American Jews tend to be hyper-vigilant about political discourse on Israel. But isn’t that understandable, even admirable? It can feel that much is at stake — our identity, our homeland, our safety.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to make room for difficult conversations.

In an atmosphere of mistrust over motives and good will, it behooves us to articulate shared ground rules for discussion.

Here are seven guidelines for having the difficult if necessary conversation about Jews, money and Israel:

  1. Don’t single out Israel alone. It’s fine to talk about the role of money in U.S. politics, so put criticism of pro-Israel donations in that context. Note the influence of money from the NRA, labor unions, CAIR, and oil-rich Arab countries. Refer to your position on the Citizens United decision.

  2. Explain why you choose to focus on Israel. It’s okay to personally care more about Israel than other places. I know that I do. It’s also okay to be critical of Israeli policies and conduct. But let your (Jewish) interlocutor know what drew you to this topic. It’s understandable that after 2,000 years of scapegoating, Jews would like to be reassured that you aren’t focusing on Jewish wrongdoing just because it’s Jewish.

  3. Acknowledge the difficulty of even talking about money and U.S. politics on Israel. The difficulty arises from the history of anti-Semitic lies and misconceptions, which have made Jews vulnerable. If you consider it vital to address the role of Israel advocacy money, show your awareness that this is a touchy subject.

  4. Make sure it is known that you are aware that anti-Semitic hatred and violence has often been fanned by ugly stereotypes, conspiracy fantasies, and lies about Jews and money. Start with House Resolution 183, which notes the “dangerous myth… that Jews are obsessed with money.”

  5. Learn how court Jews and European Jewish bankers were set up for scapegoating. Learn about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how its motifs have been recycled in Europe, Islamic countries, and America.

  6. State clearly and emphatically that advocacy and pro-Israel money comes in large part from Christians, i.e., not only Jews. Reiterate that you believe money should have less influence in every sphere of politics.

  7. Admit up front that support for Israel is not only about money. Voters, especially Evangelical and Jewish voters, also matter. You might cite data on the high levels of Christian and Jewish “support” for Israel. (Try avoiding the words “loyalty” and “allegiance” which conjure up images of the Jew as foreign and untrustworthy.) Granted, it is worth examining whether financial resources help generate those pro-Israel votes in the first place.

  8. Cite reliable sources about the role of money in U.S. politics, generally, and on pro-Israel lobbying and campaign funding in particular. Demand better data about money in U.S. politics.

It would also be wise to meet with pro-Israel advocates, Jewish and otherwise, so as to understand their perspective on a gut level. Face-to-face efforts at mutual understanding might result in a more productive political discourse. Americans deserve politicians who can “fight fair” in reasoned debate over hot button issues.

This should help get you started.

It’s true that Jews are going to disagree about when such guidelines are breached and how to respond. And people tend to grant less slack to politicians in a rival camp.

But given that anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes are so entrenched in (non-Jewish) discourse silos, it strikes me as sensible to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Should you hear something that offends you as a Jew, it is better to criticize actions than label people. Avoid reductive terms that reify humans as an Enemy, be it ‘anti-Semite,’ ‘bigot,’ ‘fascist,’ and so on.

We deserve conversations that push us out of our partisan comfort zones – and those discussions will be more manageable if nobody, no Jew, Christian or Muslim, etc., gets tagged as if irredeemably or intrinsically evil.

Hillel Gray teaches for the Department of Comparative Religion, Miami University, where he is the coordinator of its Jewish studies program. His latest project is entitled Empathy and the Religious “Enemy.”

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