I used to joke that J Street was hated by the pro-Israel establishment not because the dovish lobby group criticized Israel, but because it criticized AIPAC. For many supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby is integral to their Jewish and political identities. Groups that wanted to take sides in the various internal debates roiling Israel could have at it. But the American-Jewish establishment couldn’t allow AIPAC itself to be divided by arguments over the Palestinians, the settlements, and the peace process.
Bernie Sanders has been a frequent critic of the Netanyahu government, calling himself pro-Israel but insisting that the Palestinians must be treated with dignity. He has said he would “use the leverage” of U.S. aid to pressure the Israeli government.
But it’s telling that almost nothing he has said on Israel has been as explosive as his announcement this week that he wouldn’t attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference, explaining, “The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”
AIPAC responded by calling Sanders’ remarks “shameful,” “insulting,” and “outrageous.” In its statement it touted the “widely diverse backgrounds” of its delegates, including Democrats, Republicans, Christians, and “progressives.”
“By engaging in such an odious attack on this mainstream, bipartisan American political event, Senator Sanders is insulting his very own colleagues and the millions of Americans who stand with Israel,” the statement said.
The clash, coming a day after Sanders scored his decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses, highlights mainstream anxiety over the Sanders campaign. Sanders not only has surrogates who support a boycott of Israel, but he now seems willing to drag his party out of the pro-Israel mainstream into uncharted waters on the left. Progressive Democrats have been leaning this way in recent years, showing up at J Street events, but few have severed ties with AIPAC and the mainstream American-Jewish consensus it represents.
The dustup focuses like a laser on what AIPAC means to the mainstream American-Jewish community. In that sense, there are two AIPACs: First, there is the lobbying group that by temperament and design supports the sitting Israeli government. While it officially stands for a two-state solution, it has largely been in sync with the nationalist policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for these past 10 years, from Iran to settlements to anti-BDS laws.
Second, there is the policy conference itself, which has become a sort of Zionist pilgrimage holiday for Jews no matter their political beliefs. Many I know are invariably frustrated with AIPAC’s right-leaning policy-making, but attend nevertheless because they feel a strong showing is a necessary signal of unity and political strength.
Supporters of Sanders’ decision to skip the conference say the two perceptions of AIPAC cannot be separated. Were Sanders to show up and offer his own left-wing views on Israel, they argue, it would only give cover to lobbyists who pretend that the AIPAC tent is bigger than it is. When liberals speak at AIPAC, explains the progressive media strategist Mik Moore on Facebook, it “allows AIPAC to tell a story that it is not only bipartisan, but that it is a gathering place for ‘pro-Israel’ Jews of all kinds.” In fact, he writes, speakers who disagree with AIPAC “have no effect whatsoever on its actual work.”
The strongest counterargument to Sanders’ decision is that progressives need to show up to be heard.
In disagreeing with Sanders, Jesse Olitzky, a popular young Conservative rabbi in South Orange, put it this way on Facebook: “I do not always agree with AIPAC or with the speakers present & when I don’t, I make it known. But you have to be in the room to make the changes that you seek.”
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, said she disagrees with Sanders’ decision to skip AIPAC precisely because she agrees with much of his statement. Had she not spoken before hostile audiences as an early advocate for LGBTQ rights in the Jewish community, “there would have been no one to talk to and I would not have been able to influence, engage, and hopefully change and persuade” adversaries, she wrote on Facebook. “We must engage with those with whom we disagree.”
Sanders may have felt righteous in throwing a bone to the far left on Israel, but in doing so he turned his back on liberal Zionists who support his progressive agenda and still work within the pro-Israel establishment. Worse, perhaps, is that he once again signaled that he is less interested in forging a wide and formidable coalition than in stoking his base. Sound familiar? This might be a good strategy for winning the primaries, but it doesn’t bode well for Democrats’ chances in the fall — or it would help make a Sanders presidency every bit as divisive as Trump’s.
As David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times, if Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee and actually hopes to win the election, he will need to peel off middle-of-the-road, non-ideological voters. This isn’t necessarily about tacking to the middle, but “signaling respect to voters outside of his base” and allowing the possibility of compromise on issues like fracking, immigration, health insurance (and, I would add, Israel).
“[T]urning every compromise into an existential moral failing is not a smart way to practice politics,” writes Leonhardt. “It comforts the persuaded while alienating the persuadable.”
Maybe you support groups like J Street and IfNotNow and are cheering Sanders’ attack on AIPAC. But the Jewish left that admires Sanders’ political purity on Israel might be wishing themselves into another four years under an emboldened and unfettered Donald Trump.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He served as NJJN editor for 13 years.