The speeches are done. The 18,000 AIPAC delegates have gone home. Yet, one week later I am left with an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. What happened? How is it that an angry, hurtful, racist, sexist demagogue could march into the Verizon Center and have his way with a crowd that by all rights should have given him the cold shoulder? To be fair, 18,000 is a huge number. The many who responded with silence, or those of us who walked or stayed out, were eclipsed in the moment (and media coverage) by flames fanned in the room that night, drowned out in the cacophony of the arena. That there were many people who simply felt trapped, trying dutifully to fulfill their role as effective lobbyists, should not be lost on us.
But here’s the uncomfortable truth: Monday night may have been inevitable.
I have been attending AIPAC policy conferences and events for almost a decade. In all that time, I have never before purposefully skipped a speech by a politician with whom I disagree. For me and others like me, this was not about party; the strength of AIPAC has always been its bipartisan approach. But there are those of us who wonder if the organization is at risk of becoming bipartisan in name only. On multiple occasions during this year’s policy conference, the leadership explained the rationale for its bipartisan strategy. I would sum it up this way: You never know which party will prevail, so it’s best to build relationships on both sides of the aisle and with the White House. Pragmatic? Yes. The fundamental flaw in the argument, though, is it ignores the core purpose of a two-party system. True bipartisanship means believing that perspectives and positions in conflict are of benefit to the country. The Jewish notion of makhloket l’shem shamayim, sacred arguing, holds that civil disagreement rooted in shared aims helps all parties to clarify shared values. In other words, I am better when I make common cause with my adversary because the result is something refined.
AIPAC’s problem for a while now is that it acts as if giving equal airtime to each party, having Steny Hoyer speak with Kevin McCarthy, is the same as building bipartisan consensus around Israel. But honoring differences among elected officials or between the pro-Israel lobby and the Obama administration isn’t enough. AIPAC must also respect disagreements among its constituents and supporters, even as it makes the case for its policy agenda. And if it is to remain the go-to place for Israel advocacy, as I believe and hope it will, it will have to win broader backing as well.
Progressive support for AIPAC is at risk, but important lessons have not been learned. There was a telling moment during Vice President Biden’s speech at the conference when he questioned the Likud government’s settlement policy. AIPAC takes no position on settlements. By all rights, it should foster a safe big-tent space for strong Zionists who disagree on this complex and contentious issue – and to voice those disagreements, civilly and publicly. Israelis do it all the time. Nevertheless the applause for Biden’s remark was so tepid it was almost non-existent. Some AIPAC supporters feel bullied into silence, if not by the organization per se, then by the culture of hawkishness and defensiveness it has engendered.
For too long AIPAC has confused effective lobbying strategy with meaningful grass-roots coalition-building. The result is an organization growing in numbers but diminished in stature because, among other things, it is diminished in discourse. AIPAC is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself, a stately edifice with a shaky foundation, because robust debate heard between presenters is tacitly discouraged among delegates. The irony is that the same values making Israel worth defending: free speech, healthy public debate, honoring minority rights and opinions – the same values that make Israel and the US natural allies – are the values increasingly obscured at the now gargantuan policy conference.
Which brings me to Trump. Last Monday night, the Republican front-runner called AIPAC’s bluff. He gave an Israel speech with all the trimmings (plus a little Obama-bashing thrown in for good measure). And many AIPAC supporters, too many of them, gave him the ovation he always feels he deserves. The next morning, AIPAC’s leadership apologized. They were rightly offended by his rhetoric, his ad hominem attacks on the President. I am grateful for the apology, but it didn’t go far enough. The organizers spent the conference telling us to be gracious and respectful toward any speaker. Their advice was not misguided; it was misplaced. It was Mr. Trump who should have been warned: to change his rhetoric, to renounce bigotry and hate, to apologize for his xenophobia, incitement and misogyny.
Some will say AIPAC’s apology is “too little too late” (indeed many already have), but it doesn’t have to be. This moment is an opportunity for a storied organization to reaffirm its purpose and demonstrate to its adherents that sacred arguing is alive and well not only in liberal democracies like America and Israel but within the organization which fights for those democracies too. This may be the best way for AIPAC to reclaim the mantle of bipartisanship.
The rabbis who gathered in the hallway during Trump’s speech stand ready to assist.