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AIPAC, Israel and the Morality of Alliances

“Do not associate with a person given to anger, or go about with one who is hot-tempered, lest you learn his ways and find yourself ensnared.” Proverbs 22:24-25.

AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States, came under fire recently from some of its centrists and left-leaning supporters when AIPAC’s newly formed PAC released its list of recipients. Of the 120 congressional endorsees, more than a quarter are Republicans who voted against certifying Joe Biden as president.[1] For AIPAC, its singularly-focused commitment to lobbying for bi-partisan support of Israel means that it will endorse, as it has in the past, and now also help to fund any candidate, regardless of the candidate’s other positions so long as the candidate falls into the pro-Israel camp.

Even among some longstanding AIPAC members, however, the endorsement and financial support of certain right-wing candidates feels like the crossing of a red line; it is, for them, as if AIPAC has entered an immoral alliance in which even the accomplishment of good ends do not justify the means.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke on March 20 to Israel’s Knesset, pleading for Israeli military support and the extension of Israeli sanctions in Ukraine’s battle for survival against its Russian attackers.One can keep asking why we can’t get weapons from you. Or why Israel has not imposed strong sanctions against Russia. Why it doesn’t put pressure on Russian business,” President Zelenskyy remarked. “But it is up to you, dear brothers and sisters, to choose the answer. And you will have to live with this answer, people of Israel.”[2]

For Ukraine’s leader, Israel’s careful dance of supporting Ukraine with massive airlifts of humanitarian support, refugee resettlement, and medical care while at the same time trying not to anger Russia through military support of Ukraine represents the crossing of a red line of morality. President Zelenskyy believes that Israel is maintaining a problematic alliance with Russia and is therefore failing to pursue the moral good in protecting Ukraine’s independence.

On the surface, AIPAC’s internal struggles and Israel’s international relations are remarkably different situations. One involves a domestic dispute among Americans while the other is a question of international strategy and diplomacy. Where they overlap, however, is with regard to the survival of Jews and of the Jewish State, and the implications of morally questionable relationships. The following questions are at play:

  1. To what extent are Jews permitted to compromise on their moral imperatives in order to save Jewish lives?
  2. To what extent are Jewish lives and Israel at existential risk when it comes to America’s support for Israel, and to what extent are Jewish lives and Israel at existential risk when it comes to Israel’s position between Ukraine and Russia?

Morality, Existential Survival, and Problematic Alliances

The most sacred Jewish values are our relationship with the one, invisible God; preserving and protecting life; and ensuring the dignity of every individual.[3] There is one additional value whose centrality re-surfaced a century ago: preserving and protecting the Land of Israel.

When Jews are engaged in a war for survival, what Maimonides refers to as a Milchemet Mitzvah – a commanded war, then quite literally every effort must be made to protect Jewish lives and the Land of Israel. “For a commanded war, the king need not obtain the sanction of the [rabbinical] court,” Maimonides teaches, and “[the king] may at any time go forth of his own accord and compel the people to go with him.”[4] For a war of survival (of people or land), Israel’s political leader does not need permission from any other body, legislative or moral, and may draft any and every soldier into battle.

However, in the case of a Milchemet Reshut – a battle that is permitted but not necessarily mandatory, there are restrictions on what Israel’s leader can do. He (or she) must obtain permission from the rabbinical court, and even then, the king cannot draft just anyone. When Israel’s existence is not truly at stake, then certain moral boundaries are upheld.

Moreover, Jewish tradition teaches that even in the event of a commanded war, not all means are justified in pursuing the preservation of life or protection of the Land of Israel. In addition to always offering our enemies a path to peace, Maimonides explains that when the Jews enemies’ reject a treaty, Jews are still commanded to fight mercifully. For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surround it on all four sides. This way, they leave one side open to allow for anyone who wants to escape.[5]

On top of Jewish definitions of just warfare, Jewish sacred texts inform us about seeking political alliances. King Solomon, known for his wisdom, saw value in creating allies; he married an Egyptian princess to secure a relationship with neighboring Egypt.[6] The Israelites in their Exodus were joined and assisted by non-Jewish friends. In later centuries, though, Isaiah warned our ancestors and us, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.”[7] Political alliances often achieve immediate gains, but the long-term implications must be considered, lest they supersede the value of the short-term advantage. Of course, if the Jewish people or the Land of Israel are experiencing existential crisis, then usually such a commanded war obligates the acceptance of any person or any country who will serve as allies.

AIPAC and Protecting Israel from an Existential Crisis

In the minds of AIPAC supporters, the absence of a strong alliance between Israel and the United States will render Israel vulnerable, perhaps even to the point of existential crisis. With a growing radicalism among the far left, including among a small but extremely vocal and influential group of congressional representatives, AIPAC’s leadership worries that the political center will shift away from the vast pro-Israel consensus in Congress achieved by AIPAC over the last few decades.

In particular, the growing threat of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and its vast success in arming terrorist groups among Israel’s borders means that, especially without American support, Israel is indeed at profound risk. Existential risk? Many argue yes; I would argue yes, too. I am a long-time AIPAC supporter because a bi-partisan approach to maintaining a strong alliance between Israel and the United States is essential to Israel’s survival. Like all Jews, I am obligated to participate in the defense of Jewish lives and Israeli land.

Sadly, though, this desire to protect Israel coupled with my love for America places me at an intersection with many elected officials who hold positions anathema to my religious and political beliefs; democracy indeed makes for strange and uncomfortable bedfellows. “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help …,” Isaiah warned us. Democracy requires that the achievement of certain ends justifies the means of attaining those ends, and the American political system is designed to accomplish such compromises. AIPAC succeeds — and thus Israel succeeds — because of the shared interest in supporting the Jewish state, even if two congresspeople sit on different sides of the aisle.

That said, there are limits to when politics may be used as justification for actions. Voting not to certify an election is an old political tool, used sporadically by individual politicians seeking to make a point. Democrats voted against the certification of the elections of George Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016, just as Republicans voted against certification of the presidential election in 2020. Yet, no matter the year, every vote against the certification of an election when courts have heard and rejected concerns over election fraud puts the United States’ incredibly fragile democracy at risk. When elected leaders call into question the electoral process, the country that gave refuge to my grandparents, opportunity to my parents, and freedom to me is threatened.

Moreover, voting against certification is one thing; supporting the insurrection of January 6, 2021, in which hundreds of Americans – including many white supremacist Jew-haters – sought to undermine the very foundations of democracy is something else entirely. The American experiment in democracy and the ideas on which it is founded have given birth to the safest and most prosperous diaspora experience in Jewish history. Supporting attacks on American democracy feels like the equivalent of an attack on America … and on its Jews as well.

Israel’s survival justifies supporting candidates from either party who hold certain political beliefs different from my own; this is a compromise I have made for many years. That said, I personally could not give money to a candidate who failed to certify an election declared legal and authentic by our courts. However, For AIPAC as an organization, to withhold support from such a large segment of the American government would indeed put Israel at extreme risk by undermining its bi-partisan support; AIPAC plays that powerful a role in Washington that what it does could make or break the government’s support of Israel. While I might make a certain moral choice with my individual money, the AIPAC leadership is forced into a decision of realpolitik in which it must make certain moral sacrifices to accomplish its very moral mission.

While our longing is for the messianic ideal, AIPAC and its leadership must live in the here and now in order to protect Jews and the Jewish state.

However, to me, nothing can justify an alliance with those who sympathize with attacks on Capitol police officers, with those who want to bring an end to American democracy, and with who desire violence against Jews, Blacks, and other minorities. I can support AIPAC and its bi-partisan efforts to ensure a secure Israel, but I most definitely cannot support the separate AIPAC PAC especially if that is where its monies are going.

Ukraine, Russia, and Protecting Israel from an Existential Crisis

The real world requires pragmatism, even as we yearn for the ideal. I do not agree with every decision that Israel’s elected officials make; such is the blessing and curse of a democracy. At times, I think that some decisions made in the name of Israel’s physical survival actually threaten Israel’s spiritual survival. Some early Zionist thinkers argued that Israel must exist as a nation-state to protect Jewish lives. As if they needed further evidence, the Holocaust placed an exclamation point to that thesis. Israel is needed to protect Jewish lives. Other Zionist thinkers, however, also argued that Israel must exist as a nation-state to protect Jewish souls: that for the People Israel truly to fulfill its God-given mission, a country guided by prophetic values should come to existence. In this way, the expression of Jewish morality in the world of nations can bring honor to God’s name and elevate humankind.

There is no question that for Israel’s survival it must maintain a working relationship with Russia; such is the unfortunate world of realpolitik. Among its many evils, Russia supports those who call for Israel’s destruction – including and especially Iran and its nuclear intentions, as well as the Syrian regime that sits on Israel’s border. To provoke Russia would come at serious risk for Jews and for the Promised Land. I applaud Israel for its vast efforts to care for Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians; these medical, refugee and other humanitarian initiatives are of the highest moral value and put Israel and Israelis into confrontation with Russia. At the same time, I understand why Israeli leaders — like American leaders — will not go any farther in their support.

Jews cannot serve as an or la-goyim – a light unto the nations – if there are no Jews. While risking everything to protect Ukraine might appear the highest moral calling, it is an unacceptable risk for Israel and for the Israeli leadership’s obligation to protect Jews and the Land of the Jews. Solomon married an Egyptian princess; Israel might need to do so as well.

Final Thoughts

In his address to the Knesset, President Zelenskyy explained his position by reminding Israeli lawmakers of the words of a Ukrainian-born Jew who went on to serve as Israel’s first female Prime Minister, Golda Meir. In so doing, Zelenskyy articulates the shared experience of Ukraine and Israel: “We intend to remain alive. Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.” Sometimes individuals can operate on a higher moral plane than institutional and national leaders, who must engage in compromise and collaboration in order to achieve moral ends that sustain the greatest number of people. As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs, “One who seeks love overlooks faults, but one who harps on a matter alienates his friend.”[8]

I pray and I make sacrifices so that Ukraine will indeed remain alive. In all candor, I pray even harder, I make even more sacrifices, and I work diligently so that Israel will remain alive as well: alive in body, and alive in spirit too. In so doing, some alliances are justified in the name of realpolitik, and some simply are not. May we be wise enough to know the difference, and strong enough to act on it.

May the One who makes peace in the Heavens above grant peace to Israel, to America, to Europe, and to all the world. And let us say, Amen.

[1] https://www.jta.org/2022/03/03/politics/aipacs-pac-endorses-dozens-of-republicans-who-refused-to-certify-joe-biden-as-president

[2] https://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-ukraine-president-zelenskys-speech-to-israeli-lawmakers/

[3] BT Yoma 9b.

[4] Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Kings and Their Wars,” 5:2. See also Mishnah Sotah 8:7 and Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Shabbat,” 2:23.

[5] Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Kings and Their Wars,” 6.

[6] I Kings 3:1-3.

[7] Isaiah 31:1.

[8] Proverbs 17:9.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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