I’m an AIPAC Activist and Progressive Without Quotes

On March 1st, Rabbi Jonah Geffen, the Rabbinic Director for J-Street posted on Facebook what can be seen as a challenge to his fellow rabbinic colleagues who were about to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference.

Question for all my “progressive” rabbi friends at AIPAC this week. Especially those who have spoken out against the PM’s speech to congress. Are you going to to lobby congress if the issue is Iran and your assigned ask is for your congresspeople to vote against the President?

As The J-Street Conference with some 3000 delegates (1000 of them students) approaches, I revisited this post and came away with a few questions and new insights.

1. I am struck by Geffen’s use of quotes around the word progressive when addressing his colleagues. In the comments following his post, he claims that his choice of punctuation came about because he is unclear what exactly the term means. This seems disingenuous to me. You see, about a year ago, Alan Elsner, Vice President for Communications, spoke at my synagogue. During a Q&A session, he gratuitously commented that AIPAC had just created a position for “Progressive Engagement.” He then said, “…good luck to them. Fact is, if you are a progressive the only real pro-Israel address for you is J-Street.”

The professional staff of J-Street knows exactly what the term progressive means. Geffen’s use of quotes was, I believe, an attempt, yet again, to put forth the narrative that the only true home for pro-Israel Progressive Zionists is J-Street and that, by default, anyone attending an AIPAC is a progressive in name, and quotes, only.

2.There are no “assigned asks” at AIPAC. Geffen’s use of the term shows how little he understands the AIPAC model. AIPAC has Policy Initiatives. They are made public and can be found on the AIPAC website. It is these policy initiatives that, as part of promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship, AIPAC activists share with members of Congress.

But there is more.

3. In his post, Geffen wonders if his colleagues will “ask Congress people to vote against the President.” The president has all but cut Congress out of the negotiations with Iran. As a result there is currently nothing from the President about which Congress CAN vote. This secrecy is part of the problem with the current state of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear aspirations. Congress has, thus far, received a shut door with nothing, good or bad, about which to vote. Geffen knows this to be the case but chose the wording anyway.

During the AIPAC Policy Conference, this is what we actually DID ask Congress- Please make clear that you, as the legislature, must be informed about proceedings. Since you will have to vote to permanently repeal most of the sanctions currently in place please insist on being invited back into the process and being involved in any final deal. Both the content and the process of this request is the Democratic process at work. It is the universe in which and methodology with which AIPAC operates.

4. Geffen suggests that Rabbis who are American citizens should not ask members of Congress to vote against the president- were there even something to vote on- as if a sincere policy disagreement with the administration is treasonous. Rather than treason, this is democracy in action.

At the same time J-Street’s proscriptive approach will use their conference to rally their troops to pressure the Israeli government, the democratically elected government of a sovereign country, to behave in a manner they wish to dictate. That does not strike me as particularly respectful of Israeli OR American Democracy.

5. Geffen’s Facebook post prompted me to check out the program for the J-Street Conference. After perusing the schedule, I am left wondering how a self-proclaimed Pro-Israel group can have at its conference sessions with titles such as… “Gaza: The Human and Political Costs of Deprivation and Disunity” and “J Street U Presents: A Conversation with the Next Generation of Anti-Occupation Activists.”

What I don’t see are a lot of programmatic sessions that celebrate all Israel has achieved. I would expect such things to be a key component in a conference sponsored by a Pro-Israel organization.

And one last point.

6. What does it say when the rabbinic director of an organization calls out fellow rabbis- by name- while they are in Washington to express their love for and support of Israel? Perhaps a more thoughtful use of social media, along with a renewed appreciation for the halachic teachings about bushah- (embarrassment) might help him better make his case.

I, for one, remain a Zionist, a proud member of the AIPAC National Council and a progressive… without the quotes.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.