Larry Gellman

My Pro-Israel Journey from AIPAC to J Street

My first trip to Israel in 1984 and being picked for the Wexner Heritage Foundation study program in 1988 are events that changed my life forever.

I was previously a Reform and largely secular Jew who defined himself in terms of my career as a TV news reporter and then as a financial adviser who was obsessed with making money and being professionally successful. I was transformed into a Reform and passionate Jew who became driven by my love for Israel and passion for Torah study and Jewish values, wisdom traditions, and locally and nationally leading legacy organizations such as Israel Bonds, Federations, AIPAC, CLAL, and the Jewish Day School I helped found and  endowed in Milwaukee.

Over the last twelve years I have been on an equally dramatic and life-changing journey that has led me to become a passionate national board member of J Street, Americans for Peace Now, as well as CLAL which remains the penultimate promoter of Jewish wisdom traditions and their relevance in today’s world.

That journey and the reasons behind it are well documented in this short video which can be viewed by clicking on this link and typing in the password larryclip.

AIPAC, the ADL, and Federations in particular no longer reflect the core values of Judaism and the guarantees made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and have instead become defined by Israelism–a term I first coined in a blog twelve years ago to describe the new religion of many older, wealthier and Republican Jews to conflate being Jewish with the unequivocal and unquestioning support of whatever the government of Israel decides to do even if it means abandoning time honored Jewish values.

Rabbi Hillel (after whom Jewish student organizations are named) stated thousands of years ago that the entire Torah can be summed up with the single statement “don’t treat others in a way you would hate to be treated yourself.”

But Israelists and the Republican Jewish billionaires who now fund and run AIPAC and the ADL and Federations–like the current government of Israel–have abandoned the Jewish and American values that used to define us and are now treating those who disagree with them about how to best support Israel in the exact opposite way that Rabbi Hillel said was forbidden and what Judaism is supposed to be all about.

In its summer letter to supporters, AIPAC devoted its message to smearing J Street in the most distorted and misleading ways and urging its supporters to show their love for Israel by doing everything they can to destroy J Street.

I was on a J Street trip to Israel with 15 members of Congress earlier this year–a trip on which we met with heads of the IDF and Netanyahu and Herzog and visited an Iron Dome base and Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the Gaza border to make sure our Congressmen and women understood and felt the grave threats that Israelis face from Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists–and every single member of our group told us of direct Mafia-style threats that each of them had received from their “friends” at AIPAC warning them of the harsh and devastating political consequences they would face if they went on a J Street trip.

And now AIPAC and the ADL and the Federation movement are lobbying Congress aggressively to get them to accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism as the ONE AND ONLY legitimate way to define Jew hatred.

Is it an accident that the eleven bullet points the IHRA definition uses to define antisemitism, SEVEN of them mention the word “Israel?” That would require them to reject other definitions such as the far superior–and not unconstitutional–NEXUS definition.

It would clear the way for Red states to pass legislation–as they did after the Supreme Court rulin on abortion–that would make any criticism of the Occupation of the West Bank or anything else the government of Israel does–a HATE CRIME for which people could lose their jobs or be imprisoned.

The temperature and rhetoric surrounding this issue has skyrocketed in recent weeks after the barbaric and horrific murderous attacks on innocent Israelis at Kfar Aza and elsewhere which left 1200 innocents civilians and children dead and taken captive by the Hamas terrorists which J Street and all other decent people in the world have condemned.  Many of those who were killed and taken hostage were children and adults whom we met and hung out with just a few months ago at Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

J Street and other centrist Jewish and American groups have insisted that the perpetrators of these terrorist murders should be found and punished by the IDF which is why we have not called for a ceasefire by Israel.

The real existential threats to the democratic state of Israel and the American jewish community remain internal. In Israel that threat is based on the ineptitude and racist and homophobic and anti-Jewish views and policies of its current government and in the U.S. based on the Israelist and anti-Jewish views of our wealthiest and most powerful legacy organizations such as AIPAC and Federations and the ADL.

There has been a rise in acts of Jew hatred in our country since October 7. But at the end of the day, it might be at least partially due to the fact that those powerful organizations have spent the last decade equating unequivocal support for whatever Israel does with being pro-Israel and a committed Jew. So when Israel’s government behaves in ways that some find disturbing they might just blame all Jews since our Jewish leaders have made it clear that American Jews and Israel are one and the same. Which is of course a lie.

And at the end of the day American Jews live in the best place and best time in history to be Jewish. Those who suggest otherwise have short memories or no memories at all of times in our own country when Jews were changing their names and getting nose jobs to look and sound less Jewish because Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods or join certain clubs or work at most non-Jewish companies or marry non-Jews. Right now, Jew haters are quite vocal and making threats and occasionally engaging in violence and those are real issues.  But it doesn’t change the truth of the sentence that begins this paragraph.

As a committed Jew and a lover of Israel, my move to J Street was logical and reflected no change in me or my values. It was all about what AIPAC–who endorsed and funded 109 Republicans who deny that Joe Biden was elected president and has become an organization obsessed with money, power, threats and hatred–has become. It is led by a handful of billionaires who are the polar opposite of what Rabbi Hillel wisely declared what Judaism is all about and completely out of touch with what most American Jews believe.

Thankfully J Street has emerged to fill the vacuum and give Jews who are driven by Jewish values and wisdom traditions a pro-Israel place to call home.

About the Author
Larry Gellman is a retired Managing Director--Wealth Management at a private worldwide investment firm. He has studied and lectured on Jewish wisdom and ethics in Israel and the U.S. . He has spent 40 years as a major Jewish philanthropist and a current National Board Member of organizations including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and CLAL and a past chairman and former board member of Israel Bonds, Jewish Federations, AIPAC and Jewish Day Schools in Tucson and Milwaukee. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN MY WRITINGS ARE MINE AND MINE ALONE. IDO NOT SPEAK ON BEHALF OF ANY OF THE ORGANIZATIONS WHERE I SERVE AS A BOARD MEMBER OR VOLUNTEER.
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