Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Reflections on the AIPAC Organizing Story: Notes on Howard Kohr’s Tenure

There is a specific organizational mantra to AIPAC’s methodology and its operational success!  In this essay we will want to explore not only the elements to AIPAC’s impressive record but more directly, to understand the distinctive contributions of its CEO Howard Kohr, who announced this past week that he would be stepping down at the end of this year.

During Kohr’s nearly 30-year tenure as its institutional leader, AIPAC would grow its institutional footprint, fundraising prowess, and institutional reach.  Over this time frame, the organization would develop a plan for diversification, with the creation of its PAC ( and its American Israel Educational  Foundation (, while also strengthening its core mission, pro-Israel advocacy, in addition, to the formation of the United Democracy Project  (  Kohr, working along side of his co-Executive Director, Richard Fishman, of blessed memory, was able to create an effective leadership partnership.

Until they were no longer, AIPAC’s Policy Conferences became the centerpiece for the unfolding of the Pro-Israel agenda but also over time, and by default, the Conference replaced the GA (General Assembly of the Jewish Federations) as the largest gathering of American Jewish leadership.

Here then are some five organizational and leadership take-aways in connection with the AIPAC model:

  • De-emphasize Institutional Publicity: Focus Instead on Outcomes and Wins!
  • Focus on the End Product: Congressional Advocacy and Favorable Outcomes for Israel.
  • Promote a Lockstep Organizing Model: Framed around Bipartisanship, While Maintaining a Single-Issue Focus.
  • Advance the Idea of “the Pro-Israel Community” as a Distinctive Concept and Source of Messaging.
  • Develop a Bottom-Up Organizing Strategy: Identify and Promote the Case for Israel Among Existing and Emerging Political Figures. The “network” approach designed to reach each member of Congress offers opportunities for Pro-Israel advocates to regularly connect with their assigned Congressional representative.

Among the other outcomes achieved during the Kohr era, would be the significant growth and involvement of Orthodox Jewish participation, the development of AIPAC’s outreach and regional organizing initiatives with synagogues, and the promotion of high-end donor circles of support.

The emphasis on the cult of personality that often defines senior executives simply was neither what Kohr represented or what AIPAC’s organizational culture or style reflected. In so many ways, the AIPAC brand has not focused on personalities but on outcomes!

David Shipler of.the New York Times has described AIPAC as “a major force in shaping United States policy in the Middle East,” and this is due to its consistency in maintaining its core business model.

 In an earlier essay looking at the success of single-issue lobbying organizations, I had occasion to study the NRA as a prototype of successful advocacy structures. As I noted the core ingredients for such 501 C 4 operations involved five factors:

  1. Single Focus: a dedicated commitment to its core mission.
  2. Defend the Cause: gaining buy-in for advancing the case for Israel, pushing back against critics.
  3. Big Tent: the ability to be able to cast a wide net to garner support for a defined agenda. Given the reality of working with both political parties and a wide array of political interests, AIPAC has been able to harness and maintain a broad base of consensus over an extended timeline.
  4. Culture and Cause: the capacity to connect the “pro-Israel” agenda with America’s core values and political priorities. The ability of AIPAC to construct over time a deep cultural and policy link in promoting the American-Israel partnership.
  5. Leadership: central to a lobbying group’s success is its capacity to attract and engage key influential leaders, who can effectively represent the pro-Israel case. The professional-lay partnership exhibited by the AIPAC model ought not to be minimized.

From my earlier work on lobbying, I identified a series of take-aways central to the success of such organizing efforts:

  • Mobilize broadly, creating access for millions of supporters.
  • Align one’s goals with patriotic values and a particular piece of American culture.
  • Move beyond the agency’s membership base in order to create a set of economic and political alliances.
  • Repeat one’s essential message over and over, maintaining the focus on the basic issues, never ceding core beliefs.
  • Create a sophisticated network of subsidiary organizations to carry out elements of the core agenda and to improve one’s fiscal position.
  • Construct an environment where members understand that they are part of community (family) who share common values and interests.

Stepping Back: Some Historical Context to the AIPAC Story

In 1953, Isaiah (Sy) Kenen, who had previously worked for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, established AZCPA (American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs). Kenen envisioned that this agency could broaden support for Israel beyond the Zionist organizational world. Concerns were raised by the Eisenhower Administration over Israeli involvement in the funding apparatus of the agency, leading to its being renamed in 1959, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Kenan remained on as its director until his 1974 retirement.

During the 1970s, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations assumed the role of representing Israel-related matters to the executive branch of the government, while AIPAC would be charged with directing the pro-Israel agenda with Congress.

Over a period of 15 years, AIPAC’s operational budget which was $300,000 in 1973 would exceed $7 million by the late 1980’s. Just as AIPAC’s financial situation would be transformed, so would its operational style:

Whereas Kenen had come out of the Zionist community, with early staff pulled from the longtime activists among the Jewish community, AIPAC had evolved into a prototypical Washington-based lobbying and consulting firm. Leaders and staffers were recruited from legislative staff and lobbyists with direct experience with the federal bureaucracy.”

Posted below are some additional operational factors about the agency:

  • The AIPAC operational structure involves the presence of regional offices, along with its Washington-based national headquarters.
  • According to OpenSecrets, AIPAC spent $3.5 million on lobbying in 2018, a relatively large sum in the realm of foreign policy but less than many industry lobby groups with the top 15 such groups in the US all spending over $15 million.
  • In an Politico story this winter, AIPAC appears ready to assist in a significant way pro-Israel candidates, with what is being reported as a $100 million “war chest”.


 In many ways the low key public presence of such organizations as AIPAC, may provide some insights into its operational success. Measuring Congressional outcomes in connection with advancing financial assistance, military partnerships, diplomatic and political support for the State of Israel represents the core test of AIPAC’s success.

For both practitioners and those studying the political advocacy field, unpacking AIPAC represents an essential educational experience, as its distinctive operational style makes this agency a great case study.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.