The Frustration of AIPAC

The debate isn’t about partisanship; it’s about the perils of single-issue politics

Picture this: a majority of Jews go to the ballot box in 2020 and get what they want. Their voice is not reduced to a single-issue platform. Their majority support for Israel doesn’t sabotage a progressive agenda.

The likelihood of such a scene has dimmed but not diminished, and the Democratic presidential playing field has produced some hope – in between handing the evangelical right handmade grenades for them to shower our party with. Even with the nastiness of Ilhan Omar’s tweeting and the misguided support it prompted from members of the party, a stronger and much needed message is emerging from the viral warfare of the past few weeks.

Namely, a critique of Benjamin Netanyahu, minus the misguided narrative that he is the only villain in the region, and the refusal to accept support for Israel at the expense of toxicity at home. The rhetoric and infighting is embarrassing, but on the upside: combating anti-Semitism is now a top priority as we approach peak presidential primary season.

Despite the ongoing refrains, the challenge that Jews on the left face is not that there is a total lack of politicians willing to go to bat for them. Rather, the struggle lies in the institutions that should be there to represent our values, but instead reduce them to a single issue.

AIPAC is a timely example of our current messaging challenges. Despite its considerable base support on the left and right, it has failed many by handing cheap – yet powerful – political currency to politicians who advance its policy goals for the wrong reason. Many argue that it gives Jews a voice where we need it most. But that voice is still coming at a moral and political premium to a majority of Jews. It is – for example – no wonder that many Jews put space between a group that will lovingly praise a president for moving an embassy to Jerusalem months after empowering neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and overseeing a massive spike in white terrorist hate crimes. That’s not to say you shouldn’t advocate for an embassy move or celebrate a win. Rather, you shouldn’t raise the stock of a demagogue largely detested by the Jewish community to get there. Moreover, AIPAC on its own shouldn’t be the litmus test to begin with. There is nothing wrong with a single-issue advocacy organization, but we are not a single-issue community.

Herein lies the problem faced by progressive Jews everywhere. AIPAC, and many other Jewish institutions, which may be bipartisan, but whose platform is particularly useful for the religious evangelicals who own the pro-Israel brand.  And whether that link is real or imagined does not matter to the media cycle. Even if you don’t think it is fair, the progressive Zionist platform needs serious structural work. Or at least a better PR team. When the political cost of a pro-Jewish brand is reduced, with the left’s help, to support of a single lobby, it doesn’t matter whether AIPAC or any other Jewish institution is nonpartisan or not. When someone can be bad for Jewish values – through links to neo-Nazis, racism, and cruelty toward immigrants – yet maintain a pro-Jewish brand with institutional support, you have a bipartisan problem.

Some on the left strongly disagree with much of this, but the point is not what grade we collectively give AIPAC. Nor is AIPAC the only structural weakness to the progressive Jewish voice. We have to send a better message across the board. This means showing up. More of us may agree on the following ideas:   1) No boycotts, (like the one Moveon.Org falsely boasted of organizing among 2020 candidates last week – a separate conversation). Just showing up and not letting anyone, on the right or left, score cheap wins.  2) Not letting us trade support of Israel for Jewish values at home.

Oh, and nominating the right candidate for the 2020 election.

I’ll conclude with a shameless plug, so feel free to bash me for it below: months ago I supported Beto O’Rourke for president and started a Facebook page called #JewsForBeto, which I hope you’ll visit. My support for him originated with his immigration platform and appeal to rural voters.

In recent days his support for Israel and message to the Jewish community was summed up in a viral clip. Spoiler alert: Unlike Bernie Sanders, he did not endorse Ilhan Omar. Unlike other politicians he didn’t fail to condemn the Palestinian Authority for its refusal to come to the table, and unlike many complicit Israel advocates, he didn’t ignore the racism of Benjamin Netanyahu. This happened in an unscripted response during a Q&A. Sounds dirt simple, but in today’s climate, one viral sound-bite summing all that up is enough to prompt hope.

About the Author
Matt Matilsky has been involved with Israel advocacy and American politics since college. He actively contributes for local and national publications regarding regional and Israel-related issues. He works at a recruitment firm in New York City.
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