Joel Laitman

The largest ‘pro-Israel’ lobby in the US is hurting Israeli democracy

On the consequences of AIPAC's systematic stifling of any and all criticism of Israel in the US Congress
Then-US vice president Mike Pence speaks at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference at Washington Convention Center, on March 5, 2018, in Washington, DC (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Then-US vice president Mike Pence speaks at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference at Washington Convention Center, on March 5, 2018, in Washington, DC (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

For those of us who love and support the State of Israel and are proud of its achievements and founding democratic principles, the last seven months have been particularly heartbreaking. The extreme right-wing coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu has moved at breakneck speed to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court. Its motivation has been clear.

In the past, the Supreme Court has blocked or likely would block based on its prior rulings much of the proposed agenda this extreme right-wing coalition now wants to advance; an agenda that seeks to provide grossly unequal exemptions from military service to the ultra-Orthodox (2017 Supreme Court Ruling), undermine gender equality (anticipated Supreme Court Rulings to proposed discriminatory laws) and LBGTQ rights (2021 Supreme Court Ruling) and, perhaps most of all, expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territory and annex the West Bank (2020 Supreme Court Ruling). It concerns this government little that, for example, settlement expansion and annexation are gross violations of international law and US foreign policy or that annexation would, in and of itself, end Israel’s existence as a democracy.

The judicial overhaul, part of which has already passed, is particularly deleterious to Israel’s democracy because Israel has few other checks on the coalition’s power. The state has only a single legislative house controlled by the ruling coalition and most importantly – no constitution.

The reaction of Israel’s populace to the assault on its democracy has been dramatic. For 31 consecutive weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have protested throughout the country. On “Days of Disruption” leading up to and immediately following the passage of the first plank of the judicial overhaul, protesters blocked major transportation arteries, government buildings and Ben Gurion Airport.

Beyond the protests, the judicial overhaul has caused significant rifts within Israel’s bedrock institutions as well as the exodus of vital constituents. Over 10,000 army reservists stated they would no longer serve as did 1,000 Air Force personnel. Further, a recent survey found that nearly 70% of Israeli high-tech companies had “already taken action, including withdrawing cash reserves, relocating their headquarters outside of Israel, moving employees abroad” in response to the judicial overhaul. Finally, the judicial coup has also led thousands of Israeli physicians to take steps to emigrate.

Faced with this existential crisis, those fighting for democracy in Israel have come to the US and told America – particularly the American Jewish community – what they need. It is not money but voices in opposition. Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and Labor MK Gilad Kariv have made trips to lobby American lawmakers and galvanize Jewish organizations and religious movements to oppose the judicial overhaul. In February 2023, well before the pace of the overhaul and protests intensified, Israeli political commentators Matti Friedman, Daniel Gordis and Yossi Klein Halevi wrote an open letter to “North American Friends of Israel” calling on them to protest. “We need your voice,” they wrote.

Yet, much of the US Jewish establishment, particularly the major “pro-Israel” lobbies, have for decades honed their skills in the opposite direction. Most prominently, AIPAC, with $88.6 million in its annual budget, is dedicated to not only refraining from any criticism of the Israeli government but to pouring millions of dollars into US campaigns to defeat any candidate who does. (It is probably not surprising that AIPAC is not troubled by the threat to Israel’s democracy since, after all, this is the same organization that backed 109 Members of Congress who refused to certify President Biden’s election. Democracy is obviously not a core value).

So, for example, in July 2022 AIPAC spent well over $4 million dollars to defeat Michigan Congressman Andy Levin even though he voted to support vast military aid to Israel and opposed BDS because Levin had dared to fiercely oppose Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements and moves toward annexation. AIPAC “succeeded” in defeating Levin. But did AIPAC really succeed? There is no doubt that had Andy Levin been in Congress today he would have been one of the most vocal voices lobbying President Biden to pressure Israel to halt the judicial coup. In contrast, the AIPAC-funded candidate who replaced Congressman Levin has been, needless to say, entirely silent on the subject of Israel’s judicial overhaul – just like AIPAC itself. The opposite of what Israel’s pro-democracy movement has said it needs.

It is high time for AIPAC and its supporters to pause and consider the current casualty of AIPAC’s systematic stifling of any and all criticism of Israel in the US Congress: Israel’s democracy. At a time when Israelis are calling for American Jews to join them in protesting the coalition’s agenda, AIPAC and its allies should not be engaged in ensuring no US Congressperson will do so. Zionism in 2023 requires something fundamentally different from what AIPAC is doing. It requires encouraging the Congress to fight for the core democratic values underpinning the Jewish state and oppose, vehemently, the current far-right Israeli government that seeks to erase them.

About the Author
Joel Laitman is a former partner at the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, with degrees from Columbia University, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Georgetown University Law Center.