Apologies for the recent lack of blogging activity. Too many work and family obligations, not enough hours in the day.
Last week, there was a dyspeptic attack on Americans for Peace Now by my friend Philip Weiss on his blog, MondoWeiss. (Check it out at http://www.philipweiss.org/mondoweiss/2007/11/foreign-affairs.html). It deserves a belated response.
In taking on a critique of Walt and Mearsheimer by Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs, Weiss cites the following quote from Mead:
If everyone from AIPAC to Americans for Peace Now is part of the lobby, what, exactly, is the political agenda the lobby supports?…What is the relationship between the internal dynamics of this divided lobby and the politics and policies of both Israel and wider American society?
“When it comes down to it, Mearsheimer and Walt do not seem to know who, exactly, belongs to this amoebic, engulfing blob they call the lobby and who does not. Take their own case. They describe themselves as pro-Israel, in that they believe in the state’s right to exist…”
Then Weiss responds:
I myself have faulted Mearsheimer and Walt for not being more precise about the lobby’s borders. But how easy is it to be precise in such uncharted territory? It’s not. Mead himself makes a fascinating mistake in his indictment. He crows that W&M have included “everyone from AIPAC to Americans for Peace Now”. In fact, APN is part of AIPAC. APN is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and all the members of the Conference of Presidents are on the AIPAC executive committee.
This is one of the marvels of the Israel lobby: it is a loose coalition. When I learned as much earlier this year, I wondered why APN doesn’t resign from AIPAC to protest AIPAC’s role in the Iraq war, or in the Syria Accountability Act, or in defending the settlements, or in supporting the Lebanon War. But APN doesn’t resign. And no one starts an alternative lobby (and when George Soros notions it, the lobby suggests he was a collaborationist in Hungary during the Holocaust and Soros bows out).
This is modern Jewish history. My sense is that Jewish organizations, fearful for Israel’s existence, tend to close rank when it comes to speaking to the U.S. government–and thereby allow the rightwing hardliners to be the court Jews. This cultural/political/institutional mystery is not fully understood by Walt and Mearsheimer, no, but they have done a wonderful job under the circumstances.”
So, is APN part of the cabal? Is it part of the problem? I’m on the APN Board. Am I part of the problem? Weiss’ argument echoes familiar accusations from the far left against slightly less radical Dems who attend their Party’s convention and try to play a role in the drafting of platforms. The same argument is made against anyone who insists on a seat at the power table and then stays there even when they disagree with most of the people at the table. Given this country’s disastrous Middle East policies, this is an understandable sentiment.
But, like his heroes Walt and Mearsheimer, Weiss is a relatively young student of the American Jewish community, its organizational structures, and its mechanisms of influence. In this case, he doesnâ€™t have the faintest idea of what he is talking about.
Having a seat in the back of the room in AIPAC has not prevented APN from criticizing Congress or the White House, or addressing the White House directly. The reason why APN exists is to ensure that the hardliners whom Weiss glibly calls â€œcourt Jewsâ€ are NOT the only voices. When the Israeli government expands settlements or refuses to remove settlement outposts or takes other steps that make matters worse, APN speaks out publicly as well privately to the State Dept.
Weiss wants American Jews to rise up and speak out to prevent the Bush Administration from launching a military attack on Iran. So do I. APN agrees with me and has publicly broken with much of the American Jewish community by calling for engagement with Iran, with a combination of carrots and sticks. Check out all of APNâ€™s statements over the years. Much of the organizationâ€™s work has been devoted to counter-acting ideas and people Weiss does not like. But because it is somehow formally connected with AIPAC, he wants no part of it. This is short-sighted.
Weiss does not understand what AIPACâ€™s â€œExecutive Boardâ€ is. Calling APN a â€œmemberâ€ of the Executive Board makes it seem like the group is part of a very important decision-making body. That is not accurate. What follows may seem like a pedantic riff on AIPACâ€™s structure, but the devil is in these details:
Every group in the 50-member Presidents Conference has a seat on the Executive Board, as Weiss notes. Besides APN, other dovish groups at that table include Ameinu, the Religious Action Center and the Union of Reform Judaism.
That sounds impressive, since in most not-for-profit groups, the â€œExecutive Boardâ€ is a small, decision-making body, the people who oversee the staff. The “Board of Directors” is generally much larger and has less influence. But the reverse is true in AIPACâ€™s case: the â€œBoard of Directorsâ€ is much smaller and, along with the staff, has the real power.
It didnâ€™t used to be that way. In the 1980s, AIPAC became much more of an autonomous entity that didnâ€™t answer to the American Jewish community. Its leaders wanted AIPAC to answer to AIPAC. As a result, the clout of AIPAC’s Executive Board â€“and the Jewish organizations on that board–was gradually and deliberately diminished. This was accomplished by expanding the Executive Board to include large numbers of individual, major donors to AIPAC. They now make up the majority of the Executive Board, not the Jewish groups.
The main function of the AIPAC Executive Board is to vote on general policy prescriptions during their policy conferences. Those broad policies sometimes do help to nudge AIPAC in one direction or another, but their impact is minimal on the day-to-day operations. Members of the Board also get briefings (at least twice a year, I believe) in Washington on AIPACâ€™s lobbying strategies and priorities.
So APN, as a group, has little say in what AIPAC does. But even if APN sits at only a few of the power tables, that at least gives it the opportunity to speak truth to power, and to know what our ideological adversaries are up to. Think of it as the Zionist equivalent of Log Cabin Republicans.
As Mearsheimer and Walt note, when AIPAC has pushed for legislation meant to impose Draconian restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority, APN and a few other groups have fought and sometimes succeeded in eliminating at least some of the most odious provisions. For that to happen, an organization needs to be plugged in. Membership on the Exec. Board does help in that regard. There are many other examples.
The only way for APN to â€œresignâ€ from AIPACâ€™s Exec. Board is to leave the Conference of Presidents. There may come a time when it makes sense to leave both. That time has not come. There are a lot of reasons for maintaining at least some connections with the Jewish communal establishment.
In fact, Mearsheimer and Walt offer a few different prescriptions towards the end of their book. One of them is â€œConvincing groups within the lobby to support a different agendaâ€¦In practice, this development could involve strengthening more moderate forces that already exist â€“such as Israel Policy Forum or Americans for Peace Nowâ€”or by creating new pro-Israel groups that support different policies.â€ Either way, little is going to be accomplished unless the liberal wing of the organized Jewish community is mobilized. And nothing is going to be accomplished by taking cheap shots at groups like APN.