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Are pro-Israel doves part of the “lobby?”

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 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 doesn’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 “court Jews” 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 APN’s statements over the years. Much of the organization’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 AIPAC’s “Executive Board” is. Calling APN a “member” 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 AIPAC’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 “Executive Board” 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 AIPAC’s case: the “Board of Directors” is much smaller and, along with the staff, has the real power.

It didn’t used to be that way. In the 1980s, AIPAC became much more of an autonomous entity that didn’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 –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 AIPAC’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 “resign” from AIPAC’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 “Convincing groups within the lobby to support a different agenda…In practice, this development could involve strengthening more moderate forces that already exist –such as Israel Policy Forum or Americans for Peace Now—or by creating new pro-Israel groups that support different policies.” 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.

17 thoughts on “Are pro-Israel doves part of the “lobby?”

  1. Speaking of pedantry…Weiss calls the AIPACers “court Jews.” That is a term for people who pretty much did what their rulers wanted them to do. They serverd at the mercy of their patrons, and while of course they were blamed for policies that hurt the masses, most were toadies who did not “control” anything. So he’s got the wrong metaphor.

    Here’s Wikipedia:
    Court Jews, called also court factors, and court or chamber agents, played a part at the courts of the Austrian emperors and the German princes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and at the beginning of the nineteenth. Not always on account of their learning or their force of character did these Jews rise to positions close to the rulers: they were mostly wealthy businessmen, distinguished above their co-religionists by their commercial instincts and their adaptability.

    Court rulers looked upon them in a personal and, as a rule, selfish light; as being, on the one hand, their favorites, and, on the other, their whipping-boys. Court Jews frequently suffered through the denunciation of their envious rivals and co-religionists, and were often the objects of hatred of the people and the courtiers. They were of service to their fellow-Jews only during the periods, often short, of their influence with the rulers; and as they themselves, being hated parvenus, often came to a tragic end, their co-religionists were in consequence of their fall all the more harassed.

    The court Jews, as the agents of the rulers, and in times of war as the purveyors and the treasurers of the state, enjoyed special privileges. They were under the jurisdiction of the court marshal, and were not compelled to wear the Jews’ badge. They were permitted to stay wherever the emperor held his court, and to live anywhere in the German empire, even in places where no other Jews were allowed. Wherever they settled they could buy houses, slaughter meat according to the Jewish ritual, and maintain a rabbi. They could sell their goods wholesale and retail, and could not be taxed or assessed higher than the Christians.

    Like all businessmen, Court Jews functioned at the mercy of the prevailing economy and changes in the regional/global economic conditions over which they had little or no control. Nevertheless, they were usually be assigned blame. Particularly odious, were their functions as shop keeping tradesmen and petty-lenders to the Christian working and agricultural classes on the continent. Their Sovereigns also sometimes assigned them the role of local tax collection from the above named classes of the ruler’s subjects. These roles built up a long (and some would say still) standing enmity between the Jewish (educated middle and upper) professional class; and the Christian lower middle, working, lower and agricultural classes. The resentments had far-reaching consequences in the history of European Jews.

    These Christian classes were encouraged by their rulers and their church to blame Court Jews for the economic hardships that would periodically befall the local economy. The high taxes demanded by the ruler to pay off his war debts after the all too frequent wars, were blamed upon the Court Jews who had helped financed the war in the first place. Even though they had no choice in the matter. Moreover, they had no responsibility whatsoever for starting or fighting the war in the first place.

    When the ruler’s bad economic decisions or profligate personal household spending resulted in a decline in national income or a rise in interest rates, with the resultant failure in small share Christian businesses and farms, the Court Jews domestically and abroad were easy to be blamed by the sovereign and his lesser nobles. It was an easy step to allow the people to periodically vent their anger against the great majority of Jews who were poor shopkeepers and tenant farmers (just like the Christians) as being responsible for economic hardships.

  2. Well, it is a breach between liberals and radicals.

    The substance is contempt for those that have not cut ties, or established preconditions for ties.

    Although I argue with many of my family and local Jewish community about Israeli politics, we are still family. Our connection is unconditional, even as some of my conservative family is willing to shun me. (Not exactly unconditional).

    Israel is part of it for me now, family, unconditional in ways.

    I married a child of holocaust survivors. Prior to marrying into European (later Israeli, later still European again) Jewry, the holocaust and Zionism was a bit remote to me.

    In a current post, Phil describes the movie Exodus as formative. I too had a movie image of Zionism, a sentimental appeal, invoked. I rejected it in favor of more “universal” commitments.

    My European family though did not derive their Zionism from sentiment. For them, it was necessity, KNOWN, contrasting with my imagination.

    The criticism of the evocation of sentiment rings true to me. I want to be more than Pavlovian, more than a party hack, more than a stupid consumer.

    But, the IGNORANCE of the reality (European Jews experience) strikes me as politically and morally negligent.

    The left is similarly on the fence whether they are appealed to by sentiment, images, invocations, imagination.

    In some ways the rhetorical wars (often devolving to real angers and violence) are of fighting over which imagination/fantasy/romanticism will prevail.

    But, that points to where hope lies, in the reconciliation of real tangible needs, that are possible to be reconciled by those that KNOW what is real need from what is fantasy.

    Title issues are resolvable. Sovereignty issues are resolvable. Political forms are resolvable.

    Competing rhetoric usually isn’t, especially when shame is invoked to describe any compromise.

    The hopelessness for me resides in the imagination, and in the angry (also imaginative) reaction to the imagination revealed as imagination.

    I don’t know how to appeal to the original liberatory sentiment of compassion of the left.

    I observe and fear a repitition of the Ezra Pound phenomena, coming to admire Mussolini for his “courage” in standing up to big finance (even as different sectors of big finance, big power, embraced him and he embraced).

  3. Then, how can the liberal parts of the Jewish community, that participates in policy formation even only incidentally, have more influence in the process?

    Does it take becoming skilled at fundraising, more imaginative in argument, establishment of publications (as Commentary formed to articulate a perspective over an extended period, and ended up influencing many), running in electoral politics, or becoming independantly wealthy (really independant) and able to fund one’s own perspective, and/or more determined to go door to door, or establishing more effective and progressive social service?

  4. Dan, APN does play a useful role on the margins when it comes to taming legislation. But it has never had the guts to, for example, call for aid to Israel to be conditioned on stopping the madness of settlements. Or come out strongly and clearly against bombing houses to kill wanted men, when it is clear that the bombs could very well kill women and children.

    If you want to change the situation, you need to tell the American government to threaten and even sanction Israel unless it stops taking steps that screw up any chance for the peace Israelsi say they want.

    APN won’t go that far. Will you?

  5. I’m responding to Marco. During the Bush senior administration, US loan guarantees for $10 billion were on the table to assist the one million new immigrants from the Soviet Union who were moving to Israel. It takes a complicated financial analysis, beyond my ken, to determine how much aid the loan guarantees actually meant for Israel and how much this cost the US. But the Bush administration withheld a proportional amount of this aid to punish Israel’s construction expenditures for settlements at that time.

    In a controversial move for a Zionist organization, APN supported the Bush senior administration for its anti-settlement financial sanctions.

  6. Thanks for the correction, Ralph. I looked it up and you are right –APN did follow a different path on the loan guarantees than the rest of the community during Bush ’41. They briefly broke the taboo against calling for conditions on U.S. aid to Israel. Good for them!

    So that was, what 17 years ago? Since then, has any Jewish group except for the non-Zionist ones called for the U.S, to threaten to withold aid? Has Meretz USA? If not, why not?

  7. So, my question is, if there are all of these progressive Zionists out there who don’t like what AIPAC stands for, why don’t they (we) all join AIPAC and take it over? I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s made that suggestion.

  8. “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?”

    Yes. Yes. And yes. Zionism is the problem, chief. Preserving a Jewish majority and dealing with the so-called “demographic problem” –instead of the moral problem of stealing and occupying another people’s land–is the main reason why APN and the so-called ZIonist left have defended a two state solution. As a result, they are [also] morally bankrupt.

  9. Great idea Rachel. I don’t think taking it over would be possible nor even good, but definitely participating to the point that a more progressivd voice is prominent is a good idea.

    To “look at yourself in the mirror”

    Zionism is the affirmation that the Jewish people are a nation, and as a nation deserve to self-govern, and as self-governing entity in an unsafe world deserve a state with borders.

    To be anti-Zionist is to state “Jews are not a people, and don’t have the right to self-associate.”

    In the modern world there is NO place on earth that is literally unoccupied, empty. And there is no place on earth now in which any social or economic change that occurs will not impose on others in some way.

    Even in the Islamic world there is conflict between nomadic and settled. The nomadic lifeways are changed by external circumstances. It happens in Canada, Africa, Australia, Turkey, Russia. Everywhere.

    For historical reasons, Jews came to ASSERT that we are a people as a nation. And, as the world was full, it inevitably took effecting others for that to happen.

    The voice of anti-Zionism is partially (hopefully unconsciously) the assertion that Jews should remain subordinate.

    I regard it as a liberation, but that has not yet learned the meaning of the term “enough”. You know, LIVE and LET LIVE.

    The west hasn’t learned it. Islam hasn’t learned it. The left hasn’t learned it.

    The choice of regarding Zionism as THE problem may then be an example of choosing Jews to condemn rather than actions, policies, attitudes.

  10. Rachel made a somewhat cavalier suggestion that we progressive Zionists should join en masse and take over AIPAC. I’m sure we would if we could. As Dan has indicated, it’s the big donors that determine AIPAC’s direction. If we had the bucks, we’d have the power, but we don’t.

    In response to Marco’s further question to me, I have no simple answer. Meretz USA is a small organization that mainly educates American Jews about what’s going on in Israel, what the Meretz party and kindred progressive and peace-oriented bodies are doing and saying. If our Israeli friends asked for a threat or actual cutoff of US aid, we’d consider this. But I think this would be politically damaging for Meretz– an actual political party that needs votes to advance its agenda. It would probably also be a tough sell for liberal American Jews who support Israel in general but have doubts about some of its policies.

    Furthermore, as I’ve indicated, an actual curtailment of aid would more likely harm the poorest and most vulnerable of Israelis rather than get the government to change its direction. Moreover, some aid or cooperation with the US to develop defenses against missile attacks from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are fully legitimate.

    Meretz USA’s predecessor during the Bush senior administration– Americans for Progressive Israel/Hashomer Hatzair– linked the loan guarantees with settlement expansion by the following formulation: US loan guarantees are important for Israel in helping to absorb one million new immigrants (a 20-25 percent increase in Israel’s population at the time); expanding settlements are not only wrong in principle, but the US sanctions are but another reason that Israel should stop this policy. So instead of stating that we supported a curtailment of US aid, we said this is going to happen and it’s because of this bad policy of expanding settlements. The bottom line is that we opposed the settlements.

  11. Ralph,

    So you won’t even think about asking your own government to take steps against Israel until your friends in Israel ask you to? How is this mentality any different than AIPAC’s? Think of how this sounds to those who question whether American Jews are more “loyal” to Israel than America. I am not saying that you are, but it does appear that you place a higher priority on a political party in Israel than on American interests…

    You write: “an actual curtailment of aid would more likely harm the poorest and most vulnerable of Israelis rather than get the government to change its direction. Moreover, some aid or cooperation with the US to develop defenses against missile attacks from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are fully legitimate.”

    Even if those two points are compelling enough to trump America’s interest in curtailing aid (I don’t think they are), is there anything at all that you would consider cutting (if Meretz gave you “permission”)? Is there any specific pressure you would favor the U.S. applying to Israel?

  12. I wouldn’t ask the US government to take steps AGAINST any democratic state.

    I would ask that it urge decency, as in convincing a friend, even strongly.

    You personally speak as if you regard Israel as enemy, when the reality is that Israel is friend.

    In that sense, you could be accused of subverting the policy, the interests of the US.

    A stupid accusation of you, as it is a stupid accusation of Jews, Zionists, even neo-conservatives.

    Consider the world that YOU would live in if “loyalty” to the state or loyalty to the “interests” of the US became a litmus test of equal civil rights here, including rights to employment, education, vote.

  13. Richard.

    I don’t think Israel is an enemy to the United States. I think its policies are a burden to the United States. And sometimes the U.S. must confront other democratic states if those states are screwing things up for the U.S. That doesn’t mean get rid of those states; its means demand reform.

    ALso, I am not an anti-Zionist. I am a non-Zionist or a post-Zionist, like more and more Israelis.

  14. I’m a conditional Zionist. Following WW2, Zionism was a necessity, and asserted (rather than unknown or ignored necessity).

    Now, internally, it is in the stage of “what are we going to do with it?”

    I’m an unconditional Jew though from two respects:

    1. My family history, blood, history and culture, accepted and passed on to my children.
    2. I adopt the responsibility of being part of a “nation of priests”, meaning to intentionally help to heal what is broken, to transform.

    I agree with the religious view of those that assert that it is not necessary for there to be a Jewish state perse, for the Jewish nation (community of communities) to be fulfilling its mission and guidelines.

    The Jewish state, like all states, exists for protection and definition. And, as there is MUCH hatred of Jews, as Jews, still, and held by highly armed and less than humane proponents, defense is needed.

    One significance of the presence of Israel globally, is that it has shifted the consciousness of Jews from one of walking apology, to one of walking assertion.

    Many “progressive” diaspora Jews still feel shame at being Jewish and part of Jewish community. Part of the shame is existential, a shame of what one is. Not, “Black is beautiful”, but “n…”

    If you read many of the sites focused around opposition to Zionism, you will read that there is sentiment (how widely is unknown) that regards Jews as parasites (by blood and by [resence/effect), and not conditionally, but unconditionally.

    There are three groups that I observe in that. The fascist right (as an effort to isolate Jews and remove their voice from any public participation), the far left (in imagined solidarity with Palestinians and now against US expansion), a very few pan-Arab and Muslim advocates.

    There are very few Muslims on the western sites that I’ve seen. A few, and they range from those that venture to explain elements of the Muslim or Palestinian perspective that they feel they can honestly represen.. They are a gift, in that they describe the ACTUAL needs and points of conflict.

    With the faith that tangible conflicts can be reconciled, those people illumine the reality. They make the reconciliation possible, even when there is anger in their comments.

    By posting, by communicating at all, they inform that they prefer to reconcile (whether bi-national, post-national, whatever) rather than war.

    I didn’t say that you thought that the US should be enemy of Israel, but that you yourself speak often as if you yourself are an enemy of Israel, an opponent.

    “ALso, I am not an anti-Zionist. I am a non-Zionist or a post-Zionist, like more and more Israelis.”

    When you speak in terms of “against”, rather than how, you represent yourself as an “anti”-Zionist.

  15. Dan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. While I admire your pragmatism, I think you have to acknowledge that an organization’s membership on a board of executives or directors or regents or trustees or whatever denotes some kind of an endorsement to the unaware individual. Moreover, wouldn’t you agree that when AIPAC goes on its pledge drives, it can successfully cite your membership on its board as a means to wrangle cash out of unsuspecting dovish donors?

    The correct path, it seems to me, is to lobby the Council of Presidents as a whole to leave AIPAC. Why should the Council lend its name to such an extreme group? To give a religious rather than political analogy, it would be like having a council of all Christian churches sit on the “executive board” of “Focus on the Family.” It wouldn’t happen, because it would be a waste of energy for the leftist side, and in the worst case can give the wrong impression of some kind of an endorsement. Perhaps there’s already a lobby to have the Council leave AIPAC?

  16. Alright, quick follow-up: meant “Conference” of Presidents above rather than “Council”. Also, Dan writes,

    “… 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….”

    Are you seriously suggesting, by analogy, that AIPAC is just a “slightly less dovish” version of APN? It should be plain to see that this comparison is nonsense, to all students of the American Jewish community, both young and old.

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