AIPAC American foreign policy American Jews American Task Force On Palestine Americans for Peace Now Israel J Street Mearsheimer and Walt

From Rabbi Don Quixote: Why the new Middle East peace lobby has a chance

The scoffers are coming out of the woodwork. After all the hoopla over the new J Street project, in separate conversations, two friends have expressed skepticism about the Jewish peace camp’s ability to offer more than token resistance to AIPAC’s lobbying juggernaut.

AIPAC has 100,000 members and its operating budget is somewhere between $40-50 million. The J Street organization has a comparatively paltry $1.5 million budget. Other dovish American Jewish groups –like Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, Meretz USA and Ameinu– have a fraction of the resources and membership that AIPAC and Jewish groups even further to the right can deploy.

So who in their right mind can believe there is even a slight chance that we can change anything? One of the scoffers called me “Rabbi Don Quixote.” Perhaps he’s tagged me correctly. But here are some reasons to believe:

1) First of all, the dovish Jewish organizations pushing for balanced, fair and creative American diplomacy in the Middile East are not alone. As I have pointed out a number of times in this space, they have increasingly worked in tandem on legislative initiatives with Churches for Middle East Peace -which represents most of the mainline Protestant denominations as well as other Christians- and Arab American organizations, including the American Task Force on Palestine and Arab American Institute.

That is a splendid development. This not just a Jewish issue or a Muslim issue or an Arab issue. This is an American issue, as Philip Weiss keeps insisting. (I disagree with much of what my old friend Weiss writes about American Jewry, but he’s certainly got that one right). Likeminded people from different faith groups who see no contradiction in being pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-American should be working hand in hand.

Moreover, every once in awhile, the great battleship of the Jewish Reform movement, the Religious Action Center, joins these little skiffs, and the armada becomes a bit more impressive.

2) An untold number of Congresspeople and their staffers are fed up with AIPAC. I know this because the information comes from someone who understands more about the agendas and moods of Democratic Representatives and Senators than anyone: Victor Kovner.

Kovner is the former Corporation Counsel of New York City under David Dinkins, one of the most active fundraisers for the Democratic party in New York City, a fellow board member of Americans for Peace Now and one of the key advisors to the people at J Street. At breakfast last week, he told me, “Some Members of Congress have felt intimidated and resentful, and have been forced to take positions against their better judgment, out of fear of retribution….”

Then this careful attorney, who does not say anything without carefully weighing its impact, uttered something delightfully bold, knowing full well that I would probably use it here and in my forthcoming book: “I would like to restore the First Amendment rights of Jewish Americans and non-Jewish Americans to speak their minds on Israel-Palestine issues, without being subjected to baseless, vicious calumnies.”

His comments gibe with my own observations as well as those of a former Congressional aide, who told me, “There is a lot of pent-up anger. Lots of staff and some Members curse the box that AIPAC puts them in. They feel like they are forced to take positions that they don’t believe are in the best interests of the U.S. or Israel…I don’t think that progressive voices in the Jewish community have demonstrated the ability to deliver political and financial support for people who step out.”

Asked what would happen if they did provide that support, the former aide, who is still a player in Washington, said, “It might really change the atmosphere around here because they would find Members welcoming them.”

I suspect this means that we don’t need to make nearly as much noise or donate nearly as much money as the conventional Israel lobby. The angry waters have been rising steadily, lapping against the dam, and perhaps it won’t take as much effort as is commonly assumed to open the floodgates.

3) If all goes well, at least within a few years, politicians will think twice before crossing the passionate moderates who want to give the next president the political leeway to lean on both sides of the conflict, rather than just one side. Members of Congress already think ten times before crossing AIPAC, fearing its wrath if they don’t sign whatever outrageous bill or “Dear Colleague” letter is plopped in front of them. But everyone can play that game. Here is Kovner, softer and more politic: “When somebody who might otherwise think that they would receive our support disappoints us on a particular issue, notwithstanding our efforts, there is always the possibility of opposing them in a primary or general election…Such activities would be quite ambitious at this point, when we are just getting started. But it’s possible.”

Some on the left are uncomfortable with using America’s deplorable campaign finance system to promote reasonable policies. But it makes little sense to wash our hands of it, to be Pollyannas. Too many Palestinians are waiting at too many checkpoints, too many kids in Sderot and Ashkelon are worried about Hamas rockets slamming into their schools. We don’t have time to wait until the rules of the game change. I say, let’s put the fear of J Street into a few centrist, waffling legislators!

There are other signs of hope. Or at least there are signs that it is not inconceivable to build consequential political support for the next president to be more evenhanded, more active, less constrained by interest groups yammering at the edge of his or her ears. I will offer a few more next time.

10 thoughts on “From Rabbi Don Quixote: Why the new Middle East peace lobby has a chance

  1. As Dan Fleshler himself wrote last year:

    “””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.”””

    No one can force APN to serve on AIPACs executive board. The claim that APN would have to resign from the Presidents Conference is false. At most, it might take a letter from an APN lawyer to get APN delisted from the AIPAC board. Chances are it wouldn’t even take that.

    (By the way, my late mother Elizabeth Wyner Mark was on the APN board, as I understand you Dan is, up until her death in December 2006.)

    If APN opposed AIPAC it is unlikely that it would serve on the AIPAC board, and it is unlikely AIPAC would want it too.

    To me, AIPAC and APN are complementary. APNs constituency is a subset of AIPACs.

    AIPAC and APN both support aid for Israel, oppose punitive actions against the Israeli government, and rarely disagree on substantive matters. By substantive I exclude “sense of Congress” resolutions which have no force of law.

  2. Jonathan,

    “AIPAC and APN both support aid for Israel, oppose punitive actions against the Israeli government, and rarely disagree on substantive matters. By substantive I exclude “sense of Congress” resolutions which have no force of law.”

    I don’t swim in the political sea like Dan. In fact, I can’t stand it there. But I do know AIPAC has not made it easy to get aid to the Palestinian Authority over the years, and has pushed to move the American Embassy at times when that would complicate American diplomacy. APN has taken the opposite positions on those issues. And then there are the problems Bibi gave the Clinton administration with construction in Har Homa, and refusing to redeploy as promised under Oslo. AIPAC didn’t want Clinton to pressure Bibi and APN and IPF were perfectly comfortable with it. They (AIPAC and APN) may agree on some issues but there are very important, substantive differences.

  3. J Street has the prospect of success if it can present itself as an alternative way to support Israel.

    In fundraising, organization development, political message, relevance among elected and prospectively elected officials.

    If it gets positioned as an opponent of Israel, then it will lose in effectiveness, even is Israel’s actions at times seems so absurd and immoral as to suggest a stance of opposition.

  4. “””AIPAC has not made it easy to get aid to the Palestinian Authority over the years,”””

    It isn’t supposed to be easy for anyone, including the PA, to get hundreds of millions a year in US aid. Yet the PA does receive it.

    “””and has pushed to move the American Embassy at times when that would complicate American diplomacy.”””

    Congress has been passing such resolutions for decades. These resolutions are not meaningful. Disagreement over them is not substantive, since the resolutions have no practical effect.

    Bibi left office a decade ago.

  5. Richard,

    “J Street has the prospect of success if it can present itself as an alternative way to support Israel.”

    You know that and I know that because we live in the real world. Dan mentioned Philip Weiss, whose blog,(MondoWeiss), attracts people who resent the very idea of anyone calling themselves “pro-Israel.” You are either worried about America only or you are suspect. I wish they would learn that without support and money from the majority of the American Jewish community, AIPAC and its allies can’t be countered. And the majority of the American Jewish community is pro-Israel; they just define it differently.

  6. I noticed two very strained water metaphors, Dan –the armada, the angry water lapping against the dam. Come on. Can’t you do any better than that, Rabbi?

    Anyway, where did Don Quixote get his “smicha?” A Grateful Dead concert in Barcelona?

  7. The liberal majority of Jews (including the liberal majority with money) are predisposed towards peace, rather than aggression.

    They yearn for an alternative. They yearn for a voice that expresses their benevolence and care for Israel simultaneiously.

    Doctors, lawyers, accountants, academics, artists, HOLLYWOOD.

  8. Rich, liberal Jews don’t give a shit about Israel, not anymore. That’s why this j-street project is doomed to failure. They just want a dichotomy from the ‘bad jews” so they can assimilate further and not be linked to Judaism at dinner parties and university functions. It’s conservative/religious Jews that buy bonds, visit Israel, make aliyah, and form the core of aipac membership.

  9. Your wrong about that Bill.

    The Jews that are leaders in Hollywood are liberal Jews, and they have and give big money. The Jews that are lawyers are for the most part liberal Jews (knowing that blind advocacy may be a strategy but is lousy and skilless policy). The Jews that are doctors are for the most part liberal.

    And, as Torah is largely an application of ethics, and as prayer and meditation yeild compassion on others as a result of sincere practise, the likelihood that even sincere orthodox will apply more liberal perspectives (if respected) is high.

    My son is a prime example. I am not orthodox in any conventional sense. But, my son is. We recently had a profound discussion in which I expressed and he agreed that the relationship of Israel to Palestine is a TEST of the sincerity of Jewish practise, an opportunity (and few come) to realize the purpose of Jewish association and identity.

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