Today, the Jewish world may make some headline news.
Donald Trump is scheduled to speak today at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. The AIPAC Conference typically draws an “A” list of big name politicos, and during Presidential election years, the list of speakers at this conference includes most of the major Presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton is on this year’s list, along with Joe Biden, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Paul Ryan and others.
The AIPAC Policy Conference is a major event in Washington—Tablet Magazine’s Stephanie Butnick describes it as “the Jewish equivalent to the Oscars or the Grammys.” According to AIPAC’s web site, the conference will be attended by “more than 15,000 pro-Israel Americans,” including 2/3 of Congress. So, Trump is guaranteed a large crowd for his speech … or maybe not. Some of the Jews attending this meeting are planning to protest. Some may skip Trump’s speech, and other plan to walk out of the speech. Evidently, some plan to meet outside of the hall where Trump is speaking and hold some kind of study session, reading and considering passages of the Bible that contradict Trump’s message.
I’ve checked with some of the Rabbis I know, to encourage this protest. One wrote me back. You don’t expect that I’ll actually be there. I replied: I don’t think you’d be caught dead within a half mile of an AIPAC event. Therein lies a story.
AIPAC is short for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Despite its name, AIPAC is not a PAC, not a “political action committee” authorized to make contributions to candidates. Strictly speaking, AIPAC is a non-partisan lobbying organization that works with both major U.S. political parties to promote a stronger “relationship” between the U.S. and Israel.
AIPAC is reputed to be one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. Fortune Magazine has rated AIPAC the second most powerful lobby in Washington, just behind the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and ahead of such powerhouses as the National Rifle Association (NRA). It’s not entirely clear how AIPAC has achieved this reputation. Fortune Magazine stated that AIPAC is powerful because of “their substantial campaign contributions,” but as I’ve already mentioned, AIPAC is prohibited from making such contributions. Fortune may be referring to allegations that AIPAC acts as a “clearinghouse” to channel contributions by pro-Israel PACs to favored Congressional candidates. Reportedly, many of these PACs were formed by AIPAC officers.
The amount of money that might be indirectly channeled by AIPAC to political candidates is difficult to track. If we look at contributions to members of Congress by interest groups so far in 2016, then the “Retired,” “Securities/Invest,” “Lawyers/Law Firms” and “Real Estate” lobbying groups are the most powerful, each contributing more than $20 million to Congressional candidates. AIPAC-oriented lobbies fall under the category of “Pro-Israel” interest groups (though not all Pro-Israel groups agree with AIPAC), and these groups rank 34th on the list of largest contributors, ponying up about $4.3 million so far this year to those seeking election to Congress. $4.3 million is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not a huge amount of money, campaign-wise. The Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders raises more than this in a single day. For the full year 2014 (the most recent full year where Congressional elections took place), then “Lawyers/Law Firms” top the list of most generous lobbying groups, providing more than $55 million to the coffers of Democrats and Republicans running for Congress. “Pro-Israel” came in 26th place, with slightly less than $10 million in contributions.
It is possible that the published lists of biggest spending lobbies have not accounted for all of the pro-Israel PACs. It is also possible that AIPAC indirectly channels larger contributions from wealthy individuals, such as the arch-conservative Sheldon Adelson (while Adelson was once reportedly AIPAC’s single biggest contributor, he has publicly split from AIPAC and thrown his support to pro-Israel groups to the right of AIPAC, such as the hard-line Zionist Organization of America and Christians United for Israel). AIPAC’s clout might be measured in a different way. AIPAC reportedly has 100,000 members … but AARP has more than 37 million members, and the NRA claims to have 5 million members, so AIPAC doesn’t seem particularly powerful in terms of its membership numbers. Should we measure AIPAC’s influence in terms of its lobbying budget? AIPAC has conducted expensive lobbying campaigns. Reportedly, it raised something like $20 – $40 million in an unsuccessful effort to derail the nuclear treaty with Iran. But when you look at the list of largest lobbies by lobbying expenditures … AIPAC does not appear there.
In short: it’s not exactly clear how AIPAC has achieved its fearsome reputation. But the reputation is there, no question about it. A 2014 article in The New Yorker Magazine discusses AIPAC’s power in some detail. AIPAC has been amazingly skillful at getting Congress to take pro-Israeli action, whether it’s a resolution against the Palestinian’s petition to the U.N. for statehood, or postponing a scheduled recess to appropriate extra funds for Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome program, AIPAC was reportedly instrumental in the defeat of Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker by Joe Lieberman, Illinois Senator Charles Percy by Paul Simon, and Illinois congressman Paul Findley by Dick Durbin. AIPAC allegedly brought Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over to their side, by promising McConnell not to direct support to his opponents in future elections so long as McConnell supported AIPAC positions. McConnell is now reportedly one of the leading recipients of pro-Israel lobbying money.
One last point. AIPAC is often described as a “Jewish lobby.” It is not. It is a “pro-Israel” lobby, or more accurately, a lobby that takes a particular view of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” It is arguably more hawkish and less interested in peace with the Palestinians than are the majority of American Jews.
AIPAC does not represent me. I oppose AIPAC for what I think is its uncritical praise of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud Party, its support of expansion of Israeli settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and its undermining of the peace process. So it is ironic that today, I am looking to AIPAC to oppose Donald Trump with a Jewish affirmation of the Jewish values of tolerance, anti-bigotry and anti-fascism. It is ironic that most of the Rabbis I know also oppose AIPAC, and will not be in Washington, D.C. today to protest against Trump’s speech. It is ironic that I am relying on AIPAC, a group that does not represent my Jewish values, to represent my abhorrence of Donald Trump.
If my time allows, I’ll try to address AIPAC’s values later this week in a second post.