THE CONVERSATION WE SHOULD HAVE HAD ABOUT AIPAC
Let’s say the following Twitter conversation took place.
@person1: I wonder why we can’t get any meaningful legislation on gun background checks.
@person2: It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!
@person3: Would love to know who @person2 thinks is paying American politicians to be against gun background checks…
Would anyone even bat an eye?
Of course not.
Yet, this very same Twitter conversation took place a couple weeks ago and the histrionics were deafening. Of course, it wasn’t about background checks or the NRA. The topic was the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement with regard to Israel and the suspect organization was AIPAC. Oh, and @person2 wears a headscarf. She’s a….you know…Muslim (spoken in a hushed whisper).
All hell broke loose. Freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was excoriated by the right-wing press as a “clear anti-Semite.” The so-called liberal media, as usual, followed the FoxNoise lead and condemned her anti-Semitic tropes. Conservatives questioned her loyalty, accused her of adhering to Sharia Law and connected her to 9/11 because, you know, Muslim. Of course, Democrats didn’t hesitate to eat their own in the face of a public relations crisis.
The only people who were conspicuously silent were those who usually confront every claim of bigotry as pandering to identity politics and political correctness. Apparently, accusations of antisemitism do not count as identity politics. Go figure.
So, why the disproportionate response?
It is important to point out that there is a very real difference in context between AIPAC and the NRA as political actors. This context should inform discourse on the topic. When Omar made her claim about AIPAC “paying American politicians” she likely stumbled into a construct that, under any other circumstance, would not have raised eyebrows. Unfortunately, accusations that Jews are involved in a conspiracy to use their money to undermine a nation’s sovereignty is old hat–or, as presented by the talking heads, a “trope.” Her Tweet, whether knowingly or unknowingly, was a reference to the same paradigm as that behind The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other twisted conspiracy theories and stereotypes.
Jewish history is one of displacement, scapegoating and marginalization ranging from social exclusion to genocide. Persecution of Jews was often sanctioned by the legitimizing institutions such as The Church during the Inquisition. Broad anti-Semitic discrimination was incorporated into state policy throughout the western world leading most notoriously to the Holocaust of the Third Reich and the Pogroms of the Soviet Union. Culturally approved bigotry and official state policy displaced, tortured, mutilated, and killed millions of Jews.
These atrocities were perpetuated by those who whipped up fear against Jewish people by making xenophobic claims about the secret, sinister goals of Jewry. Lies were spread about such things as the Blood Libel, or the existence secret Jewish conspiracies to undermine Christianity and to take over the world using their financial power. The Jews and their secret cabals, like that presumably run by the House of Rothschild, were blamed for everything from the Plague to defeats in war to the Great Depression. Often, bloodshed followed such accusations. Jews had to be wiped out because they were undermining the very foundations of society in the interests of Zionism.
Unfortunately, in the American political environment, very real organizations really do try to manipulate the political process using their financial power. This isn’t conspiratorial. This is American politics 101. If the NRA wants to undermine attempts to pass background check legislation, they spread their money around. They advertise. They lobby. They offer media commentary. They fund public relations campaigns. They offer lucrative campaign donations. They threaten to withhold said donations. They use their financial power and their connections to pursue their political interests. Pointing this out is nothing more than revealing a truism. In essence, normal American politics looks an awful lot like corruption…especially the kind of corruption that Jews have been traditionally accused of perpetuating with their secret financial connections.
Critiquing the financial influence of AIPAC and other Israeli/Jewish political organizations, however, carries the weight of history and culture in ways that are simply not true for the NRA, the Oil Lobby, the Corn Lobby or any other influence group. This is especially true in the contemporary context of Charlottesville Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us.” and the Pittsburgh Shooting. Antisemitism is alive and well in contemporary America and has received a shot in the arm by the current administration. Any critique of Israel, of its associated parties and political organizations, must be informed by this historical and cultural context.
The reality is that there are valid criticisms of Israel as a nation. Israel is actively pursuing inhuman and illegal expansionist and discriminatory goals. The Israeli settlement program has displaced thousands of Palestinians and is recognized by the international community as illegal. Israel is promoting brutal, apartheid policies within its borders and the territories it is expropriating from the Palestinians. According to Human Rights Watch, “Israel operates a two-tiered system in the West Bank that provides preferential treatment to Israeli settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians.” B’Tselem reports that 290 Palestinians were killed last year, including 55 minors, as a result of Israel’s illegal and immoral “open-fire policy” often targeting demonstrators. Its actions against Gaza shocked the world with its brutal, unnecessary bloodshed. By any standards of human rights and justice, Israel’s record is appalling.
These human rights abuses must be addressed as our nation is often Israel’s sole defender in the face of international outrage over its abuses. The U.S. routinely uses its position on the U.N. Security Council to veto any sanctions against Israel resulting from these human rights abuses. Furthermore, the American taxpayer sends almost $4 billion a year to this tiny country whether we agree with that nation’s policies or not.
The relationship between the United States and Israel has recently come under increasing scrutiny . This is especially true among younger people entering the political process–the very constituents that Congresswoman Omar taps into. America’s history of support for states with questionable human rights records is no longer questioned only by the extreme left. Higher standards for American international relations is becoming a mainstream expectation. More and more Americans are expecting that our government really will hold to the values we all learned in high school U.S. History and U.S. Government classes.
With this as the backdrop, AIPAC continues to use its clout in the face of more critical scrutiny of America’s relationship with Israel. This clout is asserted against any attempt to debate U.S. support for Israel’s increased brutality and apartheid politics under the corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu. AIPAC’s biggest target at this point is the growing BDS movement. There are efforts in the United States Congress to make it illegal to boycott, divest or sanction Israel. In essence, the goal is to keep activists from taking the same actions used to bring down Apartheid in South Africa and applying it to Israel. AIPAC is at the forefront of this move.
AIPAC is a significant power broker in the United States. It exercises its power through financial pressure and political connections. Though it is true that AIPAC does not make direct campaign contributions to parties or to candidates, it is responsible for directing a great deal of money to pro-Israel candidates. According to former AIPAC insider M. J. Rosenberg writing in The Nation:
One thing that should be said about Representative Ilhan Omar’s tweet about the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (more commonly known as AIPAC, or the “Israel lobby”) is that the hysterical reaction to it proved her main point: The power of AIPAC over members of Congress is literally awesome, although not in a good way. Has anyone ever seen so many members of Congress, of both parties, running to the microphones and sending out press releases to denounce one first-termer for criticizing the power of… a lobby?
–M. J. Rosenberg, The Nation
According to OpenSecrets.org, AIPAC has spent over $3 million a year lobbying over the past four years. This isn’t done for charity. Lobbying is an investment. To put this in perspective, the NRA spends about a million dollars per election cycle and only exceeded $3 million in 2000. It’s naive to think this much money does not buy access. The influence of money and larger donor lobbying in American politics is a universal issue. It is not specific to AIPAC or any other Jewish based lobbying or political action organization. This is a form of systemic corruption legitimized into the system by moneyed interests. How the influence of money discredits our representatives and delegitimizes our governing institutions in the eyes of the electorate is an issue that we should be discussing rather than focusing on some poorly thought out Tweets.
Most importantly, AIPAC does not speak for the Jewish community in the United States. There are many groups that identify as being pro-Israel. Furthermore, these groups don’t all agree on what “pro-Israel” means. For instance, AIPAC supported moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. JStreet, with the largest pro-Israel PAC, was against the move. Politics in Israel itself is complicated, with different parties and a spectrum of ideas in each party. That complexity also plays out in the American Jewish Community. Some American Jews support Netanyahu. Some don’t. Some prefer more conservative policies, many don’t. AIPAC is just one voice in the discussion, albeit an important one.
Nor is the so-called “Jewish Lobby” the only pro-Israel player in American politics. The largest pro-Israel organization in the United States is Christians United for Israel. Indeed, conservative pro-Israeli positions are popular among American Evangelical Christians in general. That’s a significant voting bloc. But this is further complicated by the fact that American Evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican while American Jews tend to vote Democratic.
So there’s a great deal to discuss and there’s a great deal to learn about the United States’ support for Israel and the associated political discourse. We must confront the existence of antisemitism in our culture. Doing so, however, should not preclude a valid, morally sound criticism of Israel and its spokespeople. In the United States and much of the world, these two variables are integrated. Navigating the terrain between valid criticism and bigotry is a tricky business. The issues are complicated. Twitter is really not the place for it.