On Friday, Tablet staff writer Liel Leibovitz issued a call for AIPAC members to walk out during Donald Trump’s speech on Monday. His point was blunt, and clear: Every person sitting in his or her seat when the Republican frontrunner gears up to use our community as a prop for his barnstorming bigotry is betraying the history of our people, the dictates of our religion, and our experience as immigrants who love this country.
Some disagreed with the idea of a walkout; others disagreed with giving legitimacy to AIPAC, let alone Trump; and still others warned against misunderstanding the role of this historic and high-profile Jewish institution.
“Though it’s not always apparent from their public statements, the main Jewish organizations constitute a rough sort of governing structure in which each component has a job to do,” wrote J.J. Goldberg in the Forward. “Many are tasked with examining, teaching or advancing the values of our heritage, as variously interpreted. Others act on them by caring for the poor or sick. AIPAC’s job is to ensure that America stands with Israel. It’s pretty good at it.”
Actually, it is not.
The invitation to Trump is a symbol of what AIPAC has become—an organization staffed by mid-level incompetents who disgrace our community with their evident lack of both political savvy and moral sense. Let’s be frank: Some of us would be comfortable with a bunch of back-alley political knife-fighters whose only cause is the active defense of the Jewish people, while others want leaders devoted to making sure that our communal goals embody universal morals and social-justice values—regardless of how this might play on the geopolitical chessboard. Whichever camp you find yourself in, one thing is clear: What we have now in AIPAC is an organization with the failings of both, and the virtues of neither.
We believe that walking out on Donald Trump tomorrow is the right, if awkward, thing to do. But we also think it’s important to note who put us all in this position. By rejecting the invitation that AIPAC issued in our name, we are also rejecting what AIPAC has become.
Anyone who reads Tablet knows that we run a big tent, one that regularly presents articles from across the political spectrum—from the far left to the far right and everything in-between. But we are united by the fact that the people of Israel are our brothers and sisters, often literally. We strongly support the right and indeed the obligation of the Israel Defense Forces to take necessary actions against terrorists who fire rockets at kindergartens and who stab children and elderly people in the streets. While we pray for peace, we have no particular expectation that it will arrive in the Middle East anytime soon.
So we stand with AIPAC’s membership 100 percent. We know that most of the people who joined AIPAC and receive their mailings and attend their conventions and lobby Congressmen on its behalf do so because they love the Jewish People and because they love Israel—and that the money they donate to AIPAC is the least of their investment. We know that standing up for the Jewish people and for Israel is sometimes hard, and that they do it despite the fact that increasing numbers of their friends, or co-workers, or even family members give them flak for it. We admire and respect this commitment.
But these people are not AIPAC—not anymore. Whatever AIPAC once was, it has become an organization that spends oodles of cash on exposing our community’s moral and political vulnerabilities.
Jewish history is a school that teaches hard lessons, which is why many of us defended the idea of an entity that was actually able to stand up for us and for Israel, even if that meant breaking a few eggs. For years, American Jews were told they needed to play realpolitik, even if that meant doing abhorrent things like denying the historical truth of the Armenian genocide in order to further Israel’s relations with Turkey. Those on the left feel they’ve also been asked too frequently to treat the Israeli government’s various foibles leniently. Such exhortations made many people deeply uncomfortable with the idea of pro-Israeli advocacy, even if, deep inside, they still love and support Israel.
Those more to the right of the political spectrum are equally miserable. AIPAC’s lobbying effort against the Iran Deal was so weak it couldn’t even convince reliably pro-Israel Democrats like Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Dianne Feinstein, Mark Warner, and Ron Wyden to vote with them. When the chips were down, on an issue it claimed was of the highest possible significance to the future security of the State of Israel, the organization issued press releases, spent millions on late-in-the-game ads—and then simply accepted defeat.
In Jerusalem, AIPAC apparently does such a poor job of representing our community that Bibi Netanyahu can’t be bothered to even show up in person to address us. After all, if you count for zero in Washington, why should he waste his time? Though here it is worth taking a moment to marvel that the prime minister of Israel can’t manage to make time for the largest gathering of pro-Israel American Jews at their annual ceremony of solidarity with his own country. But that makes the point for us: We can certainly divine why Bibi and the leadership of AIPAC might feel comfortable with each other, but it’s not a reason that should make you comfortable—unless you enjoy being a chump.
AIPAC is our home-grown version of the Wizard of Oz. While its press releases and fundraising letters have been used by commentators ranging from Stephen Walt and John Mearshimer to Peter Beinart and Philip Weiss as proof of the existence of a dark, terrifyingly effective Jewish cabal, the reality is that AIPAC is a smoke and mirrors game. As a result, American Jews are now living in the worst of both worlds—we get blamed for magically causing wars and single-handedly dictating the foreign policy of two countries, while in reality our legitimate fears and demands are brushed aside like the tantrums of a petulant child. And now, thanks to AIPAC, we will as a community be portrayed as moneyed power-brokers who play footsie with Trump, a figure who the vast majority of our community—Democrats and Republicans—rejects and abhors.
It’s a rare and remarkable knot that we’ve gotten ourselves into—one that ironically connects Jews from all sides of the political spectrum. We don’t profess to know where we, as American Jews, should go from here. Having effective leadership, in whatever direction, especially in these shifting and scary times, is vital—and what’s clear is that we don’t have it now. Maybe the left and the right have more in common than they assume—and maybe this is the needle eye through which we can thread common cause.Regardless, the first step toward progress is, as they say, admitting you have a problem. Do that by walking out on Trump, and by telling AIPAC that it’s as much about their actions as it is about his.