The AIPAC Disconnect


A visitor to the AIPAC website, will find in the mission statement, “AIPAC’s mission is to strengthen the ties between the United States and its ally Israel”; under the rubric of shared values, “And both have evolved into democracies that respect the rule of law, the will of voters and the rights of minorities.   Similarly, like the United States… Israel has an independent judicial system, which protects the rights of individuals….”

That Israel is a strategic ally of the US is inarguable.  But whether it really meets the criteria of a democracy with shared values with the US is open to question.  While it is ostensibly not within AIPAC’s mandate to deal with what it characterizes as Israel’s internal issues, the growing disconnect between AIPAC’s claim about shared values and Israel’s policies toward its own citizens and toward the Palestinians under its control has not only damaged AIPAC’s credibility, but is leading to its isolation from the greater American Jewish community, not to mention from an increasing number of members of Congress, its target audience.  A modest proposal to address the disconnect was attempted at the AIPAC convention in 2012. It came in the form of a resolution, proposed by Ameinu: “AIPAC supports Israel’s commitment to democratic values and the rule of law, including the protection of minorities and the dismantling of illegal settlement outposts.”  Its purpose was to put AIPAC on record supporting democracy.  It was overwhelmingly defeated.  This may be credited to two constituencies: those who refuse to recognize the anti-democratic trend in Israel and those who applaud it, constituencies that have grown since the author served on the AIPAC Executive Council a decade ago.  Reports of this year’s convention noted that the difficult and controversial issues of democracy and of the Palestinians were relegated minor roles in comparison with the simpler issue of sanctions on Iran.

Here is a list that belies the claim of shared values.

In the US it is unconstitutional for the government to endorse or promote religious practice. In Israel, by ruling of the High Court, the police arrest women for praying in talitot at the Kotel.

The US bans segregation on public transportation.  This after a long struggle that began with Rosa Parks and the freedom riders who risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to integrate buses in the South.  In Jerusalem, haredi women were sent to the back of the bus.  Finally, after four years of deliberation, Israel’s High Court declared it illegal unless it is the women who do it “voluntarily.” In actual fact, given the option, some haredi women choose to sit in the front the bus.

In the West Bank, due to complaints by settlers of overcrowding and security, the government has instituted Palestinian-only bus lines, coupled with assurances that Palestinians will not be banned from Israeli (i.e. settler) buses.  This is presented as a magnanimous gesture.  It is no such thing. Palestinians who attempt ride settler buses will be subject to removal for searches at Israeli checkpoints, while Jewish passengers will not. Thus, the problem of “overcrowding” will be solved not by adding buses to the original lines, but by making it so inconvenient and humiliating for Palestinians that they will “voluntarily” switch to the Palestinian-only bus line. As for security, settlers have provided endless examples of violence against Palestinians. Since the murder of Arabs by a Jew on a bus in Israel proper, the assumption that it is only the Jews who are at risk is hardly tenable.

In the US, no longer do blacks have to walk in the street in deference to whites walking on the sidewalk.  In some haredi communities, men demand that women do just that. And their attacks on women for “immodest dress” demonstrate a shared value with the Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban.

From its inception Israel’s discriminatory treatment of its Arab minority was hardly something to boast about, and massacres were not unknown: Kafr Qasim 1956, Land Day 1976.  Yet one might argue that these horrible events were exceptional compared to the systematic attacks and murders of blacks and civil rights workers in the US.  Now it appears that the situation is reversed.  Since this author lived there in the 1970’s, the US and Israel have passed each other, going in opposite directions.

In the South up through the 1960’s, police stood by while whites attacked blacks.  That is no longer the case.  But it is the case with Israeli police, time and again standing by while settlers attack Palestinians.

The judiciary in Israel is independent, but it is also weak.  Its decision on Women of the Wall is likely to be overturned—the publicity of arrests of women from Zionist organizations across the world, demonstrations in major US cities, and female Knesset members joining in the prayers may bring the court to its senses. But other decisions are either feckless– declaring legal a Jews-only rule requiring that property held before 1948 must be returned, or they are ignored–government building in restricted areas in the territories has continued to grow; decisions on the route of the separation barrier have not been implemented until well after the court’s deadlines; appropriation of property claimed by Palestinians has continued despite court injunctions.  This is not to imply that all, or even many of the judiciary’s decisions are unjust, it is to say that they are thwarted with impunity.

As regards the occupation, Israel does not share the US’s values, but rather the values of Great Britain in earlier years. At the same time that it was a vibrant democracy with an independent judiciary on its own territory, Britain was a colonizer and an oppressor in India and Ireland.  In fact, the Kafr Kassem and Land Day massacres may be compared with Belfast Bloody Sunday of 1972. The only solution was for Britain to end its oppression, and that was done only when the majority of Britons rejected the ideology of superiority to Indians and Irish Catholics. In Israel today the ideology of superiority to Arabs is finding its voice in political parties that play an increasing role in the Knesset.

The US no longer has a military draft.  But when it did, every male eighteen years of age was required to register with the draft board.  That is not to say that all served.  There were legitimate exemptions, for students and others. But there was never an entire class of people exempted, as are Israel’s haredi.  Though the High Court outlawed the exemption last year, haredi still are not being drafted into the army.

This list is not exhaustive.  But the principle is clear. The majority of American Jews want their values: democracy, rule of law, an independent and strong judiciary, equal treatment of minorities and women, to be shared by Israel. If AIPAC chooses to ignore or minimize this, it will become increasingly irrelevant to us. This is a consummation devoutly not to be wished.  We need a strong pro-Israel lobby.

At its recent convention AIPAC apparently decided to expand its mandate to deal with internal issues: to emphasize progressive aspects of Israel, such as acceptance of LGBT’s, a national healthcare system, and an extensive social safety net. All of this is true and should be lauded, and certainly is by this author. But it is naïve to think that this tactic will somehow counterbalance AIPAC’s silence on the retrogressive aspects of Israeli society.

AIPAC is a lobby, and the job of a lobby is to paint the best picture of its “client.”  But the further this picture misrepresents the reality, the less relevant the lobby becomes.   According to its mission statement, “AIPAC’s staff and citizen activists educate decision makers about the bonds that unite the United States and Israel and how it is in America’s best interest to help ensure that the Jewish state is safe, strong and secure.” As the values of Israel and the US increasingly diverge, the bonds weaken, and the Jewish state becomes less safe, less strong, and less secure.

Jeffry V. Mallow, Immediate Past President of Ameinu, served on AIPAC’s Executive Council from 2000 to 2004.


12 Responses

  1. I don’t disagree with Jeffry’s critique of democracy in Israel, though it may be a bit too trenchant in view of the threats Israel continues to face, and AIPAC should surely be more diversified, but if AIPAC didn’t exist we would have to invent it. I”m sure that Israelis who agree with everything Jeffry wrote would still say that the US partnership on things like the Iron Dome comes first, and that is due in good part to AIPAC’s pervasive influence on the Hill.

  2. Danny has made my point precisely with his comments. AIPAC is, happily, very effective with regard to strategic alliances, such as Iron Dome. And I couldn’t agree more that we need AIPAC. I said exactly this in my piece: “We need a strong pro-Israel lobby.” The issue is how AIPAC, and thereore Israel, is weakened by divergence from democratic norms.

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