Local activists take on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Since at least the first Gulf War, it’s been the elephant in the living room. In the debate over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the cozy relationship Israel enjoys with the United States has not been open for discussion. The unquestioned assumption, by politicians and policy-makers of both stripes, has been that what’s good for Israel is good for the United States, and vice versa. To suggest otherwise, some critics of U.S. Middle East policy claim, is to risk being branded an anti-Semite or anti-American, or both, by what they call “the Lobby,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.However, if events at the Radisson Hotel on December 3 are any indication, the Lobby’s alleged ability to influence U.S. foreign policy and shape public opinion may be slipping somewhat. Inside the hotel, local members of AIPAC gathered for the nationwide organization’s annual luncheon. Outside on the street, a throng of 100 demonstrators protested the Lobby’s influence with placards and banners that called for peace in the Middle East, the “end of Zionazi apartheid” in Palestine and the dismantling of AIPAC itself.
The placards and banners covered the full spectrum of dissent, from the Jewish Voice for Peace’s moderated complaint that “AIPAC doesn’t speak for me” to local activists Stephen and Virginia Pearcy’s unconditional support for the Palestinian cause, to a man named Jay spreading the gospel of True Torah Jews, who claim that support for Zionism and Israel is blasphemy. While the opinions were varied, there is arguably no doubt that such a public display of anti-Israel sentiment might not have occurred without the publication of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” earlier this year.
The highly controversial academic paper, written by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, provided validation to critics who’ve been decrying the supposed influence of the Lobby for years. In the preface of the report, the professors write: “Other special interests have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are identical.”
The professors call America’s unconditional support for Israel unique, noting that the United States provides far more aid to Israel than any other country, has vetoed dozens of U.N. resolutions critical of Israel’s behavior toward its Arab neighbors, and has turned a blind eye toward Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories and the occupation’s destabilizing effects on the region.
Mearsheimer and Walt, both of whom are highly respected scholars, have been lambasted by pro-Israel critics, and their study received scant attention from the mainstream media. Nevertheless, via the Internet and others channels, “The Israel Lobby” has had an impact on the debate over U.S. Middle East policy, no more evidenced by the fact that the paper was a major topic of AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr’s keynote speech at the luncheon.
“I agreed with Kohr’s basic premise,” said Brian Levin, a UC Davis senior who attended the luncheon. “He gave a speech that addressed Mearsheimer and Walt’s article, pointing out a number of events in U.S. history that go against their hypothesis.”
Levin studies international relations and is president of Aggies for Israel, a pro-Israel campus group. Like many American Jews, his support for Israel is simply a part of being an American. He was joined at the luncheon by fellow students and Aggies for Israel Rachel Kligfeld and Sasha Levin in a counter-protest.
Dr. Dan Kliman, an AIPAC member and spokesperson for the San Francisco Voice for Israel, helped organize the counter-protest. He said attempts to separate the interests of Israel, the United States and American Jews smack of “the old accusation of dual loyalty that has been thrown at Jews for hundreds of years.”
But Mearsheimer, Walt and other critics point out that American interests and Israeli interests are not always the same, a fact that necessitates AIPAC’s very existence. They point to the conflict in Iraq, which has strengthened Israel’s strategic position, as evidence of the Lobby’s effectiveness. Kliman doesn’t deny that AIPAC is a very effective lobbying organization, but he believes its power is overblown.
“I would not say it has too much influence,” he said. “It does deserve criticism, as would any lobbying group. But AIPAC only informs the Legislature, it does not control the agenda of the United States.”
Like Kliman, David Mandel, spokesman for the Sacramento chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, thinks AIPAC’s influence is exaggerated.
“It does what lobbying groups do,” he said. “Part of its power is in its reputation. But it doesn’t operate in a sinister or conspiratorial way. I think it’s way off base to say that.” Mandel believes that AIPAC’s perceived current power comes from the fact that its objectives essentially have paralleled the goals of successive U.S. administrations since at least the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Given a change in the political climate, current U.S. Middle East policy “could change very quickly, no matter how much AIPAC screams about it.”
Mandel lived in Israel for years, where, like many Israelis, he actively supported justice for the Palestinian people. Unlike AIPAC, which currently supports a policy of not negotiating with Hamas, the democratically elected ruling party of the Palestinian territories, Jewish Voice for Peace argues that there is no one monolithic Jewish opinion on the issue.
“It used to be that if you had two Jews you had five opinions,” said Ellen Broms, a local Jewish Voice for Peace member. “Now millions of Jews are supposed to have one opinion.”
For some of the demonstrators, Jewish Voice for Peace’s slogan that “AIPAC doesn’t speak for me” doesn’t go far enough. Retired Methodist minister Larry George, who attended the demonstration and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, thinks the Lobby is far more influential than Jewish Voice for Peace gives it credit for.
“It appears they have a great deal [of influence], since they seem to be on the spot to check in with any elected official or political candidate to see if they share AIPAC’s point of view,” he said. “If they oppose that point of view, they’re going to get a lot of political pressure, that much is clear.”
While AIPAC doesn’t provide direct campaign contributions to candidates, it does consult with politicians to determine their stance on issues concerning Israel. Its members, acting as independent agents, are then free to contact various Jewish political-action committees, which collectively donate millions of dollars to campaigns across the country. It isn’t illegal, and many other interest groups operate exactly the same way. The difference, says local activist Virginia Pearcy, is that those groups aren’t acting on behalf of a foreign government.
“The issue I have with AIPAC is that it’s a very influential lobby in Congress and the executive branch,” she said. “It shapes U.S. policy in the Middle East not on behalf of the United States but solely to benefit Israel. I think their view of what is in our best interest is not the view of many people in the United States. I think AIPAC has successfully made our representatives believe that their view is the position of the American people.”
Pearcy, her husband Stephen and their followers have earned a great deal of local notoriety for their outspoken stances against the war in Iraq and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon this summer. Much to the ire of some of the anti-AIPAC demonstrators, they brought an effigy of an Israeli soldier with “Baby Killer” written on it to the Radisson, along with the flags of Hezbollah and Hamas. But while they might not agree with the Pearcy’s means, the end goal of all the factions is the same: to bring attention to the elephant in the living room.
“What I found really interesting was that out in front of the Radisson, a lot of people going in were really surprised,” Pearcy said. “I think it’s a good sign, because I think AIPAC has gotten away with a lot behind closed doors. You could tell they weren’t comfortable crossing a picket line, so to speak.”