As AIPAC Meets

Despite recent controversy, the thousands of pro-Israel activists gathering at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference will find official Washington appearing to be as receptive as ever to the organization and its cause. But there are clouds over AIPAC and a persistent debate within the Jewish community that must be noted, as well.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will deliver the Administration’s policy address. The Republican and Democratic leadership of both the US Senate and House of Representatives will speak and will be joined at the event by almost one-half of their respective bodies.

All of this, however, occurs against the backdrop of an FBI investigation into charges that a senior AIPAC official passed to the Israeli government classified reports which he is alleged to have received from Larry Franklin, the Pentagon official who has been indicted and arrested for his role in the affair. Steve Rosen, the lobby’s political mastermind for over two decades, though not yet charged, has been forced to resign from the organization after his offices were searched by law enforcement and he was called to appear before a Grand Jury.

As the Franklin-Rosen story unfolded, some questioned whether AIPAC would weather this storm. It appears that the organization has. But there are repercussions especially within the Jewish community.

Recent reports appearing in the Jewish press suggest a sharpening debate on several fronts.

We have known, for years, that a substantial majority of American Jews support a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the lines of the 2003 Geneva Accords. While several Jewish organizations have embraced such a progressive peace agenda, AIPAC has claimed to support the policy of the Israeli government in power. At times, however, AIPAC, not wanting to be outflanked by more rightist elements (within the Jewish community or the Christian right) has taken positions even more hardline than those publicly stated by the Sharon government. As a result, the group has been slow to embrace the "Road Map" and Sharon’s plan for "limited disengagement." When President Bush pledged an increase in US aid to the Palestinian Authority, AIPAC, working with hardline members of Congress, supported placing humiliating conditions on that aid.

What has emerged, then, during the last decade-and-a-half, is the presence of two competing pro-Israel lobbies in Washington: one supporting hardline positions, the other, pro-peace.

The debate this has both reflected and helped spur within the Jewish community is both real and, at times, sharp, but it has not erupted into a public divide. Nevertheless, it is there, with both sides pressing their case within the Jewish community and on Capitol Hill.

There is another troubling debate just beginning to brew within the Jewish community, more directly tied to the Franklin-Rosen affair and that is the nature of the relationship that American Jews ought to have with Israel.

Some AIPAC staffers and pro-Israel activists interviewed in recent months have reported how the "affair" has caused them to question the matter of "dual loyalty," long a dangerous and loaded issue for American Jews. What these activists have reflected upon was their growing awareness of the dangers inherent in defining their work by Israel’s agenda.

Now the issue of "dual loyalty" is not uncommon in the US, which after all is a nation of immigrants, many of whom, especially those most recently arrived, retain strong ties to their countries of origin. Recent events in the Ukraine, Cuba, Iraq and Lebanon, and the impact those events have had on US immigrants from these nations, are cases in point. As an example, at a recent rally organized by a US-based Lebanese group, in support of a US Congressman’s effort to introduce yet another piece of anti-Syrian legislation, the Lebanese in attendance carried not US flags, nor even the Lebanese flag, but the flags of the political faction in Lebanon with which they identified.

While this is a troublesome, though commonplace phenomenon among recent immigrants, American Jews have long been wary of being seen as having dual loyalty, both because of the persistence of still virulent anti-Semitism, and because as Americans of many generations they do not see themselves as an "exile" community. For that reason they have projected their support for Israel as coterminous with their support for American policy and interests.

The Franklin-Rosen affair and the disconnect between some of the hardline lobby’s positions and those of the Administration have, therefore, fed this sense of unease.

But with all this, the power of AIPAC is still quite real and will be in evidence this week. Part of this power rests in the assumption that the group speaks for all American Jews (which it does not) and the carefully cultivated perception that the lobby can influence (indirectly, they maintain) substantial sums of campaign contributions to defeat those who oppose their positions or to assist those who embrace their agenda.

The recent defeat in the 2002 Congressional elections of Representatives Earl Hilliard (Alabama) and Cynthia McKinney (Georgia) are pointed to as evidence of this power. But, here, too, the picture is less than clear. After all, McKinney returned this year and won back her old House seat and a Virginia Congressman, James Moran, targeted for defeat by a well-funded opponent, won reelection.

Some American Jews have grown increasingly troubled by the heavy-handedness of this approach to electoral politics and the "strange bedfellows" created by an "Israel first and only" electoral agenda. Polls show that the Jewish community remains socially liberal and, therefore, is not in sync with the support provided by pro-Israel PACs to some Congressmen who, although they are strong supporters of Israel, are extremely conservative.

So as they gather in Washington AIPAC’s continuing power will be on display. But after the cheers have died down and the Congressional pledges of support for AIPAC and Israel have been recorded, the growing debate within the organization and the Jewish community will continue to unfold.