Rabbi Michael Lerner

When hundreds of supporters of the Tikkun community from over 200 Congressional districts walked the halls of Congress in the spring of 2003 and again in 2004, urging a new “middle path” for U.S. Middle East policy that would be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, our elected leaders frequently gave us variants of the following response: “We agree with you that supporting Ariel Sharon’s policies has been a disaster for the United States, increasing the anger toward us of Arab countries and making it easier for extremists to turn disaffected Arab youth into terrorists who will fight both Israel and the United States. Yet we dare not say this in public for fear that Aipac [the American Israel Political Affairs Committee] and its supporters will label us anti-Israel and make our re-election to Congress problematic.”

 

While Aipac itself does not directly engage in electoral politics, a loosely associated group of political action committees and Jewish newspapers take their lead from Aipac, and these have been responsible for orchestrated—and mostly successful—campaigns to unseat anyone Aipac labels anti-Israel. So, meeting with a group of five Congressional representatives, I was told that they each believed that the content of that very meeting would be known by Aipac in 24 hours and that they were fearful of the impact.

Fear of Aipac shapes political decision making and may have played a central role in the recent 400-to-7 vote in favor of a House resolution backing Ariel Sharon’s deal with President George W. Bush to withdraw from Gaza in exchange for building a wall through the middle of the West Bank, the very land whose future was supposed to be the topic of negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

With the perception of its power so great, it is no wonder that the recent revelation that the F.B.I. is investigating the possibility of Aipac’s involvement in a case of espionage, in which vital U.S. secrets were given to the Israeli government by powerful neo-con-linked officials of the Defense Department, has generated cries of outrage and threats that it will be the F.B.I., not Aipac, that gets investigated by the U.S. House of Representatives. How dare anyone question Aipac?

Not surprisingly, the Jewish establishment organizations are lining up behind Aipac and not too subtly rolling out the traditional big guns by suggesting that the accusations themselves might be motivated by anti-Semitism. Aipac and a variety of closely linked Jewish organizations regularly use the anti-Semitism card to attack anyone who dares criticize the occupation of the West Bank. Increasingly dominated by Jewish neo-cons and their worldview, the Jewish establishment has moved far to the right in the past two decades, spurred in part by Aipac’s powerful impact.

Aipac claims not to have a politics, but merely to be an instrument of Israeli policy; but as the former Israeli Minister of Justice (in the Barak government) Yossi Beilin said in an interview published in Tikkun (November/December 2003): “That claim is a lie. They have their own ideology. They are financed by people from the extreme Right in American Jewry, and then use more liberal or democratic people as a fig leaf.” Beilin went on to document how Aipac, because it is dominated by hawks, actually worked against the peace-oriented aspirations of the Rabin government.

Some polls indicate that as many as 60 percent of American Jews would support a two-state solution, like that negotiated by Yossi Beilin in the unofficial Geneva Accords. The ability of the Aipac circles to mobilize funds to target candidates and to get American media to describe its policies not as pro-Sharon or pro-occupation, but as “the pro-Israel” voice, has allowed Aipac to inflate the perception of its actual power. At the same time, it marginalizes the voices of the American Jewish majority, many of whom believe that Israel’s current path is not only immoral and self-destructive, but also a major source of a growing global anger at the Jewish people.

We have no proof that Aipac was involved in any wrongdoing in regard to the charges of espionage. Many of us in the Tikkun world are fearful that charges of disloyalty could easily spin out of control in dangerous directions, and not only against Jews. That is one reason many of us liberal Jews who detest Aipac will defend it against anything that smells of witch-hunt.

But we do know for certain that the worldview and policies developed in Aipac-related circles helped make the Iraq war more likely; and they might yet strengthen the hands of those who seek a war with Iran by taking hair-brained militarist fantasies and dressing them in the legitimacy of being “pro-Israel.” Aipac’s political direction is not only bad for the United States. Associating Jews in the minds of Americans with warlike interventions in Iraq and maybe in Iran, giving the impression that all Jews line up behind repressive policies toward Palestinians, Aipac popularizes an image of Jews that will for decades to come be used against us. Weakening Aipac’s aura of self-inflated invincibility will be a boon to the peace forces in both Israel and the United States. It will also help reduce its unintended effect of generating popular resentment against the Jewish people.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, is editor of Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society and author of Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003).