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AIPAC’s Bet Against Democracy
On Friday, AIPAC—the influential pro-Israel lobbying group—issued a statement I suspect historians of American Jewry will scrutinize for decades to come. It argues that in order to preserve US support for Israel’s ability to rule undemocratically over Palestinians, AIPAC must support politicians who seek to rule undemocratically over Americans. Authoritarianism there requires authoritarianism here.
But first a word about this week’s Zoom call. It will be on Thursday (not the usual Friday) at Noon ET. As usual, paid subscribers will get the Zoom link this Wednesday and the video the following week. Our guest will be Georgetown University assistant professor of Russian history Gregory Afinogenov, who earlier this month wrote a powerful essay in Dissent criticizing the American left’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gregory also writes about Jewish identity and history in the former Soviet Union, and we’ll talk about Volodymyr Zelensky’s controversial speech to the Knesset and the ironies of seeing a Jewish Ukrainian president defending his country from an aggressor who claims it is controlled by Nazis. Join us.
Back to AIPAC’s statement. It comes in response to criticism the organization has received for endorsing 37 members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s election as president. AIPAC’s rejoinder begins by noting that in Zelensky’s speech last week to Congress, he requested “bipartisan support” to save Ukraine from “a war of extinction.” The message is clear: Since Israel faces its own existential foes, it too needs bipartisan support. If AIPAC alienates Trumpists it might imperil the American backing Israel needs to survive.
The analogy is more than a little problematic. Ukraine is under Russian occupation. Israel is not under Palestinian occupation. To the contrary, Israel occupies territories it seized by force in 1967 and upon whose Palestinian residents it has imposed military law in the West Bank and an economic blockade in the Gaza Strip. In a telling aside, AIPAC refers to the threats that Zelensky and “his citizens” face. Why “citizens” and not “people?” Because you need that verbal sleight of hand to make the analogy work. In Ukraine, the citizenry and the people are largely the same. In Israel-Palestine, they are not. Most of the Palestinians under Israeli control—those in the West Bank and Gaza—cannot become its citizens. In fact, these permanent non-citizens are among the enemies AIPAC says it is safeguarding Israel against. Zelensky is trying to protect Ukrainian citizens from Russia, which would make them subjects of an occupying power. AIPAC is trying to protect Israel’s ability to remain an occupying power over the Palestinian subjects it already controls. It’s not a good analogy at all.
But what’s most revealing about the statement isn’t AIPAC’s view of Ukraine. It’s AIPAC’s view of the United States. For decades, AIPAC and other establishment Jewish organizations have described America’s bond with Israel as rooted in shared “democratic values.” This statement says nothing about that. How could it? AIPAC is arguing that in order to preserve American support for Israel it must support politicians who tried to overturn a democratic election.
For some establishment Jewish leaders, the shift is jarring. After AIPAC’s endorsements, former Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman protested that “Israel’s security depends on America being a strong democracy.” Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, warned that, “the U.S.-Israel relationship cannot be strengthened at the cost of America’s democracy.” But AIPAC doesn’t believe that. And AIPAC is right. Lurking behind its Trumpist endorsements lies a recognition that American democracy—far from being the cornerstone of American support for Israel—constitutes a growing threat to it. The more successfully American democracy withstands the assault being waged against it by the Trump-era Republican Party, the more imperiled the US-Israel alliance will become.
Just look at the underlying structure of American politics. The Republican Party is overwhelmingly white. The Democratic Party is far more multi-racial. (For all the talk about GOP gains among Hispanics, they still backed Joe Biden over Trump by more than thirty points.) Because Republicans depend overwhelmingly on white voters, Republicans—all things being equal—should do worse as the white share of America’s population shrinks. That’s already happening. These shifting demographics are a big part of the reason the GOP hasn’t won the popular vote in a presidential election since 2004.
Republicans are responding to this problem by trying to ensure that Black, Hispanic, and other non-white Americans can’t translate their rising numbers into political power. The Trump administration worked to ensure they were undercounted in the 2020 census. Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed laws that make it harder for people of color to vote. And Republicans have all but announced that they will use claims of voter fraud to seek to overturn any presidential election in which voters of color propel a Democrat to victory. That was the essential message of January 6.
AIPAC’s work will be far easier if these Republican efforts succeed. It will be far easier because Republican voters are far more likely to support unstinting US support for Israel than are Democrats. Over the last twenty years, American public opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dramatically bifurcated along partisan lines. In 2000, according to Gallup, Republicans favored Israel over the Palestinians by just over forty percentage points. Democrats favored Israel by just under forty percentage points. Today, Israel’s advantage among Republicans has grown to 64 points. Among Democrats, by contrast, it has disappeared. In a poll released last week, Gallup found that, for the first time, Democratic voters were about as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as with Israel. Self-described liberal Democrats now favor the Palestinians by 24 points. And a majority of Democrats—compared with only 17 percent of Republicans—think resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires more US pressure on the Jewish state.
This grassroots Democratic sentiment isn’t well represented by Democratic politicians. AIPAC and allied groups like Democratic Majority for Israel work hard to keep it that way. But if your job is ensuring near-unconditional US support for Israel, that job is lot easier with Republicans in power because you don’t have to convince GOP politicians to defy the wishes of their constituents. And since the best way to ensure that Republicans hold power in the face of unfavorable demographic changes is to make America less democratic, making America less democratic serves AIPAC’s cause. I’m not suggesting that AIPAC will abandon its work with Democrats; it needs to hedge its bets, and the organization still includes many Democrats within its ranks. Nor am I suggesting that AIPAC’s leaders cheer when Republicans pass laws making it harder for Black Americans to vote or pretend Trump won the 2020 election. To the contrary, I imagine some of them are repulsed by these racist and authoritarian acts. But as AIPAC’s statement explains, the organization judges politicians “on only one thing: whether a political candidate supports the US-Israel relationship.” So AIPAC’s leaders must put aside whatever sentimental attachments they have to American democracy and support the candidates most committed to giving the Israeli government a blank check. In the years to come, those candidates are more likely to be Republicans. So, for AIPAC, a more authoritarian America is good for business.
It’s no coincidence that AIPAC is backing Republicans who threaten American democracy at the same time the Israeli government abandons any pretense of wanting to provide democratic rights to the millions of disenfranchised West Bank Palestinians who live under its control. Israel is hemorrhaging support among Democrats because Democrats—who are 40 points more likely than Republicans to say the US suffers from systemic racism—have grown increasingly alienated by Israel’s systemic bigotry against Palestinians. Republicans, by contrast, worry far less about America’s systemic racism (which they tend to deny) and far more that efforts to undo it—whether by teaching “critical race theory” or taking down Confederate statues—will weaken or even destroy the United States. Not surprisingly, they’re also less bothered by Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians and more worried that efforts to undo it will weaken or even destroy the Jewish state. It’s become common to hear Israel’s supporters denounce analogies between the plight of Palestinians and the plight of Black and other Americans of color. But, in truth, analogies between Israel and the US shape the way members of both parties see the Jewish state. Israel proudly wields state power to maintain its demographic character. That makes it a model for the America that many Republicans want and many Democrats fear.
The Republican Party’s effort to disenfranchise people of color won’t only buttress US support for Israel. It will make the US more like Israel. That’s what AIPAC is fighting for: A US-Israel alliance built on the shared authoritarian values of ethno-religious supremacy and inequality under the law. It’s what the rest of us must fight against.
In Jewish Currents, Alex Kane and Sam Levin uncover an internal Anti-Defamation League memo proposing that the organization end the trips to Israel it sponsors for American police.
Eli Valley trains his cartooning brilliance on Ukraine and Israel-Palestine.
A searing indictment of the South African government’s amoral response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
A fascinating conversation about Russia between The New Yorker’s David Remnick and the historian Stephen Kotkin.
For the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s podcast, Occupied Thoughts, I interviewed Elizabeth Tsurkov of the New Lines Institute and Khaled Elgindy of the Middle East Institute about Israeli and Palestinian reactions to the war in Ukraine.
See you Thursday,