For more than a decade I have been invited regularly to speak on Capitol Hill, on campuses, in synagogues, on policy panels, to foreign diplomats and to the media. On these occasions I speak, as an advocate for Israel and Israeli-Palestinian peace, about the issues on the ground in Israel-Palestine and their connection to U.S. foreign policy. And on these occasions I talk openly and critically about AIPAC, just as for years my organization has publicly challenged AIPAC's legislative agenda at every turn.
I talk about AIPAC not because I hold any personal animus against the organization and its supporters, or because I believe in some right-wing conspiracy. I know there are good people working at and supporting AIPAC. And I know from experience - most recently with the successful Iran nuclear deal - that AIPAC is by no means omnipotent.
I also know, however, that for decades AIPAC has been actively promoting a Middle East agenda that is anathema to the values of most American Jews, to the real interests of Israel, and to peace. And I know well, from personal experience working in Washington and around the country, the enormous power AIPAC brings to bear on American Jews, members of Congress, and the U.S. political system to see its agenda enacted. That is why I cannot talk about U.S. policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without talking about AIPAC.
When I first mention AIPAC, regardless of venue, a ripple of disquiet and excitement inevitably goes through my audience. People are visibly discomfited and thrilled that I am talking openly about the-organization-that-shall-not-be-named, addressing the elephant in the room.
But why not talk openly? Until a few years ago, AIPAC bragged on its website and literature that it was the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington. And AIPAC's advocacy record is not secret: Since the 1990s, AIPAC has worked tirelessly to challenge peace efforts, undermine U.S.-led peace initiatives, and shore up support for right-wing Israeli leaders and their policies - culminating in its lobbying over the past year to legitimize settlements.
This is the background to the brouhaha over presidential candidate Donald Trump's speech this week at AIPAC's policy conference - brouhaha that misses the bigger point. The issue isn't Trump. And it's not about AIPAC giving him a platform. The issue is AIPAC.
AIPAC doesn't simply prioritize above all else devotion to right-wing views on Israel. AIPAC takes all other priorities off the table. It embodies a worldview hostile toward the Palestinians, antagonistic to peacemaking, and sympathetic to policies and positions that are antithetical to a two-state solution. This worldview, by necessity, ignores or even denigrates the Jewish values held dear by most American Jews - values that animate our views not only on Israel-Palestine, but on immigration, healthcare, and the full gamut of social issues at play in every election.
Based on this worldview, it should surprise no one that the AIPAC crowd warmly embraced Trump. The crowd was doing what AIPAC has trained its supporters to do: view the candidate strictly through the lens of what AIPAC defines as acceptably "pro-Israel." And through this lens, Trump looked great. He dutifully pandered to the crowd with the tired - but required - clichés of unconditional support for Israel and unquestioning approval of the anti-peace policies of the most right-wing government in Israel's history. He framed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the compulsory, binary terms - a good side and a bad side - and made he is on the good side, which is not the side of the U.S. or Israel, but of AIPAC and the Israeli right.
Like most people I know, I felt sick watching Trump at AIPAC. Not for what he said - his speech was entirely predictable - and not for the fact that AIPAC gave him a platform. I felt sick because I was watching the natural culmination of decades in which AIPAC has successfully defined the terms of the "acceptable" narrative about Israel in U.S. politics and campaigns.
I was seeing what happens when year after year, AIPAC is permitted to manipulate the still-potent existential fears of American Jews and lie to them about what it means to be pro-Israel. Trump's triumphant reception at AIPAC is what happens when American Jews have drunk the AIPAC Kool-Aid for decades and convinced themselves that their progressive Jewish values can and must be disconnected from their support for Israel, and that when their values conflict with Israeli policies - as has been more and more the case since a series of right-wing governments have held power in Israel - blind support for Israel, as defined by AIPAC, trumps all.
Yesterday was a shonda - a disgrace - for American Jewry. But the problem isn't Trump. The problem is, and has long been, AIPAC and the raft of American Jewish groups that follow its lead. If any good can come of the disgraceful display of American Jews boisterously applauding Donald Trump as candidate for president, it is that our community may finally recognize, talk openly about, and reject what AIPAC has wrought.