Next week, in a monumental achievement, about 1,000 volunteers from Norpac, a pro-Israel group based in North Jersey, will get on buses to Washington to lobby nearly every member of Congress and senator to support Israel.
Until recently, the case could be made that pro-Israel groups’ most important goal was to get lawmakers to vote for aid to Israel. But with the Israeli economy now regularly growing more than 5 percent each year, and with Israel ranking 16th among 187 world nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, American money is no longer as vital. In addition, there a strong case to be made that America’s financial contributions give it undue influence in Israel’s security considerations and played a role in the catastrophic decision to implement Oslo 1 and 2. One thousand Israeli civilians were murdered as a result. Furthermore, Israel’s receiving $3 billion a year in economic and military aid, a vestige of the1979 Camp David accords, also means that Egypt, led by a president who calls Jews “descendants of apes and pigs,” also receives $2 billion a year in aid.
The main purpose of pro-Israel lobbying groups today should be to focus American lawmakers on the nuclear threat Iran poses both to Israel and to the United States, and to combat the growing deligitimization of Israel around the world. Of what use is Israel’s air force if every time it employs an F-16 to destroy a Hamas terror training camp in Gaza the United Nations condemns it as murderous? Of what use are Apache helicopter gunships if they can be neutralized by a single BBC camera falsely portraying Israel as using missiles to blow up hospitals in Lebanon?
But here is where we get into a powerful Catch-22. Pro-Israel groups believe that their power is in their access to powerful politicians. But if they criticize those who are in office for making statements that add to Israel’s deligitimization, they lose that access. As my friend Bret Stephens noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, President Obama has allowed many red lines in Iran’s nuclear development to be crossed without taking any action, despite his constant threats. But pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and Norpac for now seem sheepish and reluctant to confront the administration. So they end up being silent, thereby obviating the principal reason for their existence today.
AIPAC’s silence on the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense was a powerful case in point. Here was a man who called the State Department “an adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office,” excused Palestinian terrorism by saying, “Desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away,” and said that Israel puts the Palestinians “in chains.”
AIPAC’s position was that it doesn’t get involved in presidential appointments. But what did that have to do with at least holding Hagel publicly accountable for his outrageous comments? But AIPAC believed that because Hagel’s confirmation was a near certainty, all that would be accomplished by publicly challenging him would be to deny its members access once he was confirmed.
To its credit, Norpac took a different position. Its president, Ben Chouake, courageously wrote here in the Jewish Standard that “this nomination is problematic and should be declined.”
This was not, however, the posture taken by Norpac here in New Jersey’s ninth district, when I ran against Bill Pascrell last year. Pascrell had a good record on voting for Israel aid and Iran sanctions, but he had a deplorable record on the deligitimization issue. He signed the Gaza 54 letter that falsely accused Israel of “collective punishment” against the Palestinians. But while Chouake penned a letter mildly critical of Pascrell for Gaza 54, Norpac and I clashed throughout the race. Like AIPAC, it invoked the “friendly incumbent” rule and essentially backed Pascrell. But all that could have been done while still holding Pascrell accountable for statements that were highly damaging to Israel, which today is being assailed not just with bombs and bullets but with fraudulent charges that smear its reputation, rendering it incapable of defending itself. AIPAC and Norpac have a responsibility to challenge lawmakers whose statements or signed letters malign Israel. In this case they failed.
I believe that our respectful but hard-hitting campaign against Pascrell changed his public posture toward Israel. Indeed, just 10 days after the election, Pascrell released a statement radically different to his earlier condemnation of Israel for the Gaza blockade: “I unequivocally condemn Hamas’ continued rocket attacks against Israeli civilians,” he said. “No one should have to live with the constant fear that a terrorist’s rocket could take the life of a loved one…. I appreciate that Israel has taken important steps to target only Hamas militants and limit civilian casualties.”
While we in the Jewish community must show respect to those in office at all times, I am utterly opposed to the “maintain-access-at-all-times” posture that increasingly is coming to define pro-Israel activism. I believe in a muscular pro-Israel agenda that is utterly unapologetic for American Jewry’s support of one of the world’s most virtuous, benevolent, and moral nations.
When, in 1991, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir requested $10 billion in loan guarantees and President George H. W. Bush said Israel could have those guarantees only if it froze all settlements, a very different AIPAC summoned an army of lobbyists from all over the country to descend on Washington. And when President Bush famously complained that “1000 Jewish lobbyists are on Capitol Hill against little old me,” the very next day, in a speech at which I was present and that I will never forget, Tom Dine, AIPAC’s executive director, declared that “September 12, 1991 is a day that will live in infamy” because an American president had the chutzpah to criticize the First Amendment-guaranteed right to lobby our government.
The loan guarantees later would be approved, Bush would receive just 12 percent of the Jewish vote in the next election, and he would be trounced by Bill Clinton.
A new crop of lawmakers now is running for office. Some, like my dear friend Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, who as a Rhodes scholar served as president of my Jewish student organization at Oxford University and with whom I have studied Jewish texts for thousands of hours, are intrinsic and stalwart friends of Israel. Others are only now being educated on the Middle East. It behooves us to be nice to all but absolutely firm that we expect all of them – even those professing to be our most stalwart friends – to speak loudly about America moving its embassy to Jerusalem and that the world’s sole superpower will stand steadfastly behind the Middle East’s only democracy and America’s most dependable ally in the entire world: the Jewish State of Israel.