The 2012 March 4-6 AIPAC annual conference was attended by hundreds of congressional leaders; President Obama addressed the conference, as did Republican presidential candidates by video.
In 2001, Fortune magazine ranked AIPAC the fourth most powerful lobby in Washington. AIPAC lobbyists urge our government to support Israel's hawkish policies including Prime Minister Netanyahu's focus on a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear sites.
J Street, founded in 2008 to provide American Jews with an alternative to AIPAC, supports a two state solution, is opposed to West Bank Settlements and military action against Iran. It is unlikely that many members of congress will attend, nor will the President address its annual March 24-27 Conference.
AIPAC spends a million dollars a year on lobbying. In 2011, Its American Israel Educational Foundation spent $2 million on trips to Israel for members of congress and staff who met almost exclusively with hawkish Israeli leaders. AIPAC professionals work with synagogues and churches; and high school and college students to "promote pro-Israel advocacy."
J Street's budget does not remotely approach AIPAC's -- it spent $46,000 on congressional trips to Israel in 2011, which included visits with Palestinians and Israeli Human rights groups.
In light of this disparity, it is not surprising that many American Jews are highly -- but not entirely -- influenced by AIPAC. The 2010 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey indicates that 48 percent favor, and 45 percent oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But according to a 2011 poll commissioned by J Street 67 percent of American Jews would support U.S. leadership in helping to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict even if it meant "publicly stating its disagreements" with Israelis and Arabs. This is contrary to AIPAC's position of pressuring our government into supporting Israel's conservative leaders.
Most American Jews remain exceptionally liberal -- according to a 2010 American Jewish Committee (AJC) Survey only 15 percent are Republicans. In 2008, 78 percent of Jews, but only 41 percent of other white Americans voted for Obama; a 2005 American Jewish Committee poll found that 70 percent of U.S. Jews opposed the war in Iraq.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that AIPAC influences U.S. Jews to be less liberal on Israel than on other issues.
J Street needs a huge leap in funding before it can begin to approach the Congressional support and media attention that AIPAC gets, and develop the expansive educational and public relations operations necessary to win widespread Jewish attention and support.
J Street has since its creation been hampered by virulent attacks from AIPAC and the right, but also suffers from a destructive fissure between mainstream Jewish liberal and Jewish radical organizations, which could prevent J Street attaining anything close to the power of AIPAC.
Liberal organizations like J Street, and Americans for Peace Now, and radical organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Jewish Women for Justice in Palestine, agree on many issues including opposition to the growing influence of the Orthodox in Israel and to right wing policies which endanger Israeli democracy. Both groups vehemently oppose West Bank settlements, and are highly critical of Israeli actions in Gaza.
But fundamental disagreements remain. AIPAC's commitment to depicting the two groups as identical, as well as the media's tendency to focus on the extremes rather than the reasonable middle -- J Street -- makes it difficult for American Jews to distinguish between them. Since radicals support policies and actions which are anathema to most liberal U.S. Jews -- see a few examples below -- this likely conflation is bad news for J Street.
According to the 2010, AJC poll, 75 percent of American Jews believe that "the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel." It is difficult to argue that this is a completely unfounded belief when The Hezbollah Political Manifesto, 2009 states:" We categorically reject any compromise with Israel or recognizing its legitimacy, this position is definitive... " Hamas's charter still does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
What then could turn American Jews off more than Jewish organizations supporting The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction's (BDS) movement started by Palestinian NGO's. (J Street and other liberal groups vehemently oppose it.) In addition to a boycott of all -- not just West Bank --Israeli products and culture , it calls for "the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in the 1948 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194." Omar Barghouti, a BDS founder, describes this as the most important demand. It would give about 4.5 million Palestinian refugees -- approximately 95 percent of whom are children and grandchildren of those who fled in 1948 -- the right to "return" to Israel.
BDS has been rejected by thinkers as diverse as Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism whose views are close to those of J Street, and Norman Finkelstein, leading radical Jewish spokesman for the Palestinian cause, whose book, The Holocaust Industry, has made him the darling of the Holocaust deniers. They both point out that BDS would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish homeland, since Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews. Noam Chomsky, the leading leftwing American spokesman and a radical critic of Israel also opposes BDS.
Yet some groups and thinkers persist in supporting it. (I suspect this support grows out of a longstanding tendency on the part of some on the radical left to uncritically accept the perspectives and demands of the oppressed however misguided they may be. It reminds me of the 1967 National Conference for New Politics, where whites -- many of them undoubtedly Jews -- acquiesced to giving blacks who represented 15 percent of those present 50 percent of the votes which led to a resolution condemning Israel for the Six Day "Imperialist Zionist War.")
The introduction of anti-Israel posters, slogans, and actions in demonstrations unrelated to Israel is another issue deeply disturbing to many liberal Jews. Already in 2003, Tikkun editor Michael Lerner expressed concern about it. Recently Tikkun published a letter from an Occupy Wall Street demonstrator so disturbed by the "down with Israel" rhetoric, he left the demonstration "overcome with tears."
In Boston, at an October 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstration, Jewish Women for Justice in Palestine, staged an Occupy Boston Not Palestine demonstration. In November, some Boston OWS demonstrators chanting "Viva Palestina" staged a sit in at the Israeli Consulate.
And if that is not enough, what could be more anathema to American Jews than Medea Benjamin who is Jewish and the founder of Code Pink, awarding Helen Thomas a PINK medal of courage. Benjamin stated that CODEPINK had long "admired Helen Thomas's courageous journalism," and explained that Thomas had "misspoken" when she said "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine...Remember these people are occupied and it's their land..." and those who are the occupiers should "... go home" to "Poland, Germany... and America and everywhere else."
A strong vibrant J Street is desperately needed to balance AIPAC. Supporters of organizations whose policies can only alienate most American Jews, would do well to consider transferring their support to J Street (and organizations such as Americans for Peace Now) which can attract wide support and eventually provide a serious counterbalance to AIPAC.