Moment Debate | Are There Dangers in the Increase of Israel-Related Money in American Electoral Politics?

DEBATERS

Josh Block is a former spokesman for AIPAC, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Clinton administration appointee.

Andy Levin, a Democrat, represents the 11th District of Michigan. He lost the Democratic primary for reelection to fellow representative Haley Stevens in August.

INTERVIEW WITH JOSH BLOCK

Are There Dangers in the Increase of Israel-Related Money in American Electoral Politics? | No

Are there dangers in the increase of Israel-related money in American electoral politics?

No. In recent years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the amounts being raised by all candidates across the political spectrum. It’s long past due for the American pro-Israel community to begin to engage in the political process in a way that matches that environment. I’m pleased that AIPAC has stepped forward to do this. You can’t communicate with voters the same way you did five, eight, ten years ago. It’s far more cost-intensive, and the debates have become far more polarized, full of misinformation and slander and smears—from the far left and the far right—against normal positions held by a majority of Americans. It’s essential for those of us who hold reasonable, moderate views to speak out for those who believe that Israel is one of our closest allies in the world.

Support for Israel is also an important prism through which one understands whether a candidate shares one’s worldview generally.

Supporting your candidate of choice is as American as apple pie.

Not every race is about Israel, but some are, and those messages have to get out. For instance, the difference between Andy Levin and his opponent Haley Stevens, who beat him, was important to understand. Not just because he’s not a supporter of Israel, whatever he says, but because he’s dramatically outside the mainstream of what most voters in his district and in the United States believe. And that messaging has to be accomplished these days through paid media, because the distortion in social media is so rife. So it’s very valuable that the pro-Israel community put together this way of addressing the problem.

What changes do you think drove AIPAC’s shift in approach?

We’ve seen the rise of a progressive machine that animates campaigns like Bernie Sanders’s and also exaggerates the support for people like Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. When candidates like Bernie are able to raise small-dollar contributions not from a broad public but from bands of supporters on the extremes, like when he raised more than $140 million before the California Democratic primaries in 2016, it’s important for mainstream candidates to be able to raise the money they need to get their message out.

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Do you have concerns about the direction of campaign funding generally?

Supporting your candidate of choice is as American as apple pie. We want Americans to be as involved in the political process as possible, from voting to canvassing to writing checks if needed. That being said, the high cost of campaigning makes running for office more expensive and time-consuming and can distract from the job of actually legislating. As one who would like to see legislators work together more across the aisle, I think supporting candidates closer to the center is a good idea. Would campaign finance reform make that easier? I don’t know.

Will the involvement of Israel-related PACs end up magnifying small policy differences on Israel?

More likely, you’ll see the pro-Israel community getting involved when there are real differences between candidates within the same party, and broadening support for those who speak out for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, including a two-state solution when that’s appropriate. The difference between Andy Levin, who holds hands with Rashida Tlaib, and a candidate who rejects people like Tlaib is not a minor but a substantial difference. Candidates’ approach to antisemitism is also an increasing concern that needs to be more forcefully called out.

On the Republican side, should pro-Israel groups support 2020 election deniers?

I’m sensitive to that argument, but Republican politics have become very complicated in the era of Trump, and I don’t think any issue should be an actual litmus test. There are important distinctions to be made among Republicans as well as Democrats. As bad as it may be to suggest the 2020 election was illegitimate or fraudulent—it was not—that sentiment was so widely expressed among Republicans that we can’t just decline to engage in these important political battles. Also, mainstream candidates often make such statements from a defensive posture to prevent being primaried or assaulted by even more fringe or radical elements. AIPAC did support Liz Cheney; it’s unfortunate she lost, and it shows the trauma of the Republican Party in the Trump era. But those of us outside don’t have the luxury of setting the agenda for the Republican Party. We have to meet reality where it is.

How do you see these new funding patterns playing out in the general election?

We’re likely to see a broadening of support across all parties for candidates who express mainstream pro-Israel views and support America’s leading role in the world. When money is invested in candidates with mainstream views who then win primaries, then over time, there’s a chance to elevate sensible perspectives on both sides.

INTERVIEW WITH ANDY LEVIN

Are There Dangers in the Increase of Israel-Related Money in American Electoral Politics? | Yes

Are there dangers in the increase of Israel-related money in American electoral politics?

Yes. The races that AIPAC’s PAC flooded with millions of dollars—including my race—weren’t only about Israel. Many of the candidates defeated in these races supported policies that will affect climate justice, racial justice and other crises. In several of these races AIPAC outspent every other lobby combined, all to stop candidates who are fighting for a livable future.

There are really two levels of deception. First, the right-wing-on-Israel PACs aren’t honest about what their issue is. In my race, none of the advertising was about Israel-Palestine. There might have been some micro-targeting to certain voters, but the vast majority of the money AIPAC spent against me and others didn’t even talk about Israel. Second, millions of these dollars raised and spent by AIPAC have come from Republican billionaires, and that’s deeply concerning. These are Democratic primaries, for God’s sake. No party wants adherents of the other party to choose its nominees.

What changes do you think drove AIPAC’s shift in approach?

AIPAC knows the tide is shifting against it on the policy end, especially with Jewish Americans. Trying to convince the public of its views is an uphill battle, especially when a younger generation wants to see Palestinian rights respected. So they’re using the kind of tactics any group uses when it wants to advance unpopular views. They’re flooding the airwaves with money to force candidates to say what they want them to say.

Do you have concerns about the direction of campaign funding generally?

Absolutely. There’s a larger problem of so-called dark money in politics that we have to confront. We’re also seeing it play out within the Democratic Party—the Democratic National Committee leadership was unwilling even to vote on a proposal to ban dark money in our own primaries. That’s not just a shanda, it’s a crisis for our politics. We should have public financing for our campaigns.

Shutting down discussion of Israel betrays our shared democratic values.

I’ve been a leader in fighting against dark money in politics. I contributed a bill to HR1, the For the People Act, that would allow the government to require corporations to disclose to their shareholders whom they’re spending this money on. Believe it or not, that doesn’t happen.

Will the involvement of Israel-related PACs end up magnifying small policy differences on Israel?

I think it’s more of a chilling effect. They’re trying to shut down rational discussion about Israel and Palestine, the Iran nuclear deal and other issues. They don’t do it directly: Most Americans, including most Jews, don’t list those issues among the top five reasons they vote. But the PACs use spending to move the goalposts, to punish anyone who speaks up for Palestinian rights. Mostly that has meant targeting women of color, but they also couldn’t stand it that I, as a Jew and a former synagogue president who shares the values of most Americans, speak up as I do. And most Americans would support the same kind of baseline accountability issues for money we send to Israel as we do for any other country.

They’re trying to tighten the range of what’s acceptable. I won’t cede the definition of who is a Zionist and who loves Israel to these people. It’s just not truthful. I’m just as pro-Israel as they are, and of course, if you go to Israel, you’ll find robust debate with all these views expressed. The most important thing we share with Israel is the commitment to a secure homeland for the Jewish people. But we also share a commitment to democracy. And the idea that AIPAC wants to shut down democratic discussion of policy toward Israel is a betrayal of those shared values.

On the Republican side, should pro-Israel groups support 2020 election deniers?

AIPAC has been supporting insurrectionist-aligned Republicans, helping dozens of them survive primary challenges. Regardless of how much money these PACs spend in individual races, their endorsement of 109 insurrectionists means they’re putting their stamp of approval on people like Jim Jordan of Ohio and Barry Loudermilk of Georgia—the tour guide of January 5. It’s outrageous. And it’s deeply alienating for many American Jews.

How do you see these new funding patterns playing out in the general election?

Their impact is in shaping our options. AIPAC is helping ensure that the next Congress has a huge bloc of MAGA lawmakers loyal to Donald Trump and not to our democracy. Being a single-issue group is no excuse; it doesn’t mean you have no obligation to preserve democracy. When there’s no more democracy you can’t lobby on your issue, whatever it is. The question for Democrats is whether we’re going to let that continue—whether by AIPAC or any other Super PAC.

 

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One thought on “Moment Debate | Are There Dangers in the Increase of Israel-Related Money in American Electoral Politics?

  1. Jeffrey Blankfort says:

    The difference between making unconditional support for Israel a key issue and choosing members of Congress as opposed to other issues is that it represents support for a foreign country whose legislature, the Knesset, has rarely, if ever, reciprocated that support. What AIPAC has done by stepping out of the shadows and spending $26 million to defeat US politicians who do not pledge allegiance to Israel is opening up the Jewish community to questions of dual loyalty and, in particular, in the African-American community whoseJ most progressive candidates on other issues were successfully targeted by AIPAC.

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