The Complex Relationship Between AIPAC and Black Americans
1. The politics of Jewish-African-American relations
Last week, as cities across America were reeling with anguish over the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, AIPAC sent a letter to its African-American members and supporters.
“When a member of our family is attacked, we are all attacked. When a member of our family is in pain, we are all in pain,” the letter, first reported by Jewish Insider, stated. “Racism, intolerance and inequality must have no place in our country.”
This is not the first expression of support voiced by a Jewish organization to the African-American community, as it struggles for justice in light of the latest acts of police brutality.
But there’s more to it.
AIPAC is a political organization, and as such, it has been engaging with black voters, activists and lawmakers for years on a political level. The lobby has been actively seeking these engagements, reaching out to African-Americans in all stages of their political careers, from college student body presidents to state and federal lawmakers, and by featuring prominent figures in the community, such as Bakari Sellers, as key voices within AIPAC.
But the politics of this relationship has not been easy in recent years.
When AIPAC mounted a full-out war against the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015, and when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed up in Congress to rebuke president Obama, it was the Congressional Black Caucus and many in the African-American community who stood up for the deal, and for Obama.
Leaders like civil rights icon Representative John Lewis spoke out forcefully in favor of the deal, and, behind closed doors, activists heard black lawmakers complain that Israel and its supporters in Washington were mistreating America’s first black president.
The Iran deal was a bump on the road, which Israel and pro-Israel activists sought to fix once the debate over the deal was concluded. Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer spent time and energy re-establishing ties and mending relations with leaders in the black community, and with some success.
Of course, Israel, Iran, and the Middle East are only part of the Jewish-American political agenda. Members of the community care about and advocate around a large swath of issues, most of which are fully in line with the concerns of the African-American community: battling racism and white supremacy, gun control, healthcare, social security, and social safety net measures.
2. Does the Israel issue complicate relations?
The issue of Israel doesn’t make this relationship any easier.
Take, for example, the case of the “Squad,” made up of four progressive lawmakers: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, all women of color.
The views on Israel within the “Squad” vary—some support boycotting Israel, others don’t—but they all feel at home in the far left corner of the Democratic Party, where support for Israel isn’t a given, and where the idea of a new agenda to revive the party includes an end to the automatic pro-Israel approach which established Dems currently hold.
Israel, for its part, has done its fair share to alienate these women, including banning Tlaib and Omar from visiting Israel. Speaker after speaker at AIPAC’s 2018 policy conference made a point of denouncing the “Squad’s” views and calling out progressive Democrats who criticize Israel.
Although this criticism was based on policies surrounding Israel and not race, the optics were never in favor of Israel or its American supporters.
Given the support among young African-Americans for progressive politics, and the call for intersectionality, which ties the fate of oppressed Palestinians with that of black Americans, the Jewish community faces a complicated task when joining hands with African Americans on the political level.
There’s a nuanced message to be conveyed—Jews and African-Americans want to defeat racism and bigotry and believe in the primacy of uprooting these trends from American society. Jewish Americans and black Americans share the belief of using political vehicles to advance social justice and to fight inequality. At the same time, however, for most, they probably don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of Israel. But as long as pro-Israeli activists in the community make sure they frame the issue of Israel as a foreign policy issue, not one of race or class, there is no reason these differences should impede coalition-building between the two communities.
3. Ivanka hits the wrong tone on protests
At times, Ivanka Trump, daughter and adviser to President Trump, has served as a voice of reason within the administration, especially on issues of race in which her father was either unwilling or politically unable to speak out. After the El Paso shooting, in which a white supremacist targeted Latino residents shopping at a Walmart store, killing 23 people, Ivanka took to Twitter to respond, stating that “white supremacy, like all other forms of terrorism, is an evil that must be destroyed.”
As our nation mourns the senseless loss of life in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio and prays for the victims and their loved ones, we must also raise our voices in rejection of these heinous and cowardly acts of hate, terror and violence.
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) August 4, 2019
But Ivanka was not a voice of reason in response to the current protests following the murder of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis. Instead of serving as the administration’s conscience, she turned into a lightning rod for all the failures of her father’s administration in dealing with race relations in America.
WSU Tech refocuses commencement ceremony on graduates.
Read a personal message from WSU Tech President, Dr. Sheree Utash at: https://t.co/4YdmNf6VfF
— WSU Tech (@wsutech) June 5, 2020
Ivanka went on to publish her 10-minute address, which struck many as tone-deaf. She did not touch directly on Floyd’s murder or the Black Lives Matter protests (the White House said the speech was recorded before these events) and instead chose a cheerful message, promising students that, “now more than ever, we remember that changes and hardships do not predict failure, in fact, they can be the greatest impetus for success.” She added: “I’ve found that my greatest personal growth has arisen from times of discomfort and uncertainty.”
And as a true Trump, Ivanka insisted on having the last word. Attached to her message, she tweeted a jab at the school: “Our nation’s campuses should be bastions of free speech. Cancel culture and viewpoint discrimination are antithetical to academia. Listening to one another is important now more than ever!”
Here is the message I recorded on May 18th for the Graduates of WSU-Tech. I know that all of these talented graduates will dream big and aspire to make the world a better place!
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) June 5, 2020
4. Bernie Sanders—hero of the Israeli left
Bernie Sanders has never been shy about his views on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. (Come to think of it, Sanders has never been shy about voicing his views on any topic.)
He spoke out against Israeli annexation of the West Bank even before Trump presented his peace plan making the move possible, and took the stage at the J Street conference during the height of his Democratic primary campaign to threaten cutting U.S. aid to Israel if it goes down the annexation road.
So, it’s no big surprise that on Saturday, as tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to protest Netanyahu’s plan to annex West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, it was Sanders who appeared on the jumbo screen and delivered a warm endorsement to all those fighting the upcoming move.
“The plans to annex any parts of the West Bank must be stopped. The occupation must be ended and we must work together for a future of equality and dignity for all people in Israel and Palestine,” Sanders told the cheering crowd.
What’s remarkable about Sanders’ short appearance, is not that the senator, months before elections in the U.S., took time to weigh in on an issue being debated in a faraway nation, but rather that he received such a positive response. Israeli leftists, as it turns out, actually know the senator from Vermont, and view him as a partner in their battle for a two-state solution.
5. Eliot Engel’s unlikely political peril
If there’s anything everyone knows about 16-term New York Democratic congressman Eliot Engel it is that he’s as pro-Israel as it gets. (Weird Washington trivia: he’s also known for coming really early to the State of the Union address to be in the front row of those greeting the president when he walks in.)
Now, after more than 30 years of smooth sailing, Engel finds himself in what could be a tough primary race, against Jamaal Bowman, a progressive school principal from the Bronx, who is gaining traction and raising a whole lot of money ahead of the June 23 primary.
A progressive coming out of nowhere to threaten an establishment veteran Democrat—where does that sound familiar from?
That’s what Alexandria Ocasio Cortez did two years ago, and, not surprisingly, AOC is now backing Bowman.
The race is about a slew of issues, including which candidate is more in touch with the district constituency, but the question of Israel is playing a role. Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, supports unconditional aid to Israel, opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and is close to AIPAC and to Israeli leaders. Bowman’s views lean more to the Bernie end of the spectrum, including threats to cut aid based on Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians.
For now, Engel is getting the backing of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and has the Democratic Majority for Israel raising money for his campaign. “This race is vitally important to the pro-Israel community and we are doing everything we can to make sure that Eliot stays in Congress,” the group said in its fundraising letter to supporters.
6. Bonus: let’s get together
Join me and Moment’s Deputy Editor Sarah Breger for a free Zoom discussion about Israeli politics, Benjamin Netanyahu’s magical survival skills, the demise of the Israeli opposition, the upcoming annexation of the West Bank, and anything else you’d like to talk about.
It’s on Tuesday, June 9 at 4:30 PM EST, and you can register here.