Several years ago, my daughter joined me at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s National Policy Conference in Washington DC. I had been invited to speak, for the second time, at the gathering of 18,000 people from the venerable organization. During my first conference experience, I had been inspired by AIPAC’s dedication to strengthening the US-Israel relationship.
My daughter had just completed six years as an intelligence officer in the Israeli army, but she was completely unaware of AIPAC’s contribution to Israel’s security. I invited her to attend because it seemed to me that as Israel and the Jewish community in the United States seek a new sustainable and open balance in their interactions, Israelis should have a deeper understanding of the intensity, common sense and creativity of American support for Israel. .
Her answer was what I had hoped: she was impressed. His operational suggestion was that AIPAC charter a few planes to transport young Israelis to see first-hand the scope and breadth of the American community’s commitment to the security and well-being of Israel: a sort of reverse birthright.
It is important for me to start with this memory and this expression of appreciation to establish the context. As an Israeli parliamentarian who is a member of the current Israeli ruling coalition and a long-time Zionist, I remain extremely grateful for the hard work, unconditional support and enormous efforts that AIPAC has made on behalf of the Jewish state for over seventy years old. I am fully aware that without the bold interventions, the clever strategies and the countless individual and voluntary initiatives, it is not at all clear that Israel would have survived militarily or diplomatically. It’s a most visceral appreciation – AIPAC’s assistance to Israel has been nothing short of existential.
But that doesn’t mean I agree with all of AIPAC’s decisions. This week, during one of my regular and open English “Town Hall” zoom conversations, I was asked about AIPAC recent decision to approve Republican candidates for Congress in the 2022 midterm elections who refused to certify the election of Joe Biden as president.
I think the position is misguided and I said so, calling it outrageous. My emphatic response produced a headline in The Times of Israel – “In rare rebuke, MP seeks AIPAC endorsement from Republicans who contested 2020 election” – and caused some turbulence. An explanation is in order.
First, I recognize the paramount importance of bipartisan support for Israel and agree with the spirit of AIPAC’s position that the organization has “friends who are pro-choice and pro- life, those who are liberal on immigration and those who want to tighten our borders, and yes, those who strongly disagree on issues surrounding the 2020 presidential election.”
Where I disagree is with their statement that “[t]Now is not the time for the pro-Israel movement to become selective of its friends. At a time when democracy around the world is struggling, now is really the time to be selective. How quickly do we forget that last winter the central democratic institutions in the United States and Israel came under fierce attack. It is legitimate to challenge election results, but once the courts have ruled, the democratic process must be respected.
I believe that even a bipartisan organization must draw a line under politicians who would corrode the very foundations of the democratic system of government. It’s a friendship we don’t need.
As the only American-born and raised Knesset member, I have made it a priority to reach out and engage progressive American Jews, the tribe I grew up in. Today, as a member of the Knesset, I work to make Israel a country that these brave people can be proud to support.
For a decade as Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu made no secret of his distaste for American Democrats (or Reform and Conservative Jewish communities for that matter). To me, this is an unforgivable violation of Israeli tradition. With Trumpism anathema to the majority of American Jews — especially the younger generation — taking this approach has created deep unease and, for many Jews, hostility toward Israel.
We have to settle this. I see looming generational problems for young secular Diaspora Jews when AIPAC aligns itself with explicit GOP talking points and dismisses the great assault on democracy that the United States only narrowly survived.
Last month, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the Knesset with a large delegation of US lawmakers. When they joined us on the balcony of the Knesset Hall, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy delivered a bold and thoughtful speech that was not picked up in the press. Levy said when the mob tried to take over the US legislature to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president, the horror reverberated around the world, including in Israel . “If it could happen in Washington DC, the epicenter of democracy in the world, surely it could happen in Jerusalem.” Levy praised Pelosi and her colleagues for coming to terms with events and doing everything in their power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
We need to be wary when we hear “now is not the time” to face unpleasant and obvious truths. This is surely what David Ben-Gurion was told by the US State Department when he asked for their blessing in declaring a State of Israel. But he knew there are times when leaders need to keep their mission and core beliefs in mind.
I believe that today Israel is stronger than ever. The ties between our Government of Change and the US government have never been stronger. As a patriotic Israeli, I place paramount importance on strengthening our relationship with the United States because it is the leader of the free world and Israel’s greatest ally. American weapons systems are certainly important to Israel’s security and military prowess, but as the only democracy in the Middle East, American values of freedom, democracy and tolerance are what Israel must embody.
Recent political events in America have placed AIPAC in a deep and difficult political dilemma. Of course, there is a place for pragmatism in politics, especially for an organization in which bipartisanship is axiomatic. But being the spokesperson for Israel and the face of our country on Capitol Hill comes with a responsibility: being pro-Israel must mean being adamantly pro-democracy, pro-decency and pro-freedom.
As the Israeli and American Jewish communities move towards what I hope will be a more mature, honest, and symmetrical relationship, criticism must be part of the new normal. American Jews and supporters of Israel should feel free to speak out when they are disappointed with Israel. Hopefully this will take the form of constructive criticism, made out of concern and love for the country. But it must be mutual. Because I’m such a fan of AIPAC, I think it’s not only legitimate but my responsibility to voice my concerns when I disagree with their decisions. This in no way diminishes my gratitude and admiration for their critical work.
Professor Alon Tal is a member of Israel’s Knesset and represents the Blue and White Party, a veteran environmental activist and scholar based in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy.