J Street And AIPAC: Can't We All Just Get Along?

People ask me, “Do AIPAC and J Street hate each other?” It’s a good question. They certainly shouldn’t. While I don’t agree with every single thing that AIPAC and J Street do, I agree wholeheartedly with each organization’s mission and value them as mutually supportive entities on Capitol Hill.
AIPAC is the Jewish lobby. It’s the lobby for the Jews. If you want to be in politics, AIPAC has always been the way to earn your stripes and meet the world. The sheer power of AIPAC drew me to its student conference one spring in DC, for the simple opportunity to see the President speak.
AIPAC is a huge tent and many of its members support varying approaches to shaping US-Israel policy. With its dedication to cementing a two-state deal, J Street’s urgent goal fits neatly into the broad AIPAC platform. So why do so many AIPAC members greet J Street with disdain?
For two insecurities.
Insecurity 1: J Street is a threat to AIPAC’s monopoly on Jewish political representation. J Street’s alternative voice on Israel affairs presents Jews with another avenue to network and build political capital. As J Street achieves greater levels of talent and funding, there is fear that AIPAC’s dominant position representing the Tribe will erode.
The good news is that J Street and AIPAC needn’t be mutually exclusive. The bad news is that a majority of people still believe that to be the case.
Here are the facts: J Street and AIPAC both lobby for sustained military aid to Israel. Both organizations advocate for increased sanctions to prevent a nuclear Iran. J Street activists and AIPAC activists have and will continue to urge President Obama to go to Israel. And both strongly support a two-state solution.
J Street does pose a credible threat to AIPAC’s market share of the pro-Israel community, but AIPAC should welcome this development. Here’s why: J Street says and does things that AIPAC can’t. Which brings me to the second insecurity.
Insecurity 2: Vocal criticism of Israeli policy is scary for AIPAC because that’s not how they do business. This is understandable: AIPAC has been extraordinarily successful at what they do. They strengthen the US-Israel relationship, and we are all immensely grateful for that. If it wasn’t for AIPAC, it’s quite possible that J Street wouldn’t have a democratic Jewish state to preserve. Part of AIPAC’s core identity is its bystander status in Israel politics—they don’t get involved—but this role has left AIPAC feckless on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Given the high stakes situation, J Street chooses to be vocal because Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy is substantially at risk. J Street’s public criticism of Israeli policy (and the Palestinian Authority’s) don’t jive with AIPAC’s world view, so J Street’s efforts to get the US to work more forcefully to resolve the conflict are often viewed with mistrust and condemnation.
This isn’t solely about Israel. This is about how we do business as Jews. This is a board-room battle for how our special-interest minority group with an outsize impact conducts itself in Washington and the public spaces in our American communities.
This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. J Street supporters may question some AIPAC tactics, but they are all fervently committed to the US-Israel relationship. AIPAC might not appreciate J Street’s criticism of settlement expansion, but they appreciate the urgent need for two states and ought to validate J Street’s positions—aligned with those of many Israelis—on how to achieve it.
As a people, Jews have reason to feel insecure. We carry on our backs two millennia of collective trauma. The reaction of many AIPAC members to J Street is understandable, until you dissect it and realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of. And everything to be proud of. AIPAC needs J Street out there lobbying for two states just as much as J Street needs AIPAC to continue deepening the US-Israel relationship and carrying the lion’s share on Iran.
For Israel’s sake and for the sake of K’lal Yisrael, let’s be civil and come together on this. With U.S. politics as vitriolic and divisive as they are, the Jewish community must not close in against itself and catch each other at the throat. Let’s expand the circles and extend the impact. If you’ve never been to AIPAC policy conference, I encourage you to attend and feel the power. If you are concerned about Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy, attend a J Street event and work toward a two-state solution. If you love Israel, do all of the above.
This post originally appeared in the American Jewish World under the title: For Israel’s Sake: Why I Support J Street and AIPAC.