It is hard to exaggerate the damage inflicted on AIPAC by the congressional defeat of its efforts to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal. It is not as if AIPAC won’t live to fight again, because it will, but this defeat has ruptured the status quo, possibly forever.
The extent of its efforts to defeat the deal was unprecedented even for a lobby known for its no-holds-barred wars against past White House initiatives it considered unfriendly to Israel, going all the way back to the Ford administration. AIPAC, and its cutout Citizens For A Nuclear Free Iran, reportedly budgeted upwards of $20 million for a campaign that included flooding the airwaves with television spots; buying full-page newspaper ads, arranging fly-ins of AIPAC members to Washington, organizing demonstrations at offices of AIPAC-friendly members of Congress who were believed to be wavering, and ensuring that problematic legislators were officially warned by precisely the right donor. Rank-and-file AIPAC members were largely irrelevant to the process. Money did the talking, and also the yelling and the cursing when necessary. As one congressional staffer put it to me, “Taking money from AIPAC is like getting a loan from the mob. You better not forget to pay it back. They walk into this office like they own it.”
AIPAC is not a mass-membership organization. It claims 100,000 members, which probably means it has fewer than that. But no matter, it is, or was until now, viewed as speaking for all 6 million American Jews. In fact, whenever it testifies on Capitol Hill, it says it is speaking for the entire organized community. The truth, however, is that 82 percent of American Jews belong to no Jewish organizations at all, meaning not only that there is no organization that speaks for them, but that no organization even knows exactly who they are.
Legislators believe that AIPAC is the Jewish voice because (again, until now) that is what they heard from their Jewish donors. Although only 4 to 6 percent of American Jews cast their votes based on Israel policy, and even though Jews have voted consistently Democratic since 1928 (about 70 percent voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012), the donor class led by AIPAC has convinced politicians both that Jews are primarily interested in Israel and that their votes are in play, when, in reality, Jews are the most unwavering of Democrats, second only to African-Americans. And much the same dynamic is at play when it comes to Iran. In fact, the one scientific poll of Jews on attitudes toward the Iran deal showed 49 percent for it, with 31 percent against. (Writing in the September 9 Washington Post, Harold Meyerson explains exactly where the Jewish community stands today, a picture that is very different from the one painted by AIPAC.)