The benefits of democracy in the United States have never been shared equally, despite ongoing rhetoric claiming otherwise. African Americans, women, some immigrant groups, the formerly incarcerated and other marginalized populations have, at different times, been denied equal citizenship.
But for most Jews, liberal democracy in the US, designed both to protect vulnerable minorities and to provide avenues for the average citizen to shape their government, has been consistently great for us. We thrive under democracy and do badly under authoritarian regimes.
American Jews don’t agree on everything, but on this question we are largely aligned. US democracy is a system of government that we should want to protect and expand.
So it has been outrageous to see some of the most politically engaged American Jews, including AIPAC and its allies, taking steps that effectively weaken our democracy by engaging in unlimited spending to overwhelm unaligned candidates, supporting candidates who are opposed to democratic laws and norms, and seeking to limit free speech if it is critical of Israel.
Let’s start with the matter of unlimited spending.
The subject of Jewish giving in politics is fraught. On one hand, it is among the most important ways Jews in the United States impact public policy and the outcomes of elections. Civic participation, including donating directly to political campaigns, is a good thing. On the other hand, allegations of Jewish financial control over key institutions in domestic and global affairs is a powerful anti-Semitic trope that has historically led to violent scapegoating. Too many people believe Jews are pulling the strings behind the scenes and point to large political donations as evidence of illegitimate influence.
With its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court opened the door to virtually unlimited spending on elections. Anyone with deep pockets can create a super PAC and pour millions of dollars into any race, from the most obscure to the most high-profile. The resulting avalanche of television, radio, and social media ads, mailers, and other communications is capable of shifting public opinion rapidly.
Unlimited spending is bad for democracy. In a world where most people learn about candidates from paid media, the ability to overwhelm voters in a particular district with information for or against a particular candidate corrupts the process.
Which brings us back to AIPAC. After years of insisting that it was a bipartisan organization focused on lobbying Congress and the White House, not interested in getting involved in elections, AIPAC decided to get directly involved in elections. With public opinion and elected officials turning against the group’s support for Israel’s policies, it’s understandable that AIPAC would cross a line that had once seemed inviolable.
First, it created a PAC, called AIPAC PAC, to give money to candidates. Then, it created a super PAC, called United Democracy Project (UDP), whose name is turning out to be a textbook example of doublespeak. Among supporters of UDP at the $1 million level are major Republican donors.
Despite raising significant funds from Republicans, UDP has been spending money in Democratic primaries, supporting AIPAC-aligned candidates against Democrats who have been more critical of Israeli policy. Among UDP’s big targets: Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, a self-identified Zionist and former synagogue president with a strong record of support for workers and addressing international human rights violations, including the Israeli occupation. Levin, at least in part due to the huge influx of AIPAC-organized money, lost his primary on August 2. AIPAC claimed it as a victory for the “pro-Israel” cause.
AIPAC’s press releases and tweets attacked Levin for his record on Israel and Palestine. Its advertisements didn’t mention the issue at all. AIPAC knew its issues didn’t have salience in most of his district, so they ignored Israel and Palestine. To put a finer point on what is happening, a national organization with access to huge sums of money, much of it from Republicans, is seeking to determine the outcome of Democratic primaries by ignoring the very issue the group works on.
This is not how a democracy should work. Summer Lee, a working-class US House candidate from Pennsylvania who managed to win despite millions in AIPAC spending against her, put it this way in a recent tweet. “I’m expected to somehow raise millions to fend off multimillion dollar attacks.… Limitless corporate and dark money in elections is objectively bad and antithetical to building a truly reflective democracy.” Amen.
Also bad for democracy: insurrectionists seeking to overturn fair elections.
You probably remember them from the day they stormed the Capitol building, seeking to stop the certification of the 2020 election and pave the way for a second Trump term. You might also remember how, later that same night, 147 Republican members of Congress voted not to certify the election, signaling their disdain for the rule of law and our electoral process. And you have seen many of the current crop of incumbents and challengers at the federal and state levels continuing to insist that the last election was stolen and that the January 6 attack was an act of high patriotism.
AIPAC has endorsed 109 of these insurrectionists, including Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. Perry, you may recall, used a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting to promote a conspiracy, embraced by white supremacists, that immigrants, (encouraged by Jews), are flocking to the United States to “replace” native-born Americans. Perry also voted against certifying Biden’s election.
You would think a super PAC with the word “democracy” in its name, formed to support a country it considers the “only democracy in the Middle East,” on behalf of a community that has thrived in liberal democracies, would care if its candidates are hostile to democracy. You would be wrong.
A third effort to undermine liberal democracy in the United States has been attacks on political speech by critics of Israel. In their zeal to oppose the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel, Jewish community leaders have crossed the line. In addition to supporting anti-BDS laws that punish political speech, interrogating candidates’ positions on BDS has come to dominate the discourse around elections at every level of government.
AIPAC, along with many other organizations and voters, has the right to find out where a candidate stands on the issue of BDS. But if you read the Jewish press, you would think this is the Jewish community’s single most important concern. In New York City, where we both live, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article covering a candidate forum at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn devoted 14 paragraphs to the one question on BDS, and only nine paragraphs to the other five questions combined.
Jewish communal fear of BDS has led us down a dangerous road by stifling free speech and distorting communal priorities. Candidates with nuanced positions are told to fall in line, or else. At the same time, it gives the impression that the Jewish community only really cares about one thing.
The Jewish Federations of North American umbrella group says it helps secure “$10 billion in public funds that flow to Jewish communities. These funds support thousands of agencies serving people of all backgrounds, including hospitals, nursing homes, community centers, family and children’s service agencies, and vocational training programs.” Other Jewish organizations advocate for abortion access, human and civil rights, international aid, criminal justice reform, and many other issues. Yet BDS has displaced almost any conversation with candidates and elected officials about the safety net of social programs so many in our community rely upon.
Finally, supporters of BDS, or those who defend its supporters, are often branded as anti-Semites or, if they are Jewish, as not real Jews. This kind of poisonous rhetoric, which has been endorsed by important communal leaders, reframes policy disagreements as hate speech. It turns forums of inquiry into forums of inquisition, where guilt is presumed and punishment is excommunication.
AIPAC wants to win. And that’s understandable. All of us who are advocates for different causes have goals we want to achieve, changes we want to make, policies we believe in. Often the stakes are high. But even more important than winning every fight is maintaining a fair system where people who disagree can contest for power again and again on a reasonably level playing field. As long as dissent remains a core Jewish value, as it has been for millennia, we need to fortify a political system that protects it.
Our country is at an inflection point. Too many Americans seem willing to toss aside our liberal democratic traditions and institutions—traditions and institutions that provide a level of stability critical to our community’s safety and success. Let’s not join them, before we break a democracy that cannot be easily fixed.