How The Israel Lobby Silenced Democratic Dissent

After AIPAC targeted a Jewish Democratic congressman, most Dem lawmakers won’t risk pressing Israel to stop its war.

Nov 14, 2023

As Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip rolls into its sixth week, the United States continues to offer its overwhelming support to its ally. When asked about the chance of a ceasefire last week, President Joe Biden shot back, “None. No possibility.”

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, over 11,000 Palestinians have been killed as a result of Israel’s assault. In 2023, Israel is scheduled to receive $3.8 billion in annual American military assistance as part of a decades long agreement — and may receive another $14 billion, after Biden’s emergency aid package passed the House of Representatives. A ceasefire resolution introduced by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) has been cosponsored by just 17 other lawmakers. Meanwhile, the House has censured Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for her rhetoric in support of Palestine. Along with 212 Republicans, 22 Democrats voted to censure Tlaib.

What could explain this mostly unflinching and unexamined backing of Israel among Republicans and Democrats alike? In large part, this is a political moment created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying group. In 2022, for the first time, AIPAC targeted Democrats in primaries — including a Jewish, self-proclaimed pro-Israel Democrat. Now, every Democrat likely knows that supporting anything short of the full AIPAC line — which currently equates to unwavering support of Israel’s siege — means that, in your next election, you may just be spent into the ground.

Beth Miller, the political director of Jewish Voice For Peace, says AIPAC “has always been a hawkish organization that pushes for dangerous, war-mongering foreign policy.” Founded in 1953, the group advocates for a complete policy symbiosis between Israel and the U.S. In recent years, that’s meant pushing for American support for Israel, no matter how radically right wing Israel’s government gets.

“To empower Netanyahu, to empower the settlers, to have a global superpower saying you can do whatever you want,” adds Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for the lobbying group J Street. “That’s the line that AIPAC has pushed for Israel.” (J Street, which calls itself “pro-peace, pro-Israel,” has also not called for a ceasefire.)

Last year, the ostensibly bipartisan AIPAC did something it had never done before: They spent money in Democratic primaries. From Ohio to Texas to California, in traditional primaries and in special elections alike, AIPAC and the AIPAC-aligned Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI) collectively backed at least 14 centrist candidates against 14 more-progressive opponents.

Even more peculiar was that in those races, the public-facing AIPAC and DMFI ads and messages did not focus on Israel, but rather on a wide spectrum of issues, including loyalty to the Democratic Party. It was a cynical strategy with clear efficacy. In Ohio, the popular Bernie Sanders ally and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D) was defeated. In Maryland, the veteran former Democratic congresswoman Donna Edwards was defeated. In Minnesota, Ilhan Omar only managed to beat her primary opponent by a few thousand votes. Only three other candidates opposed by AIPAC and DMFI found a way to win office.

AIPAC’s success in pushing a hardline, unconditional support of Israel is rooted in its “veneer of bipartisanship,” says Miller, and the traditional “overwhelming cross-party support for the Israeli government.”

But in the last five to ten years, Miller says, “you have a growing group of Democrats who are critical of the Israeli government and that goes beyond ‘The Squad,’” the collective nickname for Tlaib, Omar, and their fellow progressives, including Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) “They saw the writing on the wall,” Miller says, “and were very appropriately scared.” So, Miller argues, AIPAC jumped into the 2022 Democratic primaries.

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Looking back at AIPAC’s expansive 2022 election spending, the fate of one candidate in particular stands out as an indicator for how far the group was willing to go to control the conversation around Israel — and that’s Andy Levin.

“They’re Coming For Our Dad”

Michigan’s 11th congressional district covers an area just north of Detroit. In 2022, the Democratic primary for the district pitted Levin against incumbent Haley Stevens, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama’s “car czar,” Steven Rattner, who is best known for forcing through massive worker pay cuts after the 2008 crash and paying $10 million to settle pension bribery claims. (Both Stevens and Levin had each served two terms in the House at that point, but they ran against each other as a result of the state GOP’s redistricting moves.)

Levin comes from a Michigan political family dynasty. He’s a former president of his synagogue. He’s explicitly pro-Israel. He also believes in the rights of Palestinians. In September 2021, he proposed a bill for a two-state solution that called for “an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

Levin’s two-state solution bill marked him as a wanted man. In an email to donors in Michigan in January 2022, a former AIPAC president called the Michigan 11th District primary “a rare opportunity to defeat arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Ahead of their 2022 spending, AIPAC created an anodyne-sounding super PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP). Then UDP went about splashing loads of cash gifted from folks like Paul Singer, the Republican donor and hedge fund billionaire, and Haim Saban, the creator of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

According to research from IfNotNow, the Jewish-American anti-occupation organization, outside of the AIPAC-aligned groups, there were 80 PACs active in the 2022 election cycle. Their collective expenditure was $24 million. AIPAC and their allies spent a total $30.5 million, dwarfing all those other PACs combined.

In Levin’s race alone, AIPAC spent $3.9 million running ads bolstering Stevens’ support of abortion rights and depicting her as a great champion of Detroit auto workers. AIPAC spent another $390,000 on messages opposing Levin. One mailer said “Andy Levin should be ashamed” and blasted him for his alleged “Republican-style mudslinging” against Stevens. The ads did not mention Israel.

For Eva Borgwardt, a progressive political organizer, AIPAC’s targeting of Levin — a genial, unassuming advocate for labor rights and climate change — was a call to action. “A lot of people saw it as, ‘They’re coming for our dad,’” she says, laughing.

Borgwardt, who is a spokesperson for IfNotNow, worked for Levin as a volunteer. Along with a group of likeminded activists, Borgwardt formed Jews For Andy, a grassroots effort to demonstrate that despite AIPAC’s outlandish claims, Levin was, indeed, good for the Jews. (The group was loosely inspired by the Jews For Jamaal group that formed in 2020 to support now-Rep. Bowman in New York, who was also combating AIPAC money.)

During Levin’s campaign, organizers fondly recall earnest arms-on-shoulders group singalongs and a genuine spirit of diverse cross-issue solidarity. People working to elect Levin included organizers from the climate-focused Sunrise Movement and the Muslim-American organization Emgage.

Levi Teitel, another member of Jews For Andy, remembers hearing about the AIPAC donor letter calling Levin “corrosive” and thinking: “We gotta get our shit together.” Jews For Andy had “extremely limited resources compared to AIPAC,” Teitel says — a massive understatement. Via door-knocking, social media, and a general abundance of positive vibes, they did their best to fight back.

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Stumping for Levin on Instagram, they used the hashtag #MenschForCongress. Announcing a bagel brunch in support of Levin, they cheekily dinged AIPAC: “[They’re] running a smear campaign, we’re running a schmear campaign.”

They circulated a video in which a Jewish mom with her newborn strapped to her chest cooly stops Stevens at a campaign event to ask why she’s taking AIPAC money. Stevens completely ducks the question, replying instead “Well, thank you so much for coming and bringing your kiddo!”

Jenny Byer was Levin’s communications director and a longtime Levin staffer. She says the motivation behind Jews For Andy was the same one informing her support. “He brought together people with varying ideas,” Byer says. “Not every single person agreed with Andy 100 percent of the time, but they saw that he was always acting from deep moral clarity and was always guided by his values.”

On the question of a ceasefire in Gaza, Byer says, “We’re seeing right now how difficult it is to have a conversation about this topic with any kind of nuance, and that was one thing that Andy did really well. He spoke from his personal experience and his faith.”

During the primary, that moral clarity won Levin support from voters like the Michigan abstract artist Rene Lichter, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor. During the election, Lichter told the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz that for AIPAC to be “attacking Andy, it means they’re scared shitless.”

Says Byer, “I worked with Andy for years. It wasn’t just me who trusted him. You saw so many people” who campaigned or volunteered for Levin: “Muslim, Jewish, Zionist, anti-Zionist. He had such an important role in bringing people together.” Levin’s voice, Byer says, “was needed on so many emergencies.” AIPAC’s targeting of Levin, says Byer, was “incredibly painful to see.”

In the end, Jews For Andy’s scrappy efforts wouldn’t be nearly enough. Before AIPAC’S money came in, Levin and Stevens were running head-to-head in the polls. On August 2nd, Election Day, Stevens crushed Levin by nearly twenty points.

AIPAC’s Next Steps

Levin did not comment for this story. Just before his loss, he told Mehdi Hassan, “AIPAC can’t stand the idea that I am the clearest, strongest Jewish voice in Congress standing for a simple proposition: that there is no way to have a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people unless we achieve the political and human rights of the Palestinian people. That’s it.”

As civilian deaths continue to rise in Gaza and as calls for ceasefire continue to be ignored, it’s hard not to wonder what impact Levin might have if he were in the House. For her part, Stevens has used her platform to call for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas but not to push for relief for Gaza.

“The past few weeks have been extremely painful for me to watch as a Jewish person in America seeing the Israelis and the Palestinians who are subject to this awful violence,” Teitel says. “To have my now-congresswoman not being able to see Palestinians for who they are — which is humans — has been nothing short of disappointing.”

Of the 22 Democrats who voted to censure Tlaib, all but four have taken AIPAC money. Meanwhile, other Democrats are likely aware that if they say anything critical about Israeli policy they could become an AIPAC target. The AIPAC-aligned DMFI is already spending money against Tlaib and backing primary opponents for others who haven’t supported Israel’s war.

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For Borgwardt, the Michigan 11th District primary race demonstrated that AIPAC’s was not what it claims to be. “AIPAC is not a Jewish lobby, nor even a pro-Israel lobby,” she says. “It is primarily a vehicle for Republican billionaires to support the settlement movement and an antidemocratic, far-right vision for both Israel and the U.S. And it is willing to destroy anyone, including and especially American Jews, who get in its way.”

J Street supported Levin in the Michigan congressional race but wasn’t able to match the money AIPAC was spending. J Street’s Bayroff says AIPAC’s support of Israel has actually harmed regular Israelis. “The people in power right now [in Israel] have said for decades, ‘We’re gonna keep you safe with no political solution, no Palestinian state, no diplomacy — we’re gonna weaken moderate Palestinians and empower extremist leaders,’” he says, adding that the October 7 attacks have proven that tactic “to be a complete and total failure.”

To fight for stability, Bayroff says, “What’s needed is exactly what people like Andy Levin propose: actual compromise, actual withdrawal from settlements, an end to the occupation, and the treatment of Palestinians as a legitimate people with a legitimate right to a state.”

The night of Stevens’ primary win, AIPAC boasted: “Being pro-Israel is both good policy and good politics.” But AIPAC, of course, did not actually buy ads about Israel — they did not actually engage in a conversation about the U.S. government’s support of Israel. When reached for comment, an AIPAC spokesperson only pointed to the group’s success rate: “97 percent of [AIPAC] endorsed Democrats won their primaries.”

Miller argues that public opinion is not reflected by AIPAC or Biden or Capitol Hill. She ticks off numbers: a Data For Progress poll showing 66 percent of voters, and 80 percent of Democrats, support a ceasefire; a Quinnipiac poll showing 65 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 oppose more military aid to Israel and 80 percent support more humanitarian assistance to Gaza. And despite the US’s support of Israel, a lull in the fighting may be coming. The Washington Post is now reporting that an Israel-Hamas hostage-prisoner swap is imminent. The swap would involve a temporary ceasefire.

“AIPAC wants to make it seem fringe to support Palestinian rights,” she says, “but they won’t be able to because it’s simply not true.”

Despite the loss in Michigan’s 11th District, the experience of those who worked with Levin and Jews for Andy still reverberates — and still carries hope for the future.

Byer says that working for Levin “changed my life. It brought so many wonderful people into it. I learned so much. And he also taught me how to be a parent in activism. I still ask his advice. How do we repair the world? How do we raise our kids?”

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