By Jessica Buxbaum
May 10, 2022
Washington — Last week, Rep. Shontel Brown defeated Nina Turner in an Ohio Democratic primary race for the second time in nine months. Turner had been endorsed by progressive Squad member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is a vocal critic of Israel. Her loss is largely seen as a win for the Israel lobby and specifically the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
In December, AIPAC launched two political action committees (PACs) as a way to be “more effective in fulfilling [their] mission in the current political environment,” according to a statement published by the group on social media.
In the less than six months since it was established, AIPAC’s PAC has delivered $6 million to hundreds of candidates, becoming the biggest pro-Israel PAC in the United States, while its super-PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP), has raised nearly $16 million in contributions. Since AIPAC’s PAC operates as a traditional PAC, it can only spend $5,000 per candidate, but its super-PAC can spend unlimited amounts of money.
AIPAC said in a statement about its fundraising:
Our goal is to make America’s friendship with Israel so robust, so certain, so broadly based, and so dependable that even the deep divisions of American politics can never imperil that relationship and the ability of the Jewish state to defend itself.”
Flush with cash, AIPAC appears to be a heavyweight in this year’s midterm elections as it goes after progressives and floods its preferred candidates with millions.
AIPAC exposing itself
AIPAC congratulated Rep. Brown on her election victory, writing that it’s proud to stand with “pro-Israel progressive leaders running against anti-Israel candidates.”
Endorsed by AIPAC, Brown received significant financial backing from the organization. According to campaign tracker OpenSecrets, Brown received $83,171 from AIPAC’s super-PAC, UDP; and nearly $270,000 from its regular PAC, according to the Federal Election Commission. UDP also spent nearly $200,000 against Brown’s opponent, Turner.
UDP spokesman Patrick Dorton told Jewish Insider about the PAC’s election season plans:
We intend to be active in a significant number of races where there is a clear difference between a candidate who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and a candidate that does not or who may seek to undermine that relationship.”
Turner was targeted by the lobby for supporting conditioning aid to Israel and standing in solidarity with Palestine on Twitter.
AIPAC has also had its hand in several other key races across the country. The group has been actively involved in the Texas race between Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar, as well as Pennsylvania’s fight between Rep. Summer Lee and Steve Irwin. According to FEC filings, AIPAC has spent over $1 million against Rep. Lee and a combined total of more than $600,000 from both its PAC and super-PAC for Irwin.
“American politics, and to a great extent American society as a whole, has been taken over by big money,” historian Walter L. Hixson, told MintPress News. The author of “Israel’s Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict” added, “The United States has really become a plutocracy.”
AIPAC’s regular PAC must disclose its donor list, but the super-PAC isn’t required to reveal contributors’ identities. Both PACs’ donors are a mix of real estate and finance moguls, but there are some notable contributors. Israeli-American media tycoon Haim Saban contributed the largest amount to UDP, with a donation of $1 million, but he isn’t the only company head funneling pro-Israel campaign contributions. The CEOs of several firms have also donated to the PACs.
Ballet-flat brand Tieks co-founder and CEO Kfir Gavrieli gave $5,000 to AIPAC’s PAC. The founder, CEO, and president of Tasty Brands, David Horowitz, pumped $50,000 into UDP. Jimmy Haber, CEO of BLT Restaurant Group, donated $5,000 to the regular PAC. Fernando Szew, CEO of MarVista Entertainment, which was acquired by Fox in December, contributed $3,500 to AIPAC’s PAC.
Grant F. Smith, the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep), sees these donor disclosures as an opportunity for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to more strategically target the Israel lobby. “AIPAC has really exposed itself here and provided a fairly wide-open arena for people who don’t like their programs to start talking about their donors in ways that have never been possible before,” Smith said.
Yet with these significant political contributions comes significant political sway. Megadonor Saban has had a strong foothold in politics for decades. In 2002, he gave $13 million to the Brookings Institution to establish the Saban Center for Middle East Policy (now the Center for Middle East Policy). The center’s founding director, Martin Indyk, openly supported the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Saban’s money has also kept former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in line with regard to Israel.
“The donations by Israel partisans have managed to keep almost every elected representative in Israel’s pocket with almost no exceptions,” Alison Weir, American journalist and founder of research institute If Americans Knew, told MintPress.
AIPAC’s PACs aren’t backed just by CEO investors, but also by the organization itself. AIPAC’s own employees have channeled more than $80,000 into its regular PAC. Within that sum, AIPAC President Betsy Korn poured $10,000 into the regular PAC through her company, BVision Sportsmedia.
Where is Israel?
UDP has spent $1 million on campaign ads in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio, so far. Yet while UDP’s stated mission is championing Israel, the PAC has left it out of its political advertising. Instead, they’ve focused their messaging in other ways — either painting progressives like Lee and Turner as the source of Democratic Party division or highlighting the political achievements of their selected candidates.
Smith suggested two possibilities for why Israel isn’t front and center despite clearly dictating the PACs’ agendas. “Israel is an increasingly unpopular brand,” Smith said of the Democratic Party’s priorities, emphasizing the recent swath of human rights organizations labeling Israel as an apartheid state.
The other reason is tradition. AIPAC has been advising pro-Israel PACs on their donations for decades and helped start these committees. A 1986 memo from AIPAC’s then-Assistant Director of Political Affairs Elizabeth Schrayer detailed AIPAC’s political scheming. In the document, Schrayer encouraged these PACs to donate to specific candidates outside of the PACs’ states. Additionally, out of the 30 PACs associated with AIPAC, only four mentioned Israel in their name — another covert tactic.
“[AIPAC] has always been deceptive about the true nature of the political action committees they helped form in the eighties,” Smith said.
AIPAC’s growing disconnect
AIPAC received widespread criticism for endorsing 109 of the 147 Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results following the Jan. 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill.
For Hixson, this development is telling because it underscores the growing divide among American Jews. “AIPAC is becoming increasingly viewed as the Republican wing of the lobby,” he said.
Since its creation, a core tenet of AIPAC has been its bipartisanship, but Hixson believes AIPAC is moving farther and farther away from its original doctrine explaining:
AIPAC hasn’t cut off funding to Democrats who will take a pro-Israel line, but the fact that they support the far right and have identified so closely with [former President Donald] Trump is a significant change because it encourages these splits in a liberal, Jewish so-called community.”
Polling suggests American Jews are becoming more critical of Israel, with a quarter considering it an apartheid state. Democratic voters are also taking a harsher position on Israel, with a majority supporting sanctions over Israel’s settlement activity and more than 40% believing the U.S. should withhold aid to Israel. A University of Maryland poll also found that fewer than one percent of Democratic respondents view Israel as the U.S.’ first or second most important ally.
According to Smith, AIPAC has always purported to be the unified voice of the American Jewish community, but that self-proclaimed title isn’t true. During the joint IRmep and American Educational Institute “Israel’s Influence: Good or Bad for America?” 2016 conference, Smith debunked the lobby’s false narrative “that Americans who are Jewish are all Israel affinity organization members who support lobbying from these groups.”
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey on Jewish identity, 82% of American Jews aren’t members of Israel lobbying organizations. Smith accordingly asked at the conference:
So who does the lobby really represent? Well, the views and concerns of mega donors, for sure; the views and concerns of a relatively small group of boards of directors and top officials; and of course the Israeli government, with which many are in direct and ongoing consultation.”
With Jewish and Democratic voters becoming less concerned with the alliance between the U.S. and Israel, the gap between representative and constituent appears to be widening. As Weir put it:
It’s a contest between the elites that fund candidates and the grassroots that often want something different. So we’re seeing that the elites — almost all of whom are pro-Israel — will continue giving huge amounts of money to candidates and buying a lot of candidates that way.”
-Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.