Mike Pence speaks at the the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2020 Conference, Monday, March 2, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Can the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), arguably one of the most influential lobbying groups in the nation, still claim the middle ground it has long cultivated in American politics? After nearly 60 years of insisting on a bipartisan, behind-the-scenes strategy of lobbying for pro-Israel policies without endorsing or funding political candidates, AIPAC has entered the partisan arena, channeling millions of dollars into contested primaries. Among the hundreds of AIPAC-endorsed candidates are several dozen House Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 presidential election, including four that have been subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.

So far, the move has brought some electoral success, one expensive failure, scorching criticism, and even a heartfelt lament from an Israeli lawmaker. It has also raised a wider, disquieting question: what happens when a centrist group aligns itself with Republican extremists?

Scott Lasensky, a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in American Jewish politics, said in an interview, “The decision is a significant shift in their approach and a shift in American Jewish communal politics. They are stepping beyond long standing, unwritten but widely adhered-to communal norms of bipartisanship.”

Other players in the Israel advocacy field, notably the upstart, left-wing J Street and the more centrist Democratic Majority for Israel, also endorse and fund candidates. But none have the size, weight, influence, and very deep pockets enjoyed by AIPAC.

Last December, the organization established two political action committees – the AIPAC PAC, a federal entity allowed to give up to $5,000 in “hard money” to individual candidates and coordinate with their campaigns, and the United Democracy Project (UDP), which can funnel unlimited “soft money” as an independent expenditure.

Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesman, told me that this new campaign activity is in keeping with the group’s traditional bipartisan approach. “We support both Democrats and Republicans who would advance the US-Israel relationship,” he said via email.

But so far, the big spending is actually against Democrats – specifically, against those from the progressive wing of the party who are more willing to criticize Israeli government policies.

UDP reportedly spent $2.4 million to help Democratic centrist candidate Don Davis defeat his more progressive challenger, Erica Smith, in North Carolina’s first congressional district. Over in that state’s 4th congressional district, UDP spent $2.1 million on behalf of Valerie Foushee, another more centrist candidate facing a progressive (and Muslim) opponent. Foushee won. AIPAC also backed Lucy McBath, the winning candidate in Georgia’s Democratic primary in the newly drawn 7th congressional district, and incumbent Henry Cuellar in Texas’ 28th congressional district, in his tight but ultimately successful race against a progressive challenger.

Less successful, and more controversial, was AIPAC’s expensive entry into Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district Democratic primary. There the UDP spent a reported $2.7 million to attack Summer Lee, who won a race against Steve Irwin so close it took several days to finalize.

Tony Norman, a columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who – like Lee – is African American, decried what he called a smear campaign fueled with UDP dollars. In television ads and mailers, the UDP highlighted old tweets and Facebook posts that it claimed showed Lee’s disloyalty to the Democratic party and President Biden; Norman and others said the messages were taken entirely out of context. “As intellectually dishonest smears go, the UDP’s ad campaign is a whopper,” Norman wrote.

“The idea that a bipartisan group is spending all their money in one party’s primaries is telling,” Laura Birnbaum, J Street’s PAC director, said in an interview. J Street endorsed Lee.

When AIPAC announced its entry into direct candidate funding, J Street and other Israel-activists called on the lobbying group not to endorse candidates who supported attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

In response, AIPAC’s leaders defended their choices. “This is no moment for the pro-Israel movement to become selective about its friends,” read a March statement, authored by AIPAC President Betsy Berns Korn and CEO Howard Kohr and first published by Jewish Insider, read. “When we launched our political action committee last year, we decided that we would base decisions about political contributions on only one thing: whether a political candidate supports the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

But Birnbaum and other critics say that the attempt to overturn the election was not another policy issue upon which otherwise-allies can disagree. Instead, it represents an existential threat to maintaining democracy in America and, by extension, the core civic value that the United States and Israel share.

“This really is different. It really does rise above other issues,” Birnbaum said.

“In our view, the threat that is posed to our democratic institutions is an existential threat to our system of government and way of life and functioning political system. This threat is extremely real and salient, and it goes beyond adding another issue to the work that we do.”

Already one Jewish member of the House, Andy Levin, a Democrat representing Michigan’s 9th congressional district, has said he won’t take AIPAC money because of its endorsement of insurrectionists. “Our democracy is hanging by a thread,” he said in a speech posted on Twitter. “It’s not acceptable as a moral Jewish person to support people who are undermining our democracy.” AIPAC is supporting Levin’s non-Jewish rival in the newly redrawn 11th district.

AIPAC also opens itself up to a double standard: actively campaigning against progressive Democratic candidates for criticism of Israel while supporting Republican candidates whose rhetoric edges up to antisemitism and white supremacy. Rep. Scott Perry, from Pennsylvania, who has defied the January 6 committee’s subpoena, has compared Democrats to Nazis. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, another AIPAC endorsee, has criticized immigration policy with words that echo the white supremacist “great replacement” theory.

Alon Tal, who has twice addressed the national policy conference and is a member of Israel’s Knesset representing the Blue and White Party, said in heartfelt essay that he is “extremely grateful for the hard work, unconditional backing and enormous efforts AIPAC has made on behalf of the Jewish state.” Nonetheless, he described AIPAC’s endorsement of Republican congressional candidates who refused to certify Biden’s election as “outrageous.”

“I believe that even a bi-partisan organization needs to draw the line at politicians who would corrode the very foundations of the democratic system of government,” Tal wrote in the The Times of Israel. “Theirs is a friendship we don’t need.”

Several political observers said off the record that they worry that AIPAC’s move will ultimately backfire. “It undermines the very purpose of what AIPAC says it stood for: a common democratic values-based relationship between the US and Israel,” one observer told me. “If our own democracy is in mortal danger because one party doesn’t like losing, we could be one election away of not having a democracy. What will happen to the U.S.-Israel relationship in that state of freefall?”


Jane Eisner is director of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.