A few weeks ago, three Connecticut state legislators — Sen. Christine Cohen and Reps. Sean Scanlon and Jillian Gilchrest — suddenly appeared in Israel. There was no explanation as to the provenance of this trip; indeed, Cohen and Scanlon (whose districts include my town of Guilford) curiously didn’t post anything about it on their normally buzzing public Facebook pages. I eventually discovered that the tour was funded and led by an arm of the infamous lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
As an American and as a Jew, I was greatly offended by this trip.
AIPAC claims to be bipartisan and pro-Israel, but in reality is an increasingly far-right, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu-aligned organization. It promotes a distorted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israel can do no wrong. It willfully conflates legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy with antisemitism, even while it has cultivated relationships with right-wing antisemites like John Hagee, who claimed that the Holocaust was divinely inspired.
AIPAC aligns itself with virulently anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists (in addition to the one in the White House), giving $60,000 to Frank Gaffney, an inspiration behind Trump’s Muslim ban and described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” Going back to the 1990s, AIPAC sought to undermine the late Yitzhak Rabin’s landmark peace efforts with the Palestinians. It vehemently opposed Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and has applauded Trump’s sham “peace” proposal. Just this month, AIPAC was forced to apologize after releasing an ad calling a group of Democratic congresswomen “maybe more sinister” than ISIS.
Accepting a junket like this is never a good look for a public servant, but these state-level politicians really went out on a limb in traveling over 5,000 miles to a foreign country to enjoy a propaganda tour led by such a thoroughly discredited group. It is wrong to assume, though, that AIPAC only engages in harmful activities on the federal level. In state capitals across the country, AIPAC has supported bills barring government contracts with individuals or entities which boycott Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank. While I don’t personally support boycotting Israel, it is absolutely one’s First Amendment right to do so, and civil liberties groups like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights agree. Not content to aid and abet the destruction of liberal democracy in Israel, AIPAC has set its sights on infringing upon basic freedoms right here in the United States.
I have nothing against legislators traveling to Israel or being engaged in international affairs more broadly. In fact, I was probably the only state legislative candidate in 2018 to have a foreign policy platform section. But when weighing in on these matters, our elected officials should always come down on the side of democracy and human rights, not oppression and endless occupation. It’s frankly preposterous to go on an AIPAC-sponsored trip in the hopes of learning more about a two-state solution, when AIPAC itself is one of the biggest obstacles to a lasting peace. It would be like going on an ExxonMobil fact-finding tour to educate oneself on climate change.
If these legislators were serious about gaining a realistic perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they could get in touch with J Street, a (genuinely) pro-Israel, pro-peace organization. They could arrange a tour of the West Bank from Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-Israel Defense Forces soldiers who shine a light on the daily injustices suffered by Palestinians living under the occupation.
AIPAC falsely casts itself as representing the American Jewish community. It does not represent me or the values I was raised with; an organization that papers over antisemitism, racism and authoritarianism never will. I am a proud member of IfNotNow, a group of young American Jews who believe in freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. On the national stage, IfNotNow along with progressive outfits Indivisible, MoveOn and the Working Families Party just unveiled their #SkipAIPAC campaign, pressuring Democratic presidential candidates to boycott AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Their reasoning is sound: “No Democrat should give AIPAC political cover with their presence.”
Needless to say, accepting a free trip from AIPAC is even more egregious. These Connecticut legislators’ lack of transparency and lack of judgment is simply inexcusable. Sadly, I expect this kind of behavior in today’s Republican Party. But in the year 2020, we deserve absolute moral clarity from Democrats.
Andy Gottlieb is a Democrat from Guilford and former candidate for state Senate in the 12th District.