The pro-Israel lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is one of the most powerful political forces in Washington. The lobby's initiatives, backed by tens of millions in dollars in political contributions, often become legislation that passes overwhelmingly in Congress. Its supporters say AIPAC is key to the strategic U.S.-Israel alliance. Its critics contend that the lobby's unconditional support for controversial Israeli policies are counter-productive for both Israel and the U.S.
AIPAC: Recruitment Strategy
Twenty years ago AIPAC started its Leadership Development Department, with the goal of teaching students about its issues and then molding them into effective pro-Israel advocates. Now AIPAC works on hundreds of college campuses, according to its website.
AIPAC provides its student members with biweekly education materials, legislative updates, action alerts, trips to Israel and specialized training in what it calls “propaganda response,” says the Israel on Campus Coalition website, a pro-Israel college coalition supported by AIPAC.
AIPAC also provides students with scholarships to their policy conferences. More than 1,500 students came to the AIPAC 2011 policy conference held in May, making it the largest student event in AIPAC history, according to executive director Howard Kohr at the conference. Some 215 of them were student government presidents.
Part of the youth leadership mission is also to influence future policymakers at an early age.
“Every future senator will pass through an American campus. Every future House representative will pass through an American campus,” said Jonathan Kessler, director of AIPAC's Leadership Development Department, to an audience at the 2010 policy conference. “AIPAC’s job is to identify, engage and educate those individuals that are already self-defining, self-actualizing as campus political leaders.”
Kessler also said the youth program should be used to change the makeup of student governments when they make decisions that do not align with AIPAC interests. He pointed to the example of the UC Berkeley Student Senate bill calling for the UC system to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
“How are we gonna beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley? We’re gonna make sure pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote,” said Kessler.
AIPAC also runs a Young Leadership program for those between 25 and 35 interested in pro-Israel politics. It consists of a six-month educational seminar that teaches participants about the challenges facing the Jewish state and culminates with a trip to the annual AIPAC policy conference.
Like the AIPAC initiative on college campuses, the Young Leadership program teaches its members how to understand and communicate about Middle East issues effectively to their congressmen, colleagues and peers, said Richard Dinets, co-head of Los Angeles Young Leaders.
The former communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential primary campaign, Dan Schnur, gives lectures on the most effective way to talk about the issues for the Los Angeles group.
There are currently AIPAC Young Leadership programs in San Fransisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston and New York, with plans for expansion into other metropolitan areas, like Orange County, California.
All the recruitment for the program is done by word-of-mouth and social networking, said Dinets. The New York–based Facebook group alone has 1,320 members.
Eight years ago, Rabbi Elazar Muskin went to the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., for the first time with a delegation from his Orthodox synagogue, Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles. He and one other Orthodox rabbi, who also happened to be from L.A., were the only two who brought members from their congregations.
All the rabbis who attended that conference, a group of about 10, met in the basement of the Washington Hilton hotel with Howard Kohr, who is now AIPAC's executive director. They sat around a table in private, while upstairs the 3,000 conference attendees continued milling around, and they told Kohr that AIPAC should be using the synagogues — a natural ally in the community, recounts Rabbi Muskin.
Since then, AIPAC has developed its Synagogue Initiative, making its information and staff avaliable to congregations across America, according to its website. Rabbis like Muskin have provided a great help in this recruitment effort. He believes it is the role of a rabbi to be a passionate spokesman for Israel and AIPAC.
“Synagogues have a captive audience. People are going to be hearing their rabbis Saturday in, Saturday out,” says Muskin. He often tells his own congregation: “Come on with me. It’s transformative. It’s fantastic. It’s an unbelievable experience. Come with me to AIPAC.”
This year more than 200 rabbis came with delegations to the policy conference, according to Muskin. The largest delegations traveled from Los Angeles, with Beverly Hills' Sinai Temple bringing the biggest group, according to Talia Resin, a Sinai member and Los Angeles AIPAC leader.
Sinai's membership includes some 2,000 families, and the temple's rabbi, David Wulpee, brought 200 delegates to the conference on his own. Muskin himself runs a synagogue of 450 people and recruited 50 delegates. He says many of his members give money to the pro-Israel cause in the form of political contributions.