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Here’s A Primer For Ilhan Omar On How Pro-Israel Groups Work


I’m a believer in Occam’s Razor, the scientific axiom that, in layman’s terms, posits that the simplest explanation is usually correct. So whenever people wonder why Congress is broadly and consistently pro-Israel, I point to overwhelming polling data that shows the American people are broadly and consistently pro-Israel.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose liberal Jewish constituents were so troubled by her anti-Semitism while she served in the Minnesota legislature that they staged an intervention, has another explanation: a wide-ranging conspiracy paid for by Jewish money.

Omar’s anti-Semitic attack last week on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the best-known of many pro-Israel lobbying organizations, was ugly and unfortunate for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it invites the ignorant and malevolent among us to join her. Much of the criticism, however, was based on conspiratorial fever dreams.

I served as Midwest political director at AIPAC from February 2008 until leaving the organization in September 2011. Although I haven’t worked at AIPAC in going-on eight years, and while the organization has changed a great deal in that time, my experiences remain an essentially accurate representation of current pro-Israel movement. Let me tell you how it works.

AIPAC’s Midwest region is its largest, covering nine states containing 95 congressional districts (CDs)—nearly a quarter of the entire House—and, obviously, 18 senators. As political director, I was responsible for making sure pro-Israel activists had relationships with every viable candidate for Congress.

Building a relationship with a politician is like building any other intentional professional relationship: it requires the establishment of trust and mutuality. The AIPAC lay leaders I worked with were serious, successful, hyper-competent Americans who care passionately about the U.S.-Israel relationship. They are loyal citizens of the United States who believe that a strong relationship between our country and the Middle East’s only liberal democracy is a vital American strategic interest.

My job was to help advise and organize those people, not to order them around. Thinking about some of the people I worked with, the idea of me telling them what to do is, honestly, laughable.

AIPAC’s model relies heavily on the concept of “friendly incumbency,” the gist of which is that an incumbent who supports pro-Israel policies deserves the community’s backing regardless of the quality of the opponent. This designation is bestowed with extreme generosity. During my time at AIPAC, several members of Congress with terrible records on pro-Israel issues would, nonetheless, be considered “friendly incumbents.” And it is not bestowed by professional staff, but decided by lay leadership. It was also firmly adhered to—even when incumbents looked sure to lose, we remained loyal to our friends.

While AIPAC doesn’t give any money to political campaigns, it is true that pro-Israel activists will, in due course, help raise money for candidates and incumbent members of Congress. The reality of our political system is that it takes funds to run campaigns. It is not true, however, that the pro-Israel community buys votes. In the House, local communities will raise a few thousand dollars per two-year cycle for each member in their area.

When I was there, a normal amount for the local pro-Israel community to raise for a member or candidate was about $10,000. That may sound like a lot, but the average House campaign during my tenure cost just over $1 million. Congressional leaders as well as chairs and ranking members of relevant committees and subcommittees would generally raise more by leaving their local pro-Israel communities to speak elsewhere—which makes practical, not just political sense. If you live in Miami and you’re interested in national security and foreign policy, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee will be interesting to you even if, as was the case during my tenure, he’s from Missouri.

Lyndon Johnson is credited with saying that the difference between the Senate and the House is the difference between chicken salad and chicken sh-t. It’s certainly true in the amount of money they have to raise for their races, the average cost of which is north of $20 million. Because of that price tag, and because they tend to do things like run for president and populate cabinet offices, senators and Senate candidates will generally travel around the country to pro-Israel communities in major cities to raise money. There, again, the amount raised is a drop in the bucket for a costly campaign.

All that said, as a staffer at AIPAC, I never had anything to do with those fundraising events. I never attended one. I never helped organize, plan, or execute one. Our lay leadership would generally (not always) let me know when they were happening. The most time-consuming part of my job was making sure that relationships with potential members of Congress started on the right foot. To that end, I met with every viable candidate and asked them to author a position paper on the issues our community cared about.

I’m proud of the time I spent at AIPAC, especially the years I spent as Midwest political director. I’m proud of the work I did advancing issues I care passionately about and of the relationships I built with elected officials and their staffers. I’m proud of the people I worked with, some of whom are still there or left and returned. Without exception, they are among the most brilliant, committed, disciplined people I know. I’m deeply grateful to the AIPAC activists, who not only give of themselves and their resources, but do so in the face of slander and stupidity from small, shabby people.

And I’m especially grateful to live in a country that allows us to organize, speak freely, petition our government for redress of grievances, and tell anybody who doesn’t like it to buzz off.