In 2019, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar was embroiled in a bipartisan and public controversy following two Tweets in which she alleged that the coordination of campaign funding by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States — was responsible for a dominant, pro-Israel political strain within Congress.
Rep. Omar was accused by Democrats and Republicans alike — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Donald Trump (as well as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was speaking at an AIPAC conference) — of engaging in antisemitism. The attacks that rained down on her by members of both parties put her life as risk—she was made a target by a propaganda campaign that played on her religion, race, and cultural background.
Despite being deliberately misrepresented by AIPAC and much of the political establishment at the time, what Rep. Omar said was true: AIPAC does coordinate large campaign contributions in order to secure a desired political consensus. As a lobby group, AIPAC cannot not engage in the direct facilitation of political contributions, and instead finds creative ways to circumvent this limitation. One method is to encourage its members to make considerable donations to individual candidates through regional Political Action Committees, or PACs, as a means of continuing to cement a standard, bipartisan pro-Israel line.
In 2018, Democratic Party insiders with close ties to the Israel lobby formed the Democratic Majority for Israel. This group’s PAC recently spent $738,000 running ads attacking progressive candidate Nina Turner and $203,000 supporting her opponent, Shontel Brown who, unlike Turner, does not believe in conditioning US aid to Israel due to its ongoing assault on Palestinian human rights.
In December of 2021, AIPAC decided to adopt an even harsher approach. The pro-Israel lobby founded two political action committees: “a regular PAC called ‘AIPAC PAC’ that can give up to $5,000 to a candidate and a Super PAC that can give an unlimited amount of money.” The Super PAC is named United Democracy Project (UDP).
Writing for Al Jazeera, Ali Harb notes that the lobby “has used the PAC to encourage supporters to donate to its favored candidates and transferred money directly to their campaigns, and used the super PAC to also back and oppose candidates through ads.”
In May, during the House race in Pennsylvania’s 12th district, the UDP spent over $1 million dollars for ads that primarily attacked Summer Lee, a progressive Democrat who had written Tweets criticizing the use of the phrase “Israel has a right to defend itself” as a means of ignoring Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. The UDP spent just over $100,000 in ads supporting Steve Irwin.
Similarly, AIPAC waded into the runoff primary election for a Democratic House seat in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, in which centrist Henry Cuellar faced off against Jessica Cisneros, a human rights attorney popular among supporters of the so-called “Squad.”
Huffpost's senior reporter Daniel Marans claimed that the involvement of AIPAC’s new Super PAC is attributable to the following attitude: “AIPAC has decided that any Democrat that is likely to be a member of the ultra-progressive Squad is a threat to Israel’s agenda, even if said Democrat has little to no record on Israel. So they are raising and spending millions of dollars in ways that follow in the footsteps of Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), only on a larger scale.”
While Marans acknowledges it is too early to see how AIPAC will act in general elections, the focus so far is primarily upon “left-leaning Democrats who are already a thorn in their side, or they believe could be. They are determined to halt, if not roll back, the gains that this faction has made since 2018.”
Pro-Israel organizations are increasingly shirking mere lobbying tactics and throwing big money into the attempt to stop young, progressive Democratic candidates from winning seats, as these new voices may push back against the US government’s “special relationship” with Israel.
Over the past two years, pro-Israel organizations in the US have had to contend with the political threat of increasingly prominent conversations about racial justice being linked to the Israeli state’s structural denial of Palestinian rights. As a result, in the shift from lobbying alone to strategically backing candidates, pro-Israel PACs are also, at times, practicing a careful strategy of identity politics that seeks out pro-Israel candidates from generally marginalized backgrounds and identities who might even support other progressive causes. This was the strategy for DMFI-PAC and two former AIPAC presidents (Amy Friedkin and Mort Fridman) donating to support Georgette Gómez in San Diego in 2020 as opposed to her opponent, current Congresswoman (and heiress) Sara Jacobs. Jacobs is far from anti-Zionist, but backing Gómez allowed for pro-Israel individuals and organizations to brand support for Israel as being coherent with generally progressive politics and causes.
This also seems to be the operative strategy by which Urban Empowerment Action PAC is pledging “upwards of $1,000,000” to support Janice Winfrey, the current opponent of Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib in her August primary. Winfrey pointedly rehashes baseless yet defamatory pro-Israel talking points in criticizing Congresswoman Tlaib’s advocacy for Palestinian rights.
Of course, this tendency is not rigid: on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, Justice Democrats-backed incumbent Marie Newman, candidate for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional district, lost to Rep. Sean Casten. Democratic Majority for Israel paid for advertising opposing Newman, and after his victory, Sean Casten returned nearly $50,000.00 in contributions from Pro-Israel America PAC (which has close ties with AIPAC), possibly because the PAC took issue with Casten’s participation in a delegation led by the liberal Zionist organization J Street (the two organizations are often at odds). If this is indeed the case, both the donations and the return of the funds suggest that pro-Israel PACs are content with using cash not only to stack political institutions with Zionist candidates, but that these PACs expect their funds to be rewarded by a rigid pattern of political conduct—a pattern that is not only highly unethical, but potentially illegal to boot.
It is too early to tell precisely what political impact the shift of strategy from lobbying to direct political funding and backing will have on US policy. What is clear is that the strategy behind this shift is formidable. As such, it will require careful analysis and forceful counter-responses from supporters of Palestinian rights.