I’ve written quite a lot here about my differences with Aipac. One of my bones of contention with them is that they play for keeps and they play dirty. It’s hard-ball all the way and if you’re not sufficiently pro-Israel–watch out.
Now The Forward provides us with a perfect example of Aipac’s worst ‘take no prisoners’ style. Many of you know that the House recently passed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (HR 4681), a horrible wrap on the knuckles to both the Bush Administration and Hamas to guarantee that the former never backslides on its opposition to negotiating with the latter. The measure finally passed overwhelmingly. But I’m pleased to say that 37 members (mostly Democrats) voted “No.”
The fact that it wasn’t a unanimous vote didn’t sit well with the bullies at Aipac. So they decided to make an example of Rep. Betty McCollum (D, MN):
McCollum says that, in a recent phone conversation with her chief of staff, an Aipac representative accused the congresswoman of supporting terrorists because she voted against the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 in committee…
As part of Aipac’s lobbying blitz, right after the International Relations Committee passed the measure in a 36-2 vote, Amy Rotenberg, an active member of the organization from Minneapolis, called McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper. Aipac sources said that the purpose of the April 7 call was to express disappointment over the congresswoman’s vote against the bill. According to Harper, Rotenberg said that “on behalf of herself, the Jewish community, Aipac, and the voters of the Fourth District, Congresswoman McCollum’s support for terrorists will not be tolerated.”
McCollum immediately wrote the following letter to Howard Kohr, Aipac’s executive director:
“Until I receive a formal, written apology from your organization, I must inform you that Aipac representatives are not welcome in my offices for meetings with my staff.”
Apparently, Kohr somehow mollified her enough that she agreed to meet with him before receiving the apology. Even after meeting him, she still hadn’t received one:
Rep. McCollum…and Howard Kohr…held a meeting Wednesday night that was brokered by Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat. McCollum was said to have agreed to work with Aipac to resolve her current conflict with the organization, in light of the good relationship she has had with the pro-Israel lobby in the past. It is not clear yet whether the congresswoman still insists on a formal, written apology — her office was not available for comment Wednesday — but according to sources familiar with her conversation with Kohr, she is willing to seek a way to “move forward.”
It should be noted that Ackerman is usually a sure-vote for Aipac and indeed he supported HR 4681. But most pointedly, he objected strongly to the tactics used against his colleague calling them: “reminiscent of the Taliban.”
It sounds like from the passage above that perhaps McCollum caved to Aipac (though one can hardly know what went on in the meeting). But can you blame her, really? As Walt and Mearsheimer noted in their essay, The Israel Lobby, Aipac makes a point of taking down those who don’t show fealty and obeisance. No doubt, if she hadn’t decided to play ball once again she would’ve face a serious primary challenge by a well-financed Aipac-funded opponent. And there’s a better than even chance that Aipac might’ve whupped her in the next election.
But I still applaud her for getting pissed as hell at this brutish behavior that is so common for the pro-Israel group. Who knows, maybe Aipac will even issue some mealy-mouthed statement that acknowledges they overstepped the bounds of civil discourse. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were Betty McCollum.
The pro-Israel lobby ought to realize that even bullies can go the way of the dodo bird when they’ve outlived their usefulness:
Congressional staffers said that the controversy is reverberating on the Hill because Aipac officials have a reputation of being overly aggressive in their lobbying style. “Many members of Congress are sick and tired of Aipac’s bullying and heavy-handed tactics,” said a senior congressional staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
To be fair to Enforcer Rotenberg, she has a different spin on what she said to McCollum’s chief of staff in their phone conversation:
In a letter to McCollum and in a conversation with the Forward last week, Rotenberg, an attorney who specializes in media law and is active in Minnesota Democratic politics, flatly denied Harper’s account, describing it as a “serious distortion of the discussion.” Rotenberg contends that McCollum’s chief of staff asked if the Aipac activist was accusing the congresswoman of supporting terrorists. In response, Rotenberg said, she replied that she was not, adding that the vote would have to speak for itself.
Does her explanation sound credible to you? What’s more, rather than taking a deep breath and considering what she’s saying, Rotenberg again decides to go for the jugular in further criticizing McCollum for her response to the incident:
“Congresswoman McCollum is using the power of her office to try to deflect criticism of her voting record by disparaging a private citizen in the media.”
If I were Howard Kohr, I’d put a muzzle on that woman till things can be smoothed over and I’d keep her as far away from the other thirty-seven opponents of the bill as possible. Though knowing Aipac, she’ll receive a Volunteer of Year award for her efforts.
I’d like to think that those 37 opponents of HR 4681 might form the nucleus of a reasonable House caucus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly, Aipac is under threat on many fronts these days. The fact that both Brit Tzedek, Israel Policy Forum, and Americans for Peace Now went head to head with them on this issue and caused the bill to stall for three months indicates that Aipac is a little the worse for wear. It’s like Desperate Housewives this past season in the sense that the magic’s worn off a touch and the ratings are down because sharp newcomers are eating into the audience.
I also want to personally thank Jim McDermott, my representative, for opposing this bill.
What’s especially odd about Aipac’s tactics against McCollum is that the Senate bill is nowhere near as draconian as the House’s; many observers feel that the Senate bill will never make it to the floor because senators dislike the House version so much they don’t even want to get into a conference committee to try to arrive at a consensus version. The Forward tones this down in its appraisal, but not by much:
A senior Senate staffer told the Forward last week that once the bill passes the House, Senate leaders will work hard to soften the version that will end up in the bicameral conference committee. The staffer said that Senate leaders view the House bill as “insanely irresponsible.”
The Bush Administration too does not want the Senate bill out of committee. So this is essentially an academic exercise with no relation to reality, political or otherwise. In other words, it is–like previous Aipac-supported bills attempting to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem–an opportunity for Aipac to flex political muscle without having any serious impact in the real world. Welcome to Aipac’s world!
In this sordid episode, it seems Aipac is ripping a page from the David Horowitz playbook. If you read this blog, you’ll know that Stanford University Mideast specialist Joel Beinin is suing Horowitz for picturing him on the cover of a propaganda pamphlet he published, Campus Support for Terrorism. Beinin’s crime? He’s a little too independent of the hardline pro-Israel line and is actually willing to criticize it for its policies against the Palestinians. Isn’t it interesting how Aipac embraces the tactics of the ultimate right-wing sleazemonger, David Horowitz. In actuality, Horowitz has probably learned a thing of two from Aipac.
The original source for the Forward’s story was an article by Michael Massing in the NY Review of Books. Massing’s essay covers far more than this incident. In fact, it’s an even better primer about the internal workings of Aipac than the Walt-Mearsheimer piece. Massing also takes on the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organization–another group whose extreme pro-Israel policies and tactics deserve to see the critical light of day–along with the hardline pro-Israel think tanks that populate Washington DC. I highly recommend it.
I applaud my progressive Zionist ‘comrade,’ M.J. Rosenberg for stating publicly his views of Aipac in Massing’s article. M.J. worked for Aipac for twenty years and knows whereof he speaks. He is now a senior staff member of the Israel Policy Forum. Kol hakavod l’cha!