It wasn't long ago that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had an overwhelming grip on both major parties in the United States. However, in the most striking indication yet that Democrats are slipping from AIPAC's grasp, former New York mayor and current congressional candidate Bill de Blasio has publicly disowned the group.
In a virtual candidate forum, NY Jewish Week asked de Blasio if he supported AIPAC. "No, I don't," he responded, adding that the group has changed in a manner he called "unacceptable." Hammering home his stance, he said, “I am not seeking their endorsement and would not accept it even if it were offered."
Such an utterance from a prominent member of either party was unthinkable just a year ago—to say nothing of the fact that de Blasio is running in New York City...which, in 2019, de Blasio called "the largest urban Jewish community on Earth."
In May, House speaker Nancy Pelosi accepted the endorsement of AIPAC's pro-Israel rival lobby group J Street. Israeli newspaper Haaretz called it "a political development that signals the shifting attitudes on Israel inside the Democratic Party." Walking a political tightrope, Pelosi—a longtime AIPAC ally and recurring attendee at its conferences—hasn't touted the endorsement.
AIPAC and J Street have gone head to head in many Democratic primary races. Earlier this month, Pelosi recorded a video message to counter AIPAC-sponsored attack ads against a Maryland congressional candidate that has the backing of both Pelosi and J Street.
Where AIPAC is a relentless defender of seemingly every action of the Israeli government and encourages a hard-line U.S. foreign policy against Israel's rivals, J Street bills itself as "the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans," and has decried "the injustice of Israel's occupation" and "the ongoing denial of fundamental rights and freedoms to millions of Palestinians in occupied territory."
The difference between AIPAC and J Street came into sharp relief last week:
AIPAC lobbied U.S. senators against signing a letter encouraging an FBI-State Department investigation of the killing of American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
J Street officially "welcomed' the letter as pursuing "the only just and sensible solution" to resolving the controversy over a death that various investigations—other than Israel's—have concluded was an intentional, murderous act by an Israeli soldier.
De Blasio spoke to AIPAC's national conference in March 2019—two months for before declaring his candidacy for president. He laid out what he called a "progressive case for the state of Israel," but condemned the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement that many progressives embrace as a means of opposing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Also that month, de Blasio scolded progressive congresswoman Ilhan Omar for tweeting "It's all about the Benjamins baby" in response to a Glenn Greenwald tweet marveling at "how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation [Israel] even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans." De Blasio said "there's a long antisemitic tradition associated with that kind of comment."
In distancing himself from AIPAC, de Blasio cited an AIPAC-affiliated PAC's sponsorship of a successful primary challenger to progressive House candidate Nina Turner in Ohio. “I thought the attack on her was not only horribly unjustified, it deprived our nation of someone who could have been a huge difference maker in terms of our progressive movement,” said de Blasio.
That race pitted two black women against each other in a district with a substantial Jewish vote. In her victory speech, challenger AIPAC-backed Shontel Brown reminisced about her visit to Israel, which helped her "appreciate the vulnerability of a state, and that has given me the understanding of the U.S.-Israel relationship and I thank my Jewish brethren."
Turner's sin that provoked AIPAC: A tweeted message of solidarity with "If Not Now," a group that describes itself as "American Jews organizing our community to end U.S. support for Israel's apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all."
Solidarity is a verb ✊🏾 https://t.co/Kupgdtuqey— Nina Turner (@ninaturner) May 12, 2021
At last week's candidate forum, De Blasio said "the only path forward to peace in the region for both Israeli and Palestinian people to have their own states. I would fight for that, and I would certainly fight against any organization that attacks my fellow progressives.”
De Blasio, who served as New York's mayor from 2014 to 2021, is running to represent the newly-redrawn New York 10th congressional district, which covers all of southern Manhattan and a big swath of Brooklyn.