Just a few short years ago, Israeli-Americans were a constituency without a voice, standing at an uncomfortable remove from the wider Jewish community. Sloughing off the old charge that they were traitors to the Jewish state, the enterprising expats here opened hip hummus joints, stamped a Middle Eastern beat on the jazz scene and launched tech startups.
Still, their community remained disjointed, scattered between New York and Los Angeles, and barely present in a political sense. This, as momentous issues — the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama-Netanyahu tensions, the burgeoning BDS movement — swirled around them.
But in a feat of organizational prowess (and hubris?) — and fueled with tens of millions of dollars from megadonors — the Israeli-American Council (IAC) has shaped the scattering of 500,000-to-700,000 expats into a coherent entity. Formed 10 years ago in L.A., the group has spread rapidly across the nation, incorporating the jumble of budding local Israeli-American initiatives into a single infrastructure with a coherent message: “building an engaged and united community that would strengthen Israeli-Americans, American Jews and Israel,” as the IAC puts it. It now claims some 250,000 participants, with an annual budget of $17.5 million, according to the latest tax filing.
Now, on the eve of IAC’s fourth annual conference, which takes place this weekend in Washington, the group stands at a crossroads. After years of billing itself as strictly cultural — Yom Ha’Atzmaut events, mock Tel Aviv beach parties, David Broza concerts, Hebrew programs for kids — in February 2016 the IAC launched a political arm, which is now ramping up. And with that comes all kinds of turbulence.
The group, which gets the bulk of its money from Las Vegas casino billionaire and major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, is attempting to speak in Congress for a constituency that is politically diverse — and probably more left-leaning than your average Israeli. It’s trying to do that all while navigating a toxic political environment in Washington and trying to be a cultural and communal safe space for all Israeli-Americans as they look to adjust to an American culture that can surely seem foreign.
The high-wire act hasn’t gone unnoticed. The IAC, said Shmuel Rosner, an israeli New York Times columnist who specializes in Israel-U.S. relations, is “skirting the very edge” of the middle ground.
“Israeli-Americans represent a diverse political group,” Rosner told The Jewish Week. “In certain moments, the organization needs to choose between offering a broad tent [in which] most of its constituents will feel well represented, and serving as an ideological organization, in which some Israelis cannot feel comfortable.”
The dilemma Rosner sketches out, and the pitfalls it entails, is evident in the roster of speakers at the upcoming national conference (its theme is the innocuous-sounding “Community Forward”). A Who’s Who on the political right is represented. There’s Nikki Haley, America’s U.N. ambassador, whose tough talk on Iran and staunch defense of the Jewish state has made her the darling of the pro-Israel community; Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon, whom the Jerusalem Post referred to as a “hard right-wing [Likud] minister” when he was tapped for the U.N. post; and settler champion and Jewish Home Party head Naftali Bennett, who, after the election of President Donald Trump, proclaimed: “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”
There’s also Adelson, whose free Israeli newspaper is seen as a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; former Netanyahu confidante Dore Gold; and Likud member and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who opposes a two-state solution and supports annexation of the West Bank. Only Knesset member Meirav Michaeli of the Zionist Union Party is representing the Israeli center-left. AIPAC is represented; J Street is not. (Disclosure: I am moderating a panel on Israeli-American identity at the conference.)
Adam Milstein, IAC’s chairman, told The Jewish Week via email, “It is both unfair and inaccurate to cherry pick a few speakers appearing at this year’s conference as a way to try and characterize the political slant of the whole conference. … Our speakers span across the political spectrum — from liberal to conservative.” Milstein noted that Labor Party head Avi Gabbay was invited but couldn’t attend because of scheduling conflicts.
Given the current makeup of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, perhaps the lineup is fitting. But it begs the question: Can a left-leaning Israeli-American living in Brownstone Brooklyn find a home in the IAC?
In the course of reporting this article, The Jewish Week spoke with more than a dozen Israeli-Americans familiar with the IAC’s cultural and lobbying work, including laymen, policy experts, heads of institutions and various IAC employees and former employees. In a sign of how sensitive the relationship between the organization and its constituency has become, few would speak on the record.
“I think the lobbying is a small part of their work overall, but it’s a big issue,” said one person with working ties to the IAC. “I have enormous respect for what they’re doing on the community level, but I didn’t vote for them, they don’t represent me politically and I don’t think it’s either their job or their right to do so. I came for the Hebrew, for the kids’ programs — not to be fodder for anybody’s legislative agenda,” the source added. But now that so few Israeli-American initiatives remain outside of the IAC brand, “I guess I can’t get one without the other.”
The IAC’s plunge into politics has surprised many familiar with its work, since for the past four-plus years — ever since the organization received Adelson’s support and announced its plans for national expansion — the phrase “non-political” has become its stubborn mantra. In an interview last year, Milstein told the Jerusalem Post, “We don’t have any political affiliation, not in Israel and not in the United States. … We don’t get involved in [Israeli] politics. The same thing in the United States. We don’t take sides.”
Writing in September in the Times of Israel, the group’s CEO, Shoham Nicolet, argued that the “IAC’s board, staff, community and hundreds of donors are very divided in our political views. Undoubtedly, trying to choose one side over the other would destroy our vision of a united Israeli-American community.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Nicolet admitted that it is virtually impossible to remain apolitical when you’re dealing with Israel. “You can’t aspire to become a leader in the Jewish-American community without being political,” he said. “We are pro-Israel, which means that by definition we are political.” In a subsequent interview, he clarified: “We are political, but not partisan.”
Rosner believes the jury is still out on that point.
He said that while the IAC represents the majority of Israeli-Americans on some topics, “it’s pretty clear that it identifies with the political right in Israel, and to a certain extent in America too. If they persist with this trajectory over time, many Israeli-Americans will feel misrepresented.”
The Israeli American Coalition for Action, IAC’s 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, was launched in February 2016, after the IAC’s occasional forays into political advocacy. Its work in opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was seen as crossing the line from advocating into lobbying; it posed both a branding problem and a potential risk to the group’s tax-exempt status.
According to sources within the IAC, the lobbying arm was a way to “erect a barrier” between IAC’s communal and political functions, allowing it to pursue both under slightly different titles.
In the 21 months of its existence, IAC for Action has weighed in on a range of state and federal issues, with varying degrees of success. It has advanced mom-and-apple-pie resolutions, such as pushing a House resolution honoring Israeli-American heritage and an initiative to teach Hebrew in public schools.
But it has also tackled trickier legislation. For instance, IAC for Action was the driving force and partial architect of the anti-BDS laws passed in Nevada, California and Texas. It’s currently advancing similar legislation in Massachusetts, and working alongside these state governments on creating watchdog organizations that would help enforce anti-BDS laws. (Some of the anti-BDS laws around the country are now being challenged on free speech grounds.)
The group has advocated for a House bill that would combat European anti-Semitism and supports the Israeli Anti-Boycott Act, legislation that recently lost its bipartisan support in the House and Senate after the ACLU denounced it as a First Amendment infringement.
Arguably, IAC for Action’s most significant legislative push has been on the high-profile Taylor Force Act bill, named for the 28-year-old American who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa in March 2016; it was among the first pro-Israel lobbies to aggressively campaign for the legislation.
Considered one of the most important pro-Israel initiatives of the early Trump administration, the bill would condition the majority of U.S. financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the PA shutting down its “Martyr’s Fund,” a program that pays stipends to convicted terrorists and their families. Introduced by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Dan Coates of Indiana and Roy Blount of Missouri, the bill initially lacked necessary bipartisan credentials; some Democrats believed the bill was drawn too broadly and that other kinds of American aid to the PA, such as money for humanitarian programs, would be cut off as a result. Out of concern for Israel’s security or out of partisan concerns, AIPAC and the major Jewish advocacy groups steered clear.
According to Shawn Evenhaim, IAC for Action’s chairman, Graham’s office approached the group for help in breaking the gridlock; in response, the lobby pulled together IAC’s two original megadonors — Adelson and billionaire businessman and Democrat Haim Saban — to campaign for the bill. (Saban eventually broke with IAC, reportedly due to sensitivities surrounding the U.S. presidential election, in which Saban supported Hillary Clinton and Adelson backed Donald Trump.)
It’s unclear how effective the campaign was; Graham’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Noah Pollak, a political consultant considered one of the bill’s primary drivers, told The Jewish Week he was unaware of IAC’s role. Still, in reference to their campaign, Nicolet asserted that “we were critical to getting the bipartisan conversation [on the bill] going. … There is a chasm within the Jewish-American community [regarding Israel]. That’s exactly where Israeli-Americans can step in and become a living bridge.”
Eventually, the bill was amended to take into consideration the aid questions that had been raised earlier, and the Taylor Force Act now seems poised for passage next month in the full Senate.
“We have the ability to speak for Israel as Americans, but from an Israeli point of view,” Evenhaim said. “This is something new that we are bringing to the pro-Israel camp, something that has always been missing.”
That unique perspective is IAC’s ace in the hole, particularly when it comes to combating BDS, its officials say. “[The BDS movement’s] biggest success is in dehumanizing Israelis,” Dillon Hosier, IAC for Action’s national director of state and local government affairs, told The Jewish Week. Bringing in Israeli-Americans, fellow state residents who are directly impacted by BDS, “restored the human face to that community. … Adding that Israeli-American element was really what turned the tide.”
California’s recently passed anti-BDS law, AB2844, is a case study in IAC for Action’s efforts. The law prohibits the state from contracting with firms that boycott or comply with boycotting Israeli companies, asserting that that would constitute an act of discrimination against Jews and Californians of Israeli descent and their businesses.
According to the bill’s author, Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), the Israeli-American voice was key to its passing. “Dillon and the IAC worked very closely with me and my legislative team to assure passage and the governor’s signature on AB2844 … [rallying] IAC members to email, call and provide other advocacy on behalf of the Israeli-American community,” Bloom told The Jewish Week in an email. “Frankly, and quite logically, many legislators do not understand BDS and why it is such an important issue for Israel and Israel’s supporters. The IAC … was singular in its ability to bridge that gap.”
While fighting BDS is considered a non-controversial position in the Jewish community, where does IAC for Action come down on thornier issues? A review of some of its recent statements and campaigns shows that its positions are largely in step with AIPAC, by far the largest of the pro-Israel lobbies, but with some interesting deviations.
For example, in the instances in which the Israeli government and American Jewry clash — such as the Kotel crisis involving access to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall — IAC is conciliatory to its American co-religionists but appears to hold rank with Israel as a matter of policy; it has avoided taking any position on the Kotel issue and defers this or any matter of Israeli public policy to “Israel’s democratically elected institutions and leaders.” AIPAC, on the other hand, sensing dire consequences regarding Israel-diaspora relations, sent an emergency delegation to Israel to discuss the Kotel matter with Netanyahu.
There is also some daylight between the IAC for Action and AIPAC when it comes to the fallout from certain Trump administration actions. In the aftermath of the Charlottesville events, for example, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League condemned both the bigotry displayed in Charlottesville and President Tump’s false equivocation between white supremacists and their counter protesters; IAC for Action took a pass on the latter.
In considering the arc of both the IAC and IAC for Action’s work, Shmuel Rosner said that in order to maintain their standing with Israeli-Americans over time, the groups will have to “demonstrate a broad enough spread of goals and principles.”
The groups, Rosner continued, must choose their battles to stay within the consensus as much as possible, and, most importantly, invest in their cultural and communal — rather than political — role. “There will be points in which the organization will feel the need to put its foot down” and take a stand on issues associated with one political side, he noted. “When those times come, IAC needs to have amassed enough credit with the community [for its communal work] that people who are uncomfortable will say, ‘OK, we feel uncomfortable right now, but overall this is something that we like and appreciate so much that we will live with it.’”
Evenhaim, IAC for Action’s chairman, told The Jewish Week that IAC maps the positions of Israeli-Americans through internal polling and regular reports from its local team leaders, of which it has over 100. Based on this, he said, he knows of no serious controversy regarding the lobby’s work. He admits, though, that “there was indeed some controversy about the decision” to branch into lobbying to begin with. “Those people who were worried are now very excited [about the lobby’s work], and very happy we did this,” he said.
But perhaps not everybody.
“Sometimes I feel like Adelson is talking from my throat,” one IAC staffer said. The staffer maintains two separate social media accounts: a professional one, in which he posts his positions as an IAC member, and a private one, in which he shares his own. The two accounts read like they belong to two very different people who don’t like each other very much.
“IAC was always about the community,” said another person, who once had close ties with the organization. “It was about being immigrants, and raising our children here in a way that would make our life happier and better. I don’t know how [the lobbying] connects to the work we were doing then.”
“It would just be a real shame,” the source concluded, “if it ended up harming it.”