Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Everyone Blew It

Although it is of course welcome news, the dropping of the charges against Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman is not an entirely satisfactory outcome. They weren’t acquitted, which means that a cloud will remain over these two former AIPAC staff members. There are unanswered questions and unfinished business. This is a story without any heroes. Everyone blew this one, from the Justice Department and FBI to the entire American Jewish establishment, as well as our media. We did not have the courage or self-respect to challenge a prosecution that stank from day one. The greatest disgrace was AIPAC’s perfidy.

Hopefully, we will learn more about the case, why under a statute enacted nearly ninety years ago that had never been even remotely used for such a purpose, Rosen and Weissman were accused of serious crimes when what they essentially did was what diplomats, lobbyists, journalists, etc., do routinely each day in Washington. Perhaps we will learn about who else in Jewish life, American and Israeli, are targets of the FBI, the intrepid folks who excel in trivial pursuits even as they are asleep on the big stories, as they were on 9/11. Our G-men and AIPAC share the distinction of being vastly overrated.

The issue of wiretapping has taken on greater importance since the revelation that Representative Jane Harman of California is a victim of what Justice Brandeis described in the infancy of the tactic as dirty business. Why aren’t our organizations and media asking who else in Jewish life is being surveilled and bugged? Why aren’t we challenging Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the power-hungry boss of the House of Representatives who is ever-ready to protect crooks in her caucus yet who seemed eager to throw Harman to the wolves.

One explanation for our timidity is that nearly twenty-five years after Jonathan Pollard’s arrest, we still are afflicted by the trauma arising from his actions.

During the eight years of what may be properly described as George W. Bush’s “Injustice Department,” there was an abundance of dubious prosecutions and miscarriages of justice. Too many U.S. Attorneys around the country embraced Rovian machinations and prosecuted people who should not have been prosecuted. The AIPAC matter may be nothing more than an ambitious U.S. Attorney in Virginia bringing charges that ultimately could not stick. Still, there is in our ranks, not only among the Orthodox, many who worshiped at the shrine of the Bush Administration. They should contemplate the AIPAC prosecution.

After quickly sacking two loyal staffers, AIPAC pretended to act as if nothing had happened, continuing to revel in hoopla and boasting. It still has to contend with Steven Rosen’s lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. My hunch is that it will do all it can to settle.

The organization also needs to contend with a changed environment, including a new administration with which it does not have close ties and – I hope that this is not wishful thinking – a Jewish community that is less enamored of the antics of a group that for far too long has been infused with an instinct for gratuitous exhibitionism. There are hopeful indications of AIPAC altering its style, if not its message.

Whatever lies ahead, we ought not dismiss the harm that AIPAC has caused through its loud and incessant boasting that it is all-powerful. Immature kids do that. We do not need this kind of proof that Jews can be stupid. It should be a no-brainer that AIPAC’s determination to secure bragging rights played directly into the hands of the Mearsheimers and Walts and others who proclaim that U.S. Middle East policy is hostage to the Israel lobby. How can we cry foul or anti-Semitism when enemies echo what AIPAC has proclaimed about itself?

As a collateral matter, has anyone noticed that AIPAC’s style does not play well on college campuses?

The larger question concerns substance and not style. It is whether AIPAC’s activities make a difference. According to an editorial in these pages last week, while the organization is “imperfect,” it is “indispensible.” I disagree, believing that the organization’s clout is greatly overrated, a theme developed in the same issue of this newspaper by Jerome Chanes in a fine review of a new book on “America’s Israel Lobby” by Dan Fleshler.

The Bush years represented the zenith of AIPAC’s engagement with the White House and the administration, the period when its exhibitionism went out of whack. During the same period, there were major developments, including Israel’s withdrawal from Gush Katif in Gaza, the Lebanon War, the Gaza War, Israel’s relations with China and the accessibility to Israel of U.S. military technology. On each of these issues, AIPAC’s role was just about nil, not because it was neglected but because on critical diplomatic and military matters inevitably the organization is not in the loop.

This despite the thousands of AIPACers who scurry around Washington going through the open door that is getting members of Congress to say nice things about Israel. Even on matters of foreign aid, the record is nothing for AIPAC to boast about.

If AIPAC can control its instinct for self-promotion and also the instinct for timidity when push comes to shove, it can still play a useful role, albeit one that is of significantly less significance than too many of us attribute to the organization. AIPAC needs to tone down and it also needs to pay heed to the reality that, as is true of Israeli public opinion, American Jewish opinion about Israel is divided on key issues including how best to deal with the Palestinians and the Iranian threat.