One of the most interesting speeches given at the AIPAC Policy Conference was one that received the least media attention. AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr addressed the capacity crowd Sunday night before Newt Gingrich, and he came with a stern and clear warning – there is a growing movement to de-legitimize Israel in the eyes of its allies. He warned it’s growing, it’s successful and it’s coming to the US. In a conference full of fire and brimstone bluster about Iran and the omnipresent threat of annihilation, when it came to this speech Kohr was exactly on the mark.
Kohr moved beyond simply focusing on the familiar bogeymen of Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and the Durban II conference, and took on what is clearly viewed as a grave threat – the growing movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. During his rundown of the gathering storm he included “400 British academics demanded that Britain’s Science Museum cancel an event highlighting the work of Israeli scientists” and an Italian “trade union calls for a boycott of Israeli products.” He also included the increasing comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. As part of this trend he mentioned Israel Apartheid Week (twice) which he explained,”Its aim, to build boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns as part of a growing global movement.” He’s right.
More impressively, he gave real attention to this movement. Rather than attempting to simply de-legitimatize it with charges of anti-Semitism, he recognized its true motivation: “This is more than the simple spewing of hatred. This is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends to a state that deserves not our support, but our contempt; not our protection, but pressured to change its essential nature.” And even more, he knows the movement is building steam:
No longer is this campaign confined to the ravings of the political far left or far right, but increasingly it is entering the American mainstream: an ordinary political discourse on our T.V. and radio talk shows; in the pages of our major newspapers and in countless blogs, in town hall meetings, on campuses and city squares . . .
And I want to be clearly understood here. I’m not saying that these allegations have become accepted. But they have become acceptable. More and more they are invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel. These voices are laying the predicate for a abandonment.
Finally, Kohr threw down the gauntlet:
There is a battle for basic perception underway, a fight to focus the lens through which our policy makers will receive and perceive all events in Israel and the broader Middle East. And the stakes in that battle are nothing less than the survival of Israel, linked inexorably to the relationship between Israel and the United States. In this battle we are the firewall, the last rampart.
Kohr said, “in the moment – we find our mission.” And in many ways the threat Kohr identified was an undercurrent throughout the conference. This was seen in the effort by AIPAC to co-opt the divestment mantle by pushing divestment from Iran. Not only is this a focus in Congress, but on campuses and in municipalities as well. After Kohr’s speech it was difficult to see these as anything but a diversionary tactic to keep attention on the real movement for divestment Kohr outlined growing across the world.
As with almost everything at the AIPAC convention, Kohr’s speech was one part theater, one part policy. I do think his presentation was a bit overblown in an effort to light a fire under his troops as they headed into battle. But he could have chosen many other topics to do that with. Kohr understands that the fight is over themes and frames and that regardless of the millions put into the AIPAC convention or the thousands of lobbyists that head off for the Hill, once the discourse shifts and Israel is a pariah, the battle is lost. He explained to the crowd:
You know, we’ve all heard many times Israel accused of being a Western outpost in the Middle East. To those who make that accusation I say you are right. Israel is the only democratic country in the region that looks West, that looks to the values and the vision we share of what our society, our country should aim at and aspire to. If that foundation of shared values is shaken, the rationale for the policies we pursue today will be stripped away. The reasons the United States would continue to invest nearly $3 billion in Israel’s security; the willingness to stand with Israel, even alone if need be; the readiness to defend Israel’s very existence,all are undermined and undone if Israel is seen to be unjust and unworthy. . .
Yes, we must lobby for the particulars –Iran sanctions, peace process principles, foreign aid –but our mission now is to do more than work our talking points. We must add context and foundational arguments that help America’s leaders understand the rightness of our cause.
That is the fight at hand, and it’s a fight that AIPAC and others have been incredibly good at fighting. But Kohr can see the ground is shifting. And in the end, the influence AIPAC holds over the US policy towards Israel/Palestine may end up disintegrating as the myth of shared values is revealed, and more people realize that funding a “Western outpost in the Middle East” is not only no longer in our interest, but is not in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians as well.