An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Unpacking What The American Israel Public Affairs Committee Does


When Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted a few days ago about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, she repeated what are viewed as anti-Semitic characterizations of the powerful lobbying group - that the group's money drives U.S. policy towards Israel. But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, as with all money in politics, it's a complicated picture.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Omar tweeted that it's, quote, "all about the Benjamins." And by that, she meant AIPAC. The PAC in AIPAC, though, doesn't stand for political action committee. It's public affairs committee. Josh Block is head of The Israel Project and is a former AIPAC staffer.

JOSH BLOCK: It's a lobby that represents Americans who support the U.S.-Israel alliance. It itself, as an organization, does not make endorsements. It doesn't contribute to campaigns. It doesn't contribute to candidates - none of those things. In fact, it doesn't even have a PAC.

OVERBY: AIPAC has more than 100,000 members and the biggest lobbying budget among pro-Israel groups - $3 1/2 million last year. Among its activities, it regularly flies lawmakers to Israel. Members of AIPAC definitely make political contributions, Block said, but AIPAC wants to focus on something more than that.

BLOCK: That's the thing about what it is that makes AIPAC so special, which is it's the relationships that exist - real ones between actual constituents, Jews and non-Jews and members of Congress who understand the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

OVERBY: AIPAC has always strongly backed the Israeli government, but things have changed. These days, there are more liberal Jewish groups, most notably J Street, which takes a more critical view of Israel's foreign policy. Ben Shnider is senior adviser to J Street PAC.

BEN SHNIDER: The perception has long been that - the consensus was that members of Congress and that elected leaders should take a hard right, Israel-is-always-right approach to these issues.

OVERBY: But then came the rift over the status of Palestine.

SHNIDER: If you poll the Jewish community, which J Street has done every election night since our founding, you'll see that, in fact, a majority of American Jews support pushing for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

OVERBY: And yet, another change - the role of political money. AIPAC has a small constellation of political action committees around it, but data from the Center for Responsive Politics showed that the pro-Israel groups have relatively small budgets in this era of super PACs and dark money. So while billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a strong backer of the Israeli government, spent more than $100 million of his own money in the midterm elections, just two pro-Israel groups listed by the center broke the $1 million mark. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.