The Nation / May 20, 2022
In the name of supporting Israel, the lobbying group has created a new super PAC that is only too happy to boost candidates that threaten our democracy.
I’ve been an organizer with the Sunrise Movement for two years, leading youth phone banks for inspiring candidates who support bold climate action. This week, our movement is celebrating Summer Lee’s win in Pennsylvania, lamenting some tough losses in North Carolina, and getting ready for Jessica Cisneros’s runoff in Texas. Each of these races is a fight between the majority of us who believe in multiracial democracy and a livable future—and the corporate, antidemocratic forces who, lacking a motivated base and an inspiring message, are spending millions of dollars to stop our rising power.
But this cycle, there’s a new player in the game: the “United Democracy Project”—AIPAC’s new super PAC. In recent months we have seen just how low they’re willing to go, and Tuesday’s results should be an alarm bell.
When we started phone banking for Summer Lee in March, our conversations were overwhelmingly positive. People loved that Lee, the first Black woman elected to state office from western Pennsylvania, was an unapologetic champion for working people. One poll showed her leading her main opponent, Steve Irwin, a former Republican, by double digits.
But then things started to change. Every time voters turned on the TV, they heard that Summer wasn’t a real Democrat—even though she’s currently serving as a Democrat in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly—and that she wanted to destroy the Democratic Party.
We learned that AIPAC’s UDP was spending millions of dollars to flood the airwaves with anti-Lee ads meant to discourage and confuse voters. And that was just the start of it. AIPAC spent $5 million to defeat Nida Allam and Erica Smith in North Carolina and millions elsewhere. And AIPAC isn’t alone; its Astroturf affiliate, the Democratic Majority for Israel, and tech billionaire Reid Hoffman’s Mainstream Democrats PAC (which shares staff, offices, and web hosting with DMFI) have also poured millions into attacking popular progressives. These groups have spent a total of over $18 million so far—an unprecedented amount for primaries.
Why are these groups spending millions to defeat Democrats in a year when Democrats are being outspent by Republicans and risk losing the House? To stop the growing number of elected officials who are willing to speak out for Palestinian freedom. And the damage to our democracy that they are willing to accept along the way is shameful—and revealing.
The starkest example of AIPAC’s disregard for American democracy is its decision to endorse over 109 Republican representatives who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. After AIPAC announced these endorsements of insurrectionists, I e-mailed my grandfather’s rabbi, who sits on AIPAC’s National Council, about this shocking decision. His response to my concerns was that AIPAC is a “single-issue organization,” laser-focused on maintaining bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship. One would think a single-issue organization would be proud to shape its election messaging around that issue. But not a single one of AIPAC or DMFI’s ads mention Israel. They know that voters don’t actually vote on their issue, so instead they smear and attack candidates—no matter how far they have to stretch the truth to do so.
Despite their ironically named super PAC, AIPAC supports a fundamentally undemocratic project: the Israeli government’s decades-long denial of rights to the Palestinian people. Support for Palestinian freedom is an increasingly popular, commonsense, and principled position, like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. So, just like any other corporate PAC that needs to get lawmakers to support unpopular policies, AIPAC has to engage in increasingly antidemocratic tactics to succeed.
This isn’t just about Israel—everything is at stake in these elections. The future of our democracy, abortion rights, and our ability to avert climate catastrophe are all on the line this year. AIPAC and DMFI’s strategy is no different than fossil fuel companies’ pumping money to candidates who impede meaningful climate action and health care CEOs’ backing candidates who oppose lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
On Tuesday night, Lee pulled through and won her primary. But if Tuesday’s primaries were run solely on the merits of the candidates, Lee would have won in a landslide and Smith and Allam would have soundly defeated their moderate opponents in North Carolina.
I’m now in Texas, where next week progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros takes on Henry Cuellar, the last anti-choice Democrat in the House. It’s impossible to overstate how hostile Cuellar is to a livable future; he opposes abortion rights, supports endless fossil fuel extraction, and seems, at best, disinterested in the strength of our democracy. Backing Cuellar is an unsavory cast of characters that includes oil and gas executives, private prison companies, and, you guessed it, AIPAC. United Democracy Project is currently running an ad claiming Cisneros would be dangerous because she would defund the Border Patrol. You would be forgiven for thinking it was a Fox News segment.
To be sure, AIPAC and its backers will claim that they are doing this work to keep Jews safe. I find that idea insulting. The millions of dollars AIPAC is spending to defeat progressives are getting in the way of desperately needed change for all of us. That, of course, includes American Jews; the fight against deadly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories is only made harder when pro-Israel lobby groups work to undermine democracy at home in order to ensure unconditional support for the Israeli government.
The progressive movement can’t afford to be fooled or scared away by AIPAC’s smears. We must show up and back the candidates who are boldly championing our values, especially when those candidates are under attack. This will not be an easy fight, but it’s one we have to win. And when we do, we’ll finally have the future we deserve—a future in which all of us can thrive. That’s what these super PACs are spending millions to prevent.
Ezra Oliff-Lieberman is an electoral organizer at the Sunrise Movement and a member of IfNotNow