Former AIPAC senior operative launches group to cultivate Democratic support for Israel

Alex Kane

Jewish Currents  /  March 18, 2021 

In a sign of Israel advocates’ growing anxiety over progressive opposition to Israeli policies, AIPAC’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Jonathan Kessler, is leaving his job at the flagship Israeli-government-aligned lobby to start a new advocacy group that he hopes will appeal to Democratic Party activists.

According to an email sent from Kessler’s AIPAC email address and obtained by Jewish Currents, Kessler’s new organization, called Heart of a Nation, will publish an online journal highlighting progressive activism in Israel and the US. Kessler wrote that the journal will “be distributed to hundreds of Democrat Party leaders through a network of key contacts.” 

Kessler hopes to cast Israel in a light that appeals to that audience. “The Journal’s co-authors will show that Israel’s progressive ideals and institutions are worthy of support,” Kessler wrote. “But they’ll also make the case that Israel’s liberal ethos cannot be taken for granted and will be undercut if Israel abandons the Democratic Party or if the Democratic Party turns its back on Israel.” Kessler added that he wants to provide progressives “with a channel for their dissatisfaction that’s not disruptive of the US-Israel alliance.” 

Kessler’s new initiative is not the first aimed at reversing progressive disillusionment with Israel. As support for Israeli policies has increasingly become the subject of intense partisan division—fuelled, in part, by Benjamin Netanyahu’s hostility to President Obama, then his closeness to President Trump—professional Israel-advocacy groups have scrambled to keep the old bipartisan consensus alive. In just the last four years, AIPAC-affiliated operatives have launched a number of organizations intended to buttress support for Israel’s government among US liberals, including Zioness, a self-described feminist Zionist group, and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), which threw large sums of money behind hawkish candidates in Democratic primaries. Kessler’s group differs from these efforts in key ways: Unlike DMFI, Heart of a Nation will not be directly involved in electoral work, but will focus instead on content production for a liberal audience, including those that DMFI has alienated by attacking popular progressives such as Bernie Sanders. The funders behind Heart of a Nation remain unclear, and Kessler declined to speak to Jewish Currents on the record.

Kessler, who worked at AIPAC from 1980 until 1987, and again from 2002 until this month, is the most senior AIPAC employee to strike out on his own in recent years, and his entrée into this landscape of new groups suggests that the problem of courting progressives is of central importance to Israel advocates. “With the drift of American progressives away from Israel and Israeli politics away from its progressive roots, this trend will accelerate to the detriment of both countries,” Kessler wrote in his email announcing the new venture. “With this in mind, I’ve concluded that the task of uniting the two progressive communities in common purpose is more urgent than ever.”

The last few years have seen the rise of a small group of elected officials on the left who are voicing unusually blunt criticism of Israel’s military occupation. In 2017, Congresswoman Betty McCollum introduced legislation to prevent US military aid from going toward Israel’s detention of Palestinian children, the first-ever Congressional bill to focus on Palestinian human rights. In 2018, progressive critics of Israel’s human rights abuses, including Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, won closely-watched Congressional elections. Just last week, Tlaib and Mark Pocan led a group of 10 other members of Congress in signing a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calling on the State Department to make clear to Israel that “settler colonialism in any form—including Israel’s settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—is illegal under international law and will not be tolerated.” The emergence of this vocal anti-occupation contingent in Congress has led AIPAC to lash out at progressives: in February 2020, AIPAC ran a Facebook ad, for which they later apologized, depicting Reps. McCollum, Omar, and Tlaib as a threat “maybe more sinister” than ISIS.  

Still, Kessler’s new group can count the most powerful Washington Democrats, among them President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as core allies. All three have voiced opposition to some of the Israeli right’s territorial-maximalist positions—like annexing the entirety of the West Bank—while maintaining that the US should not put conditions on its military aid package to pressure Israel to end its decades-long military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Long before the most recent iteration of AIPAC-aligned groups began cultivating progressive support, professional Israel advocates have tried to appeal to liberal Democrats’ sensibilities by highlighting what they call Israel’s “progressive” values—for instance, its relative openness to LGBT rights. (Reality is more complicated: only foreign same-sex marriages are legally recognized in Israel.) Palestinian rights advocates use the term “pinkwashing” to refer to the Israeli government and its supporters’ deployment of Israel’s vibrant LGBT scene to deflect criticism of Israeli human rights abuses in the occupied territories. 

AIPAC has tried to do some of the work of appealing to progressives in-house, hiring officials to do “progressive outreach.” But AIPAC’s campaign to kill the Iran nuclear deal—the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration—and its attacks on progressive Democrats who speak out for Palestinian rights, especially politicians of colour, have soured liberals on the Israel lobby group. During the 2020 presidential race, Sanders announced he would be boycotting AIPAC’s annual policy conference because of “the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

Enter the new groups established by figures with close ties to AIPAC, but branded so as to sidestep AIPAC’s baggage. The board members of Zioness—launched in 2017 by the right-wing Lawfare Project—include Ann Lewis, a frequent speaker at AIPAC events who has led womens’ trips to Israel on behalf of AIPAC’s non-profit organization, the American Israel Education Fund (AIEF). Lewis also sits on the board of DMFI, alongside 10 other board members who have either volunteered for or given money to AIPAC, or have spoken at AIPAC events. The biggest donors to DMFI’s PAC also raise funds for AIPAC. And Mark Mellman, DMFI’s head, is a former paid consultant to what The Intercept called “AIPAC’s dark-money group,” Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, set up to lobby against the Iran nuclear deal. Mellman was also an independent contractor for AIEF, taking in $1.3 million from the group in 2015. 

Critics of Israel’s occupation say Kessler’s Heart of a Nation appears to be following the same formula. “This has been tried over and over again,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (and a Jewish Currents contributing writer). “The general thought seems to be that if the Israeli story is told the right way to an audience, it will sell to them,” agreed Yousef Munayyer, a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington, DC. The reality is that “there is no amount of storytelling that will cover up the ugly truth of systemic discrimination, occupation and apartheid,” he continued. “What is driving Democrats and progressives away from Israel is the dehumanizing behaviour and policies of the state of Israel itself.”

Kessler is known as a voice on the liberal end of AIPAC’s ideological spectrum, and the make-up of the committees of his new organization reflect political inclinations that tend to the left of Kessler’s former employer’s. The editorial committee include Palestinians like Aziz Abu Sarah, who runs a tour company that gives participants a chance to learn both Jewish and Palestinian perspectives on Jerusalem, while the group’s engagement committee features Rawan Odeh, a Palestinian American who founded the group New Story Leadership, which focuses on developing leadership skills among Israelis and Palestinians.

“We are Palestinians who are committed to Palestinian liberation and the end of the occupation. We enter all sorts of spaces in order to make change, challenge the status quo, and build solidarity,” said Abu Sarah and Odeh in a joint statement. “Everything we do is for our people, and we believe engagement is important. We saw this as an opportunity to center Palestinian voices in an American/Israeli Jewish space where we feared otherwise our voices may not be heard.”

Other Heart of a Nation engagement committee members include Stav Shaffir, a former Labour Party member of Israel’s Knesset; Sheila Katz, head of the National Council of Jewish Women; and Julie Fisher, an advocate for fair treatment of asylum seekers in Israel who is married to Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel under Obama.

Kessler’s decision to place a journal at the heart of his new organization could well be an attempt to head off criticisms that his organization is just another AIPAC front. A journal, as Kessler put it in his email, would provide space for criticisms of some Israeli policies, but within clear ideological boundaries. Similar efforts to incorporate criticism of Israel into a project with the ultimate goal of shoring up support for the Israeli government already exist, for instance in Britain, where the Israel-advocacy group BICOM runs a journal called Fathom

Kessler’s group positions itself as a much-needed platform for progressives in Israel and the US to “commiserate” over shared principles and dilemmas. “Israel-oriented organizations generally fall into two camps: those that celebrate without acknowledging what needs to be fixed, and those that criticize without acknowledging that anything is worth celebrating,” Heart of a Nation’s website states. “By engaging Israel as a work in progress, Heart of a Nation seeks to attract those inclined to celebrate and fix.”

Kessler has experience making the case for Israel’s policies to liberals who are inclined to be sceptical. As AIPAC’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Kessler worked to generate an interest in Israel among young Democratic leaders on college campuses. One of his success stories is cultivating Bakari Sellers, a prominent Black Democrat. (AIPAC has intensively courted Black activists in an attempt to diversify its ranks.) In 2004, after Sellers was elected president of Morehouse College’s student government, Kessler called him up and invited him to AIPAC’s annual policy conference. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sellers credited AIPAC with giving him the skills and contacts that made him a successful South Carolina state lawmaker. “The way I’m able to communicate, the exposure, the people that I’ve met—a lot of people I’ve met at the AIPAC policy conference became a huge part of my fundraising base,” Sellers told JTA. Today, Sellers is a CNN analyst who sits on Zioness’s board, continues to speak at AIPAC events, and has said he plans to run for Congress once Jim Clyburn, who as House Majority Whip is one of the most powerful Black Democrats in the country, retires.

AIPAC will continue to nurture the careers of Democrats who align themselves with the Israeli government. And Kessler’s new operation may prove a valuable ally in cultivating progressive support—and challenging progressive criticism. “Ilhan Omar, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Marc Pocan, and Bernie Sanders have only just begun chipping away at that DC pro-Israel hegemony,” said Mitchell Plitnick, co-author of the new book Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. “Kessler is trying to nip that progress in the bud and, frankly, Israel couldn’t have a more capable person on that job.” 

Following publication of this article, Heart of a Nation swapped out the term “board” for the term “committee” on its website to describe affiliated figures. In addition, Rawan Odeh and Aziz Abu Sarah sent a statement to Jewish Currents about their involvement after the article was published. This article has been updated to reflect those changes.

Alex Kane is a Jewish Currents contributing writer and a journalist who writes on the politics of Israel/Palestine in the US