A pro-Israel event in Philadelphia next week to coincide with the Democratic National Convention was abruptly canceled by AIPAC, the organizers of what was to have been a luncheon at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
A museum spokeswoman confirmed that AIPAC recently canceled the event.
AIPAC’s credibility rests on its being seen as a bipartisan organization. It has sizable Democratic support despite its agenda aligning more closely with Republicans in recent years. Its cancellation raises questions about whether the lobby is scaling back its presence at this summer’s political conventions so it won’t have to snub the GOP and its nominee, Donald Trump, who is being boycotted by many prominent Republican Jews.
“We do not have a large, public event at either convention, but AIPAC representatives will be at both conventions and host a number of smaller meetings,” an AIPAC spokesperson said.
A Republican with knowledge of AIPAC’s situation believes that the lobby made good choice in reducing its presence at the conventions.
“[AIPAC] recognized that while the bipartisan consensus on Israel has broken down, in order for them to maintain the credibility of years and years of service, they need to dial it back and get back to advocating for Israel on both sides,” he said.
“I think a trend we have seen in recent years is both [parties] have been pushed more to the extreme, and part of AIPAC’s appeal is that they’re bipartisan and appeal to both sides of the aisle,” he added.
Just how big has the AIPAC presence been at past conventions? In 2000, JTA reported that 800 local and national members planned to attend the 2000 Republican National Convention, also in Philadelphia. And a 2004 letter from AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr stated that 1,500 members attended a community event in New York City surrounding that year’s Republican convention.
But former executive director Tom Dine, who led AIPAC through three convention seasons in the 1980s and ’90s, called the notion that AIPAC would send that many members to a convention from out of town is “B.S.”
“Nobody sends 800 people to such an event … there’s no hotel space,” he said. “Now, let’s say in Cleveland or Philadelphia, which has a significant Jewish population, you have plenty of AIPAC members already living there. Then it might be possible.”
Dine said during his tenure, AIPAC would schedule events around each convention many months ahead of time. Some of these were policy oriented, others were of the “ubiquitous watermelon, cantaloupe and cheese” social variety. He said four or five staff members and several lay leaders would meet with Congress members and candidates at each convention.
Dine said these meetings are important opportunities for members of the pro-Israel lobby to get to know their politicians.
“It’s about individuals and their future in politics, and their candidates for election and re-election would want to show their best sides to the pro-Israel leadership,” he said.
AIPAC used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on political convention-related activities. But since the recession in 2008, the lobby has become more frugal, said a Jewish organizational leader who is familiar with AIPAC and wished to remain anonymous.
“They want to have smaller, more intimate gatherings rather than more elaborate gala events,” he said.
“The bottom line is, Jewish organizations have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the treacherous waters of being involved in presidential politics,” he continued. “It’s very easy to screw up in being seen as too close to whichever party you’re at the convention of — to the point of leaders on the other side of the aisle getting upset.”