Washington — It didn’t exactly resemble a shul in Borough Park, but there was no mistaking the growing Orthodox imprint on the pro-Israel lobby when it gathered here this week.
Though no official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee would estimate the extent of the new Orthodox strength, several Jewish leaders commented on what seemed to be a growing proportion of Orthodox among participants at the group’s annual policy conference.
“The change has been tremendous,” said Mandell Ganchrow, formerly the president of the Orthodox Union and a longtime activist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the major pro-Israel lobby group. “It’s changing AIPAC, and it’s changing the face of pro-Israel activism.”
Ganchrow said the change has been evolutionary, but that there’s no mistaking the new receptivity
to Orthodox participation. And there is no mistaking the rightward pull of these newcomers on mainstream, pro-Israel organizations.
“Twenty years ago I would go to major pro-Israel meetings and they’d serve ham,” he said. “There was a time when AIPAC refused to announce that there would be a minyan. Now they’re reaching out. They’re professionals, and they realize that reaching out to the Orthodox is smart.”
The shift at AIPAC reflects a change across the pro-Israel spectrum. More than half of the 100,000-plus people who attended the Washington rally last week in support of Israel were Orthodox, according to some estimates.
Local community groups around the country that include pro-Israel components are experiencing a surge in Orthodox participation, said Andi Milens, director of community relations for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“There’s a broader trend around the country of CRCs [community relations councils] and federations reaching out to create partnerships with the synagogue community on a whole range of issues, including Israel,” she said. And that includes outreach to the Orthodox community.
At the community level, Israel is one of few areas where Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish groups can work together comfortably, other activists say. There is a growing gap on a range of domestic issues such as school vouchers and abortion, but widespread Jewish agreement on the need to defend an embattled Israel.
The change at AIPAC is important because of the group’s central place in the pro-Israel cosmos and because of an organizational culture that was once seen by many as hostile to Orthodox participation.
One of two co-chairs of this week’s conference was a prominent Orthodox activist — Howard Friedman, a Baltimore businessman who is in line for the AIPAC presidency.
AIPAC officials declined to speak about the change in the organization. Other pro-Israel activists, however, portrayed Friedman as the archetype of the new Orthodox pro-Israel activist.
“He’s deeply committed to our community, but he’s also become a major player in pro-Israel campaign funding, and he’s a leader in several non-Orthodox organizations,” said another prominent Orthodox activist. “He represents a younger generation that is already starting to have a huge impact.”
Part of the change is the result of a new affluence and a new comfort level Orthodox leaders feel in operating inside non-Orthodox organizations.
“There’s a whole new cadre of young Orthodox professionals and businesspeople who have the money, who are active in their local communities, but who also now want to do more for Israel,” Ganchrow said. “And they realize now that the single most effective way to do it is through political participation through groups like AIPAC and through the PACs [political action committees].”
Gilbert Kahn, a political scientist at Kean University, said a handful of Orthodox pioneers like Ganchrow “have given political credibility to the Orthodox community by their willingness to get into the trenches with the non-Orthodox community. That’s an important development.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said at a time when many Jews with tenuous community links are moving away from active support for Israel, Orthodox ties to the Jewish state are growing.
The Orthodox community is “much closer to Israel because of religious, traditional, educational and personal ties,” Foxman said. “They have more close relatives in Israel. And there’s growing affluence in this community; they have the money to have an impact.”
Orthodox pro-Israel activists increasingly believe they need the mainstream pro-Israel groups to have an impact on U.S. Mideast policy — and the feeling is mutual. AIPAC, according to several reports, has greatly expanded its outreach efforts in the Orthodox community, particularly in New York. AIPAC officials are increasingly visible at synagogues and community meetings.
The reasons are not hard to fathom. Orthodox activists tend to offer an unqualified support for Israel that is getting harder to find in the overall Jewish community.
“Liberal Jews continue to be concerned about Israel, but many are troubled,” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder and president of The Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. “They’re more subject to media images. They feel themselves torn between conscience and solidarity.
“Those who are consistently most passionate are the Orthodox. They have a worldview that lets them block out what others may see as problematic in Israel’s behavior. They are 100 percenters.”
The change for AIPAC is particularly dramatic. During its formative years in the 1970s and 1980s, the pro-Israel giant did not welcome the Orthodox, and the Orthodox community felt put off by AIPAC’s determinately secular style.
“Back then we had regular debates over whether AIPAC was a ‘Jewish organization’ or just a ‘pro-Israel organization,’ ” said a former senior staffer. “AIPAC assiduously avoided issues that might have religious overtones such as yarmulkes in the military. They didn’t want the image of being ‘too Jewish.’ ”
With a few notable exceptions, AIPAC was run by “very secular” lay and professional leaders, this source said. “There always was an Orthodox presence, but it was very small. And the big problem was that most of the Orthodox shunned AIPAC.”
Some AIPAC leaders were afraid that too much overt ethnicity would hurt the group on Capitol Hill. In 1993, longtime executive director Tom Dine was forced out — after allegations that he had made derogatory about the Orthodox to a reporter. Even today, some sources say, there are vestiges of unease on the AIPAC staff about too much visible Orthodox involvement, although most organization leaders now recognize the Orthodox community as a critical resource.
The rising prominence of the Orthodox in mainstream pro-Israel groups will change those groups, most observers agree. Kahn, the Kean political scientist, said the impact is hard to predict.
When the current Mideast emergency subsides, he said, “it could go either way. Either they will make the organized pro-Israel world more hawkish, or the Orthodox will be influenced by the mainstream and become less hawkish.”
But most other observers believe the influence of the Orthodox is already apparent.
“It’s pulling AIPAC and other groups to the right,” said Gary Polland, a Texas Jewish activist and participant at this week’s policy conference. “We’re already seeing that happen — and it’s a good thing.”
Ganchrow said the change will be less dramatic because groups like AIPAC have been drifting rightward for years.
“I’ve been sitting in on AIPAC executive committee meetings for 18 years,” he said. “The leadership is definitely center-right. The greater involvement of the Orthodox community will just reinforce that. It’s the center-right members of our community who want to get involved in AIPAC, not the radical right.”
He said the communal shift will also have an impact on the pluralism debate. “The issues of pluralism, which were never very prominent, will be buried further,” he said. “The more our people get involved in AIPAC, the more this will become a non-issue.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, a Reform Zionist group that promotes pluralism in Israel, said the growing involvement of the Orthodox in pro-Israel activism is “healthy,” but said that if the Israelis and Palestinians resume a serious diplomatic process, “we will start having serious disagreements in our community about the best course to take.”
Those differences could loom especially large if a resumed peace process revives active discussion about the fate of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Many Orthodox activists have strong personal ties to the settlers. Outside the Orthodox world, ties to the settlers are tenuous, at best.
Orthodox groups, which have worked closely with leaders of the Christian right on a host of domestic issues, will also accelerate the incorporation of those groups into the broader pro-Israel movement.
“Some of Israel’s strongest support in this country is coming from leaders like Gary Bauer,” a top Orthodox activist said. “We have been working with these people for years. To the extent that we become mainstream in groups like AIPAC, it will increase the community’s comfort level in dealing with these friends.”
One way or the other, the Orthodox community is in the pro-Israel game for good, most observers agree.
“For almost 50 years, the Orthodox community sat out the entire American Jewish politics game,” said Rabbi Schwarz. “In the past 10 years they have jumped in. They may be new to the game, but they’re learning very fast, and they’re outmaneuvering an