Mary Jo Kilroy was elected to Congress at the height of the financial crisis, in November 2008, to represent Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding area. She landed a seat on the Financial Services Committee, where she had a chance to address the foreclosure crisis ripping through her state, as well as to push for tougher regulation of Wall Street.
As she learned to navigate Washington during her first term, one of the more unexpected pressures she faced was about a foreign trip. It wasn’t just any congressional sojourn, but rather a trip to Israel organized by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and sponsored by the nonprofit arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. “I would say that I was ‘strongly encouraged’ to take the Steny Hoyer AIPAC trip. ‘Everyone’ is going except you,” recalled Kilroy, who resisted the pressure, telling AIPAC that she didn’t want to go on a one-sided tour of the region.
AIPAC, which for years had strong support from both political parties, has seen its influence dip in the Democratic Party as its increasingly hard-line approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pushes it in an ever more aggressive direction.
Even in 2009, when Kilroy was invited, AIPAC was known for its hard-edged politics. “I told them that I would like to visit Israel sometime, but that I wanted a more objective view of the complex issues, and more inclusive meetings with knowledgeable people in Israel and Palestine, not one just from the AIPAC point of view,” she said. Aside from Hoyer and AIPAC’s Washington representatives, she got visits and phone calls, she said, from AIPAC supporters in Columbus “who also conveyed their desire to have me go on this trip.”
Ultimately, she did take a congressional trip to Israel, but it was the first one organized by a rival pro-Israel group, J Street, which takes a more moderate approach to the region’s politics. They visited Ramallah, a city in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel, she recalled, but Israel blocked the congressional delegation from entering the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory that has been under siege by Israel for more than a decade.
“I think people should go being comfortable with who they go with, and not everybody should have to go on the AIPAC trip.”
Ten years later, pressure on the incoming freshman class to sign up for Hoyer’s Israeli adventure has only grown more intense, particularly as AIPAC is determined to prove its continued relevance. A Democratic base increasingly wary of unchecked U.S. support for Israel has become more critical of the group, which has been unable to push through its signature piece of legislation, a bill that would criminalize or otherwise officially condemn participation in a boycott of Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory.
Neither AIPAC nor Hoyer’s office responded to a request for comment.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told The Intercept that incoming freshmen all receive general pressure to attend the AIPAC trip. “There is always sort of pressure for every member to go on the AIPAC trip, and I did not go on the AIPAC trip. I went on the J Street trip, and I’m really glad I did. I think that there should be more choice for people to go to Israel,” she said. “I think it’s important to go. But I think people should go being comfortable with who they go with, and not everybody should have to go on the AIPAC trip.”
So far, at least 11 freshmen who joined the CPC after being elected have committed to the AIPAC trip, according to sources tracking the issue. They are Reps. Gil Cisneros of California, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Antonio Delgado of New York, Sylvia Garcia of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Katie Hill of California, Steven Horsford of Nevada, Mike Levin of California, Joe Morelle of New York, and Susan Wild of Pennsylvania.
Dean told The Intercept that she’d expressed to Hoyer that she wanted the trip to provide a fair perspective on the region. “I’ve spoken with Hoyer and I want a balanced trip, and I think he wants to present that,” she said. “So that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Other freshmen, such as Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas and Lizzie Fletcher of Texas, who ran as progressives but haven’t joined the CPC, are also committed to going. According to a Jewish Insider tabulation of commitments, other freshman Democrats who plan to attend are Ben McAdams of Utah, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Max Rose of New York, Harley Rouda of California, Donna Shalala of Florida, Greg Stanton of Arizona, Haley Stevens of Michigan, and David Trone of Maryland.
The current political climate in Israel and tensions over its relationship with the U.S. complicate matters, Jayapal said. “This year in particular, I do think that this is not a good time to be going on an AIPAC trip at a time when we are seeing so many problems in terms of West Bank settlements, annexation, the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem. I think the time that we are in with an administration that is fanning the flames of the tensions in the Middle East, and the lack of any hope that the United States can be seen as a neutral arbiter to preserve a Palestinian state, and real self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, I think it sends the wrong message,” she said.
Hoyer, during his address at the AIPAC conference earlier this year, predicted record turnout for the trip. “Like many of you, I’ve traveled to the communities in the south of Israel that have endured rockets and tunnels. I’ve traveled with over 150 of my fellow Democratic members of Congress to meet with those who live under the constant threat of terror,” he said, invoking tired Israeli talking points about attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched from Gaza without acknowledging Israeli violence and its brutal siege of the strip.
“This August, I will travel with what I expect will be our largest delegation ever — probably more than 30 Democratic members of Congress, including many freshmen,” Hoyer said. “They will see firsthand the threats and challenges faced by Israel and its people, as well as their extraordinary courage and achievements. It has been — and continues to be — the platform of our party and the priority of our Democratic caucus that ‘a strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States because we share overarching strategic interests and the common values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism.’”
The strategic interests of Israel and the United States, from the perspective of many Democrats, have been diverging, however, since President Barack Obama began pursuing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The Israeli government has long urged a militant, confrontational approach toward Iran, and has worked relentlessly to scuttle the talks, which ultimately ended in an agreement. The Obama administration and backers of the deal argued that the multination agreement was the only alternative to war. The Trump administration abrogated the deal and is now, as predicted, threatening war.
AIPAC has also played a high-profile role in the first leg of the new House majority, pushing Democratic leaders to censure Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for claiming that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is influenced by AIPAC’s “Benjamins.” Omar’s clumsy comment was denounced as anti-Semitic by party leaders, but they didn’t go as far as officially condemning her on the House floor or removing her from the Foreign Affairs Committee. AIPAC’s inability to make that happen was an additional setback for the organization, which only heightens the importance of a successful trip.
“His senior staff lock down cooperating members by getting their bills to the floor and punishing non-cooperators.”
Hoyer, according to former members of Congress who have resisted the pressure to join AIPAC’s delegation, uses his power over the House floor agenda to coerce participation. A member who refuses an invitation can find it difficult to have their bills brought to the floor for a vote. “His senior staff lock down cooperating members by getting their bills to the floor and punishing non-cooperators,” said one former representative who rejected the invitation. “I was tortured for a decade because I refused to go on that trip and went with J Street instead.”
Hoyer organizes the trip with McCarthy, the Republican leader. “[Nancy] Pelosi hates this but does not discourage the trip — it’s a ‘hold your nose’ strategy,” said the former congressperson. Like many other current and former lawmakers interviewed for this article, they asked to remain anonymous, citing the power of Hoyer and AIPAC to retaliate, as well as the political sensitivity of the issue.
A spokesperson for J Street confirmed that members who consider trips with their organization “sometimes face pressure to join the AIPAC trip instead.”
A current member who declined to be named confirmed that incoming members receive pressure from Hoyer to attend the trip, describing it as an initiation rite. Another current member, who has not gone on the AIPAC trip, said they wouldn’t describe Hoyer’s strategy as pressure, but said that he and his surrogates strongly encourage members to attend the trip. “I think he’s probably encouraged them. They really focus on freshman members when they first get here,” the Democratic representative said. “And many feel from their communities, actually, pressure. ‘Oh you have to go, you have to go.’”
One Democratic staffer, also asking not to speak on the record, described the pressure from Hoyer as indirect, explaining that Hoyer’s team would continuously ask freshmen members during their campaigns — at a time when they desperately need party support — whether they’d be attending the AIPAC trip.
AIPAC’s rise as a political force coincided with Hoyer’s, and is bound up in a generational rightward shift in the Democratic Party’s foreign policy. Once dubbed “the boy wonder,” Hoyer won a special election in 1981 and has been representing southern Maryland ever since. In 1982, AIPAC, which had been rising as a political force since the mid-’70s, recruited Dick Durbin to challenge Republican Rep. Paul Findley, a leading critic of the Israeli occupation and a public ally of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, an umbrella group that has represented Palestinians in political negotiations. In his memoir, “Speaking Out: A Congressman’s Lifelong Fight Against Bigotry, Famine, and War,” Findley recalls advertisements in Jewish newspapers around the country describing him as a “practicing anti-Semite who is one of the worst enemies Jews and Israel have ever faced in the history of the U.S. Congress.” Durbin is now the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate; it was AIPAC’s first major victory. Hoyer and AIPAC have been allies for nearly 40 years.
AIPAC’s education arm, the American Israel Education Foundation, has been sponsoring biennial trips for members of Congress since at least 2011, but AIPAC broadly has been sponsoring the trek since at least the early 1990s. AIEF started sponsoring the trips after a 2007 rule barred groups that lobby Congress from paying for extended congressional travel.
Hoyer himself has led large groups on Israel trips since at least 2003. The trips cost around $10,000 per person, and lawmakers are allowed to bring one family member. AIPAC staffers attend the trips as well. Over the past decade, AIEF has spent $12.9 million on the trips for 363 lawmakers and 657 congressional staffers, Alex Kane and Lee Fang reported for The Intercept last December.
The Intercept spoke with members of Congress who went on AIPAC trips in the 1990s, 2000s, and more recently. Their portrait of the trip across the decades is largely the same, even as the country has been upended by a massive separation wall and sprawling, state-sponsored Israeli settlements built illegally in Palestinian territory.
The trips have included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Palestinian National Authority Prime Ministers Mahmoud Abbas and Rami Hamdallah, and former Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. Members attend tours, visit holy sites, and are treated to breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and information sessions geared toward what critics say can sometimes provide a one-sided view of regional politics despite opportunities to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
An itinerary from a 2011 trip then-Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo took, provided by Legistorm, included sessions titled “Hamas Next Door,” “Hizballah Next Door,” and “Terror from Gaza and Sinai.” A 2014 itinerary included meetings with members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and sessions on the “Palestinian Perspective” with representatives of the Palestinian Authority.
“It was half Chamber of Commerce, and half propaganda,” said one senior Jewish Democrat in Congress who has gone on the trip. The chamber part, he said, consisted of ample free time for sightseeing, while the rest was propaganda. AIPAC trips typically include just one meeting with a Palestinian government official, the members said, and few if any with dissident Jewish voices inside Israel.
The senior Democrat said that he has spoken to many of the freshmen and advised them against going on the AIPAC trip. “I haven’t talked to every freshman member, but it’s an issue that everybody feels they have to deal with,” he said. “I tell them the J Street trip is far more useful.”
He still remembers the settlers insisting that Palestinians do not, in fact, exist.
There’s also a critical yet counterintuitive difference: J Street, unlike AIPAC, sets up meetings for the congressional delegation with settlers themselves. Settlers have become a dominant force in Israeli politics and tend to hold the most extremist and often explicitly racist views. One former member who went on both trips said he assumed AIPAC knew that it would be counterproductive for the members of Congress to meet settlers — a conclusion he drew after meeting them on J Street’s trip and being utterly appalled. He said he still remembers the settlers insisting that Palestinians do not, in fact, exist, and that whatever they are, it would be better for them as a people to remain under the authority of Israel in a single state indefinitely.
Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, announced late last year that she would be skipping the AIPAC trip and instead leading her own delegation to the West Bank. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York announced that she’d be skipping the trip as well.
Some members who’ve gone on the AIPAC trip say they’re aware of criticisms but think it’s important nonetheless. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has gone on both. The AIPAC trip, he said, “wasn’t one-sided, [but] I wouldn’t say they had people who were robustly critical. It was a matter of emphasis. [The J-Street] trip emphasized more the two-state solution, how it was within grasp. But I do think it’s important for members to get a variety of perspectives, not just any one organization’s perspectives.” As far as attending Tlaib’s trip, Takano said his summer was booked up. “I’ve got other regions of the world to pay attention to.”
Rep. Kim Schrier of Washington told The Intercept that she was planning to go on the AIPAC trip, but hadn’t been pressured “at all” by Hoyer. “I’ve been to Israel a couple of times. I think it’s important to learn more,” she said. Asked about criticism of the trip as being one-sided as opposed to the trip offered by J Street, she said, “I think that everything we do, and anybody we do it with — everybody has an angle. It’s our job as members of Congress to always be aware of everybody’s angle.”