Last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual policy conference. Every year, more than eighteen thousand Americans assemble in Washington, D.C. for the three-day event to show support for Israel, listen to speeches by policymakers and thought leaders, and communicate their views to their senators and representatives (more than half of whom were in attendance themselves).
Opponents of the Jewish state decry the influence of the “Israel Lobby.” Just this past month, noted anti-Semite and sometime presidential pal Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan announced that “when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door,” and that “the powerful Jews are my enemy.”
Attacks on AIPAC and its mission tend to mirror the very charges made against the NRA in the wake of the Parkland, Florida massacre: that the shadowy NRA—the so-called “Gun Lobby”—controls corrupt politicians through large financial donations, and that no independent political actor could possibly support gun rights without being on the take. But the smear that their power stems from campaign contributions is false for both organizations, and for the same reason. In each case, the group’s outsized influence comes not from its political donations but from its vast, diverse, and passionate constituency.
Take AIPAC. When critics misleadingly refer to AIPAC as the “Israel Lobby,” they make it sound as though it takes marching orders from the Israeli government. But it doesn’t. Thanks to Israel’s close relationship with U.S. officials and its popularity in Congress and among the American people, Israel doesn’t need a formal lobby to represent its interests. In a 2014 survey, the Sunlight Foundation examined lobbying expenditures by foreign governments, based on mandatory federal disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The United Arab Emirates topped the list, with $14.1 million spent to influence U.S. foreign policy. As the Washington Post explained, “governments that spend the most here on hired PR are ones that typically don’t have strong established diplomatic ties.” Where did the State of Israel place? Second-to-last (83rd out of 84), spending a mere $1,250.
Certainly, AIPAC spends money on politics, but its funding comes from membership dues, conference attendance fees, and private donations. Plus, its members and donors are themselves active in the larger pro-Israel community, which gives AIPAC access to campus groups, business leaders, and engaged citizens of all backgrounds. This is why AIPAC objects to the term “Israel Lobby,” instead calling itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.” And when over 70% of Americans report a favorable opinion of Israel, blaming congressional support for Israel on graft or secret cabals doesn’t hold water.
The parallels to the NRA are obvious. Yes, the NRA enjoys political clout, but not because the gun makers flood it with cash. Firearm manufacturers have their own special interest group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. This trade association represents industry players and is itself plenty well funded, with an annual lobbying budget of about 65% of the NRA’s ($3.3 million for the NSSF versus $5.1 million spent by the NRA). Like your average special interest group, its objective is to represent the economic interests of specific businesses.
The NRA, on the other hand, is a member-driven organization full of regular people. The relatively modest political contributions it makes aren’t funded by a handful of deep-pocketed industry heavyweights, but by millions of citizens who believe in the Second Amendment enough to fork over $30 a year to join like-minded folks in defending the God-given rights our founding documents were written and adopted to secure, including, in this case, the right to effective self-defense. The NRA’s rolls even include many members who do not own guns themselves but who support its mission. It’s not the “Gun Lobby.” It’s the “Pro-Gun Lobby.”
Charles Krauthammer famously remarked on the founding of Fox News that “the genius . . . was to have discovered a niche market in American broadcasting—half the American people.” In a similar vein, if the NRA is a special interest group, it’s a “special interest” that covers 42% of American households, which, if you think about, isn’t that special after all.
Jay Cost explains in National Review that the strength of the NRA lies in the fact that “its millions of members are motivated by ideology, not money, and they vote in droves.” According to Cost, this makes the NRA sui generis, and he says that he can’t think of another interest group that operates along the same principles and speaks for such a large swath of the electorate. However, I would suggest that AIPAC also fits the bill, and that these two interest groups are unique in the way he describes. Supporters of both the Second Amendment and the Middle East’s only stable democracy appreciate that their accomplishments are hard fought and cannot be taken for granted, as they are constantly under threat of reversal. And both, unfortunately, find it increasingly hard to maintain their bipartisan appeal.
Perhaps most importantly, both groups represent countless Americans who understand that the best way to guarantee your own safety and that of your friends and allies is to champion the right to defend oneself. Instead of relying on assurances of the powerful—whether in the federal government or the international community—who pressure others to disarm and tell us that we can count on them for protection, both the pro-gun and pro-Israel communities know to say, “No thanks.”
Daniel Ungar is a Harvard-educated lawyer whose practice focuses on cybersecurity, data privacy, and electronic payments. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent the position of any firm or organization.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.