Why This Swing-State Democrat Is Going After Netanyahu’s Most Powerful Ally in D.C.

A photo illustration of a man and the lobbying group AIPAC's symbol, with a lightning bolt in between.
“I’m poking the bear,” Rep. Mark Pocan said to Slate. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Talha Bilal/Unsplash, Oliver Douliery/AFP via Getty Images and Brandon Morgan/Unsplash.
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AIPAC is one of the most fearsome entities in American politics. A multimillion-dollar influence machine at the heart of Washington politics, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a lobbying firm that can single-handedly make or break political careers and turn elections. Both the top-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and the top-ranking Republican, Speaker Mike Johnson, counted the Israel lobby as their top donor in the 2022 cycle. (In that midterms cycle, pro-Israel lobbyist groups and individuals contributed over $30 million to congressional candidates.)

AIPAC, in particular, is vociferously supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and willing to spend heavily to oppose any American politician it perceives as a critic. Thus, many politicians—and a lot of Democrats, who often bear the brunt of AIPAC’s anger—are fearful of being perceived as having crossed the Israel lobby in any way.

But not Rep. Mark Pocan, a progressive House member from Wisconsin. “I don’t give a fuck about AIPAC—period,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think they’re a cancerous presence on our democracy and politics in general, and if I can be a surgeon, that’s great.” Over the past few days, following Pocan’s lead, a small number of congressional Democrats (and one congressional Republican) have openly accused the organization of spreading falsehoods and misrepresentations in its lobbying efforts.

It started after the House voted, on Oct. 25, to pass a resolution pledging unwavering support for Israel. This is already the de facto policy in Washington, and the resolution made no mention of the skyrocketing number of civilian casualties in Gaza. But the resolution set the stage for a subsequent vote on an additional $14 billion of military aid to Israel, afforded with zero conditions. Nine Democrats voted against the Oct. 25 resolution. (Pocan was not one of them.)

After the resolution vote, AIPAC posted on X (formerly Twitter) and accused several American representatives, including Pocan, of “trying to keep Hamas in power.”

Pocan fired back: “@AIPAC is good at not telling the truth.”

The U.S. sends “BILLIONS annually to assist Israel,” he wrote. “Pocket change to feed millions of Palestinians who live in an open air prison [in] Gaza, who are not Hamas. We don’t support Hamas. We just don’t support killing kids which it seems you do.”

A few days later, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who AIPAC has long opposed, was also name-checked by AIPAC as a traitor. She posted on X: “AIPAC endorsed scores of Jan 6th insurrectionists. They are no friend to American democracy. They are one of the more racist and bigoted PACs in Congress as well, who disproportionately target members of color. They are an extremist organization that destabilizes US democracy.”

Even one Republican got in on the action. After AIPAC went after Republican Rep. Thomas Massie for voting against the Oct. 25 resolution, calling him antisemitic, he posted: “This baseless smear is meant to intimidate me into voting to send $14+ billion of your money to a foreign country.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Massie stopped there; Pocan has continued to engage in a combative online back-and-forth. This is risky, to say the least. AIPAC’s website boasts that 98 percent of the candidates it has backed have won their elections, and super PACs affiliated with the group have already gone on the offensive against congressional critics of Israel, booking six-figure ad buys targeting Democrats like Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Summer Lee. The group has publicly courted primary challengers for those members and other members of the group of representatives known as the Squad, according to Jewish Insider. And retribution has been swift and commonplace. As the Washington Post reported, “a third of the nearly 20 pro-Israel resolutions and bills proposed by lawmakers in the weeks since Hamas’s attack have focused on condemning Israel’s critics—including protesters and university students.”

That hasn’t slowed Pocan. “The reason I’m poking the bear is because they’ve become a Trojan bear. AIPAC at least pretended to be bipartisan when I first got [to Congress]. Now they’re basically a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GOP,” he told me. “It’s time to call them out for what they are—a front group for conservative policy here in the U.S.—instead of being afraid of them.”

The sudden flare of anger is a clear indication of the ways Israel’s war in Gaza is inflaming American politics.

AIPAC claims to be bipartisan because it gives money to members of both parties. But that’s not how it functions in earnest. Increasingly, the group gives lavishly to far-right Republicans. (In 2022, it famously endorsed 109 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election results.) And the group raises millions of dollars from Republican megadonors, including billionaire Trump-backer Bernie Marcus.

In the 2022 election cycle, AIPAC was part of a super PAC spending blitz that shattered records by putting up tens of millions of dollars in ad buys against progressive candidates and on behalf of more conservative Democrats in safe blue districts. It went after incumbents and open seats alike, and was largely successful. In Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, the group managed to oust one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress, a former president of a synagogue, Andy Levin, in favor of a more conservative, hawkish—and, pointedly, non-Jewish—candidate, Haley Stevens. They did nothing similar in Republican primaries.

AIPAC has been particularly animated in going after Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Lee, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar, who all share something in common beyond just their progressive policies. “Bluntly, a lot what they’ve been doing is just going after women of color,” Rep. Pocan said on the phone. “I believe the reason I’m even thrown into the loop is because I’m a white guy, which gives them a bit of cover.” Because the women of color in the Squad are high-profile, Pocan added, it allows AIPAC to fundraise even further off of their own attacks.

Sometimes, those attacks have been so merciless that they’ve drawn ire from Democratic leadership. AIPAC once ran ads with Ilhan Omar’s face photoshopped next to Hamas rockets, a campaign which quickly resulted in her receiving death threats. Even after a rare rebuke, in which Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, then the top two ranking Democrats, vocally condemned the ads, AIPAC refused to take them down. It actually put more money into them; the ads continued to run for months.

As the 2024 election cycle ramps up, it looks likely that AIPAC and its affiliated super PACs will again put millions of dollars into knocking off incumbent progressives, a move that very much threatens Democrats’ path to retaking a House majority. But so far, Democratic leadership has refused to publicly discourage the Republican-allied group from messaging against Democratic incumbents or backing challengers. After the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC began running ads against Rashida Tlaib, and AIPAC’s United Democracy Project PAC bought their own airtime attacking Bowman and Lee for their votes on Israel, Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries mustered only a tepid response: “Outside groups are gonna do what outside groups are gonna do. I think House Democrats are going to continue to support each other.”

That’s not going to solve the issue of a Republican-funded organization intervening in Democratic politics. “AIPAC’s agenda touches Israel, but is more just a subsidiary aspect of the Republican Party broadly,” Pocan said. “As someone who has come out”—Pocan is openly gay—AIPAC “should just come out as a Republican organization,” Pocan added. “It’s great, because you can live your life openly.” AIPAC has not yet purchased ads condemning Pocan. Neither has the group indicated that it is courting a primary challenger for Pocan’s Madison-area district.

But Pocan is determined to keep the pressure on because he believes the Republican-allied group is jeopardizing the Democrats’ shot at retaking a majority—an aim that goes far beyond just Israel policy. “It’s not something I would normally do,” Pocan said about his online posting. “My office would probably prefer that I don’t have access to my Twitter.”