LORAIN — When the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee held its annual lobbying conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, Tim Williams was among the 14,000 members participating.
Williams, Lorain Board of Education president, has volunteered for AIPAC since 2007. Williams, co-pastor of the Greater Victory Christian Ministries church, said he identifies with the struggles of American and Israeli Jews and was part of AIPAC’s outreach to black Christian ministers.
“There was a connection between the suffering of African Americans via slavery and other pieces, and very much another group of people who have probably been the most prejudice-recipient people in the world,” Williams said.
In recent years, the influence of AIPAC, founded in 1954, has been challenged. J Street, a liberal pro-Israel lobbying group, opposes Israel building settlements on former Palestinian land.
AIPAC opposes Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. It also wants Iran to eliminate its entire nuclear program, which U.S. policy does not seek. AIPAC in February withdrew strict suggested sanctions to Congress that the Obama administration opposed.
Nonetheless, along with the National Rifle Association and AARP, AIPAC remains one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the nation, able to mobilize thousands of volunteers and attract world leaders. This year’s conference included speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Williams noted political support for AIPAC and Israel, which receives about $3 billion in annual U.S. aid, is bipartisan. That includes Ohio’s congressional delegation.
Both U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, have attended AIPAC functions. “It’s about a lot of people who are single-minded as it relates to the security of Israel and its relationship with the United States,” Williams said.
AIPAC has been accused in the past of supporting positions that were not in the best of interests of the U.S., such as expanding settlements and invading Iraq.
“The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress,” John Mearshimer and Steven Walt wrote in 2006 in the London Review of Books in advance of their book, “The Israel Lobby.” “U.S. policy towards Israel is not debated there even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world.”
Williams responded that Israel’s security and its relationship with the U.S. isn’t subject to debate.
“I’ve been part of AIPAC through a Republican administration and a Democratic administration, and AIPAC pretty much stays the same,” he said. “They support and encourage support for the state of Israel.”
Williams said he’s encountered pro-Palestinian protesters at AIPAC conferences in the past, but he doesn’t engage them. He said his role at the conferences is to be an advocate for Israel, not to debate. Williams said AIPAC’s organized approach has made him a more disciplined, informed and focused school board member.
Williams said he had always identified with Israel through reading the Bible, but a 2009 visit to Israel paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation gave him a modern perspective. He heard Netanyahu speak in The Knesset — the Israeli parliament — toured the Dead Sea and also visited military checkpoints at the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Palestinian territories that Israel controls access to.
Williams also saw Israeli bomb shelters used during Palestinian rocket attacks. Palestinian suicide bombings have drastically decreased since a fence — Palestinians refer to it as the Apartheid Wall — was built along the West Bank border in 2004. Nonetheless, Williams said Israel remains a dangerous place.
“You felt like, wow, if you’re in enemy territory, it’s not an ocean away from you. It’s right next door,” he said. “You could feel that intensity.”
Williams said the “amazing” trip brought the Bible to life for him and he no longer related to Israelis only as people in a book. “You see them as real-life people and their struggle continues,” he said.
The visit came less than a year after Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli military, which said it was responding to Palestinian rocket attacks, killed about 1,400 Palestinians during the 22-day assault on Gaza. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were killed. Critics said it was an example of collective punishment and disproportionate use of force.
“Much of the destruction was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects,” the human rights group Amnesty International said in a report on the attacks.
Williams said the targeted killing of civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian, is unjustified. However, Williams said Israel’s right to self-protection is “not up for negotiations.”
Williams said comparisons between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the apartheid-era treatment of South African blacks by whites is unfair. Williams said he is sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians and sensitive to the treatment of Muslims in America.
Williams, who quit as Elyria YWCA youth program director at the end of 2013 to minister full time, was part of a YWCA anti-hate task force that has worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations Cleveland chapter, a Muslim civil rights group, to combat discrimination. Julia Shearson, the chapter’s executive director, said Williams helped bring in CAIR for anti-discrimination presentations.
CAIR has protested Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and opposes some of AIPAC’s stances, but Shearson said that hasn’t affected her relationship with Williams, whom she has known for about four years.
“He has a very open mind and he’s not afraid to cross boundaries to get people talking with each other,” she said. “I respect him tremendously.”
Williams said he supports a two-state solution with land swaps to end Israeli-Palestinian hostilities but isn’t an expert on the subject. He said both peoples deserve peace.
“Whatever we as citizens can do, we as a country can do, to support that effort, that’s where we need to continue our support and commitment,” Williams said.