Leader of the PAC
Ask a Northern Californian about Southern California, and
normally you’ll hear about everything that Southern California is lacking: lack
of public transportation and lack of culture. Or else you’ll hear about the
excess: excess of fancy cars and excess of pollution.
But ask San Franciscan Elliot Brandt about Los Angeles and
the Los Angeles Jewish community, and you won’t be able to put a stop to his
Since the 34-year-old moved here in April to become the
Western States director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, Brandt expressed nothing but admiration. “To see
the potential that is represented by the size of this Jewish community, the
dynamism and the passion of this community … it’s amazing,” Brandt said.
Reclining in his chair in his mid-Wilshire office with a bag
of Sun Chips in hand, the 6-foot-2 Brandt seems settled here after spending the
last few months meeting with top-level officials at Jewish organizations around
Since Brandt took over, AIPAC’s Southern Pacific region has
more than doubled its new member enrollment from 500 to 1,200. Brandt insists
that this is not his doing, but a natural communal response to the situation in
Israel. “That is Federation and synagogue leadership stepping up its
involvement,” he said.
Brandt’s public crediting of others is par for the course
for someone working at an organization that has alway put Israel before its
individual personalities. For the last 50 years, AIPAC, ranked by Fortune
magazine among the top five lobbying groups, has worked with all Israeli
administrations, and considers itself an apolitical group.
Southern California’s increased involvement “is different
communities across the spectrum, who come to the table with the idea that this
is no longer about politics of left or right, Labor or Likud, this is about
protecting Israel in a time of war,” said Brandt,Â sitting forward in his
chair, his relaxed tone changing pitch to passionate, as he tends to do when
Israel has been central in Brandt’s life from a young age.
In grade school, he wrote letters to the president protesting the sale of
Airborne Warning and Control System to the Saudis, and marched in Washington
for Soviet Jews. “We were there. It is something that I’ve grown up caring
about,” Brandt said about Israel and Jewish causes.
Brandt began his relationship with AIPAC when he entered Stanford
University. That’s when the first intifada broke out and anti-Israel sentiment
was rampant on campus. “It was a fairly raucous time on the campus. There were
a handful of us that saw protecting Israel, defending Israel, as our cause,”
But it was in 1991, the year after Brandt graduated college,
that his dedication to Israel was solidified. While participating in OTZMA, a
year-long fellowship program in Israel, talk of an impending war with Iraq
began. Brandt was faced with a difficult decision early on: whether or not to
His answer came to him after a young boy at Ramat Hadassah
youth village, a haven for underprivileged and abused children where he
volunteered much of his time, asked him on the eve of the Gulf War, “Are you
The question was simple, but the impression was lasting.
“Here was a kid who came from nothing, who had nothing, who had no choice but
to stay. And I had the opportunity to leave anytime, leaving him and Israel
behind. And I couldn’t,” he said.
And he hasn’t abandoned Israel since. For the past nine
years, Brandt has dedicated himself to AIPAC in San Francisco and was
instrumental in mobilizing the large, previously uninvolved, Israeli population
in the Silicon Valley, in addition to extending AIPAC’s influence into areas
with smaller Jewish populations, and training and empowering grassroots groups
at Northern California colleges and universities.
When AIPAC began to restructure its staff positions in
accordance with new intifada, the newly created position as Western States
director was yet another opportunity for Brandt who oversees the pro-Israel
political activity and strategy in California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Oregon,
Alaska and Hawaii. He supervises one staff person who heads satellite offices
in Seattle and Phoenix and the full staffs at AIPAC’s San Francisco and Los
Brandt characterizes his plan for mobilization as a very
“retail operation.” “We are going to go synagogue by synagogue, community by
community, we will speak in homes, in board rooms, in high schools, in
community centers. We will truly go wherever there is a willingness to step up
for Israel,” he said.
As for Los Angeles, Brandt believes that the influence of
the Jewish community lies in its numbers, not in its star power. “I don’t want
us, as an organization, spending lots of time tracking down or reaching out to
high-profile actors and actresses. It’s not a smart strategy,” Brandt said.
Instead, he is focusing on the entertainment community as a whole. He believes
that although their names may not have as much clout, for many, their support
for Israel is unwavering. “We’re going to get agents involved, and producers,
directors and lawyers, because these are people that are willing to take
stands, they’re willing to bring their friends into something that is
cause-related,” he said.
Some Los Angeles Jewish leaders find Brandt’s passion
inspiring. “From my vantage point he is a very positive influence on AIPAC,”
said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“He seems to be energetic and professional and he is a great colleague to work
with in terms of advocacy for Israel. It is nice to have a professional
colleague who sees his role in a broader context.”
Brandt’s outlook for the future is positive, but he warns
that the opposition is strong. He says that Arab lobby groups are smart and
that AIPAC has tripled its student budget in order to combat the anti-Israel
sentiment that has been rampant on campuses nation-wide. Working with students
to build coalitions with other student groups on campus, helping students
understand the workings of student government and student policy and making
sure that students are connected with the greater community so they don’t feel
alone, are just some of the plans that AIPAC has for campuses.
Brandt is also committed to reaching areas where there is a
far smaller Jewish presence than Los Angeles. “[Los Angeles] has an obligation
to build relationships with and support members of Congress from the South,
from the Midwest, from the mountain states. In essence we have to be part of
helping the Jewish communities in Mazula, Mont.; Visalia, Calif. and Sugarland,
For Brandt, the issue is not Southern California or Northern
California, left wing or right wing — the issue is the very existence of Israel.
“We’ve spent the last many thousands of years answering the question: ‘Are we
our brothers and sisters keepers?’ This is the time that demands an answer to
that question.” Â