The writer is a research scholar with the Institute
for Jewish and Community Research. This article was first published by Jewish
Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com), and is reprinted with permission.
Few events in contemporary American Jewish life generate as much passion as the
annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC), held in Washington this year on May 22-24.
passions were evident outside the gigantic convention hall, where a small crowd
of protesters, ranging from CodePink on the Left to Neturei Karta on the Right,
was kept at bay by the police. Their cries, banging drums, and banners made
their sentiments clear, but the effect was as jarring as the contrast between
pink Tshirts and black kaftans .
Inside the hall, over 10,000 conference
participants presented a diametrically opposed vision, as well as passion of a
wholly different sort. The best way to view them may be in terms of a tribe or
In such a society, culture – knowledge, beliefs, values –
is transmitted between generations. At AIPAC, parents or teachers escorted
teenagers dressed uncomfortably in their Sabbath best; by the afternoon, most of
the boys’ shirts had come untucked, but few shuffled their feet or were unruly.
Close to 2,000 college students, Jewish and Christian, circulated in immense
packs and gathered in sessions designed especially for them. The thousands of
adults of all ages moved through the convention center with earnest resolve,
passing through security checks that grew progressively more stringent in the
runup to the arrival of the two major speakers, President Barack Obama and Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The robust intergenerational experience at
AIPAC emphatically rebuts an idea advanced in some quarters with deep anxiety,
in others with unseemly eagerness: that young American Jews are increasingly
alienated from Israel. Nor could the enthusiastic cross-generational sense of
identification with the Jewish state on display at AIPAC have been something
worked up for this one occasion. It is, rather, a tribute to the long-term
efficacy of the group’s clear message, its strong organization, and its
persistence in pursuit of its goal: creating connections among the next
generations of US Jewish leaders, American public figures and the state of
The nature of the message is important. AIPAC’s is simple: the
organization is the “voice of pro-Israel America;” Americans are in general
invited to make their voices heard in political life (a “pastime as American as
sports”); and the maintenance of a strong US-Israel relationship is vital to
Self-limitation is also important.
organizations, AIPAC does not preach, hector or demand that Israel adopt
specific policies of one stripe or another; instead, it scrupulously follows the
lead of the sitting Israeli government. Nor, unlike some American Jewish
organizations, is it involved with social, political or cultural issues outside
its core mission.
In contrast to J Street, which evidently aspires to be
the Jewish branch of the Democratic party, AIPAC represents itself as unaligned
with either American political party. Today the message is underlined in every
poster and photomontage: for every Republican figure standing alongside an AIPAC
representative, there is a Democrat, and vice-versa. At the conference itself,
both Democrats and Republicans were present in abundance.
interviews on the conference floor – notably those conducted by Jennifer Rubin
of The Washington Post – revealed both detractors and supporters of President
Obama. Although the contrasting receptions accorded the speeches by Obama (cool)
and Netanyahu (hot) may have suggested a different picture, these were less an
expression of predetermined attitudes than a reaction to substance – only when
the president qualifiedly called for Israel’s return to the pre-June 1967 lines
did the room fall silent.
AN AIPAC conference is a drama performed for a
select audience and designed to produce powerful feelings of closeness. Most
impressive in this respect were the plenary sessions and banquets that engaged
nearly the entire cohort of 10,000 attendees.
Next to the display of
intergenerational solidarity, nothing better illustrates the quality of AIPAC’s
success. Such ceremonies of reaffirmation are only imaginable if issues are
vividly defined, limited in number, and urgent enough to focus the emotions of
At a kind of parallel conference held in a hotel lobby across
the street, the movers and shakers in town for the event met one-on-one with
elected officials. Those meetings – the essence of Washington politics – were
visible to any passerby. Indeed, virtually all conference discussions took place
in the open and, despite the dire threats hanging over Israel today, were
conducted in a basically optimistic tone.
It may be these very qualities
that account for the fury AIPAC induces in its opponents both within the
American Jewish community and among its outside critics, the latter of whom
range from foreign-policy “realists” to anti-Semitic lunatics. To them, there
must be more at work than simply firing up members and turning them loose to
lobby Congress and attend events in their own communities. How could there not
be? In the eyes of its critics and enemies, the AIPAC conference is at best an
exercise in cynicism, a momentary drawing-back of the curtain to allow the
“Israel lobby” to flex its muscles publicly before returning to its nefarious
work as a shadowy cabal. But to perceive AIPAC and its conference in this way is
to misunderstand them entirely, if not deliberately. American Jews have a
business-like passion for American politics, but like anything else, that
passion has to be cultivated and sustained. If Israel were remotely as
bellicose, imperialist, theocratic, or plain evil as its critics propose,
neither American Jews nor Americans as a whole would support it.
opposite is the case. As poll after poll consistently shows, there is a
widespread and growing appreciation that US and Israeli interests are and should
remain politically aligned. And this is hardly a matter of shared interests
alone: As the same polls and many studies show, close ties between the US and
Israel are based not solely on perceptions of mutual security, let alone on
abstract ideas, but on tangible political, social and religious values shared by
These circumstances provide the best explanation for the
success of both AIPAC and the US-Israel relationship itself. It is, in
anthropological terms, a matter of shared knowledge, beliefs, and values – of,
in short, culture.