As 14,000 Israel lovers convened Sunday in Washington for AIPAC’s annual policy conference, critics rejoiced that the Big Bad Jewish Lobby was on the ropes, while still claiming the the only reason the US supports Israel is AIPAC. In exaggerating AIPAC’s power while minimizing it, the clashing caricatures rest on subtleties only bigots can believe. Yet, attending my second policy conference, as an invited speaker not a member, I am again struck by what I called last year the sweetness of AIPAC. Rather than the meeting of a political cabal, a Jewish Skull-and-Bones society, this is an all-American, red-white-and-blue-mixes-with-the-blue-and-white, Zionist hootenanny – in both meanings of that Scottish word: as a rousing, joyous, pro-Israel celebration and a true meeting of the minds.
I am not naïve. Times are tough. Russia’s military intervention into the Ukraine is yet another example of the weakness President Barack Obama frequently broadcasts abroad – except when it comes to bullying Israel. Obama’s recent interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg made it clear. This politician, whom many partisan Democrats still call Israel’s best friend ever, sees Israel as the obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Obama believes Israel needs to be intimidated into a peace deal, while viewing Mahmoud Abbas, as “sincere” in his readiness “to shun violence, to resolve these issues in a diplomatic fashion that meets the concerns of the people of Israel.”
Obama is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic; making those accusations demeans the accuser. But he believes Israel needs “tough love” to force it to save itself. He has not learned from the history of peace processing that Israel is most daring about compromising when Israelis feel safe not bullied. Moreover Obama and John Kerry have failed to explain why “peace is possible” at this time given Palestinian extremism, nihilism, and exterminationism.
Moreover, rather than understanding that the Iranian sanctions bill AIPAC along with many Democratic legislators loyal to Obama supported, was a gift, Obama lashed out at those who dared to cross him. A shrewd negotiator who wished to pressure Iran would appreciate having a tough sanctions bill looming, playing presidential good cop to congressional bad cop. But Obama will not even condemn Iranian fanaticism, saying: “I’m not big on extremism generally,” and considering Iran’s behavior “strategic” and “not impulsive.”
Despite worries about these issues, AIPAC’s three-day Israel lovefest was neither frustrated nor bitter. The program repeatedly emphasized the broad and deep ties linking the United States and Israel, and the many ways in which Israeli and American values, interests, and destinies overlap – often reinforcing one another. Bathed in all this bipartisanship, watching Republicans and Democrats express their support for Israel, reminded us all that America itself needs more common issues that build consensus.
The AIPAC conference is often exhilarating, enabling Israel’s fans to stop defending Israel and simply celebrate it. In the mass forums serious policy speeches delivered by political heavyweights alternated with compelling, well-produced, feel good moments: an African-American preacher from Chicago’s South Side of Chicago tells how he imported community-building techniques from embattled Sderot to his beleaguered community, then leads the crowd in a roof-raising Gospel chorus; Israeli entrepreneurs showcase their innovations that help the blind to “read” and police officers to “see” through walls, showing, the moderator Brian Abrahams notes, that Israel is a major force for good in the world.
“AIPAC is an expression of my Zionism,” says Ronald Gold of New Jersey, a Young Judaean and longtime AIPAC supporter. “It is a chance to make a difference with an organization that has an impact.” Gold is right. This is Zionism 101 – supporting Israel as a vehicle of Jewish dignity, self-determination and activism,
Alas, amid the celebrations, the threat against Israel looms in the background. Gold adds: “we have waited 2000 years for a modern Jewish state, and I question how I''d live with myself if I didn''t do what I could to keep it sustained.” The Iranian bomb is a constant concern. The far left betrayal, whereby anti-Zionism has become The Trendiest Hatred, burdens the many liberals who attend. I had a poignant interaction in my session on “Tough Questions People Ask About Israel,” with an LGBT activist who finds it easier to be “out” about being a Lesbian than a Zionist. She asked about “pinkwashing,” the absurd claim that Israel uses its progressive stance on gays to justify its regressive stance on Palestinians. Clearly, the Blame Israel Firsters abhor complexity and have so demonized Israel they can acknowledge nothing good about it. I said, sarcastically, “Yes, of course. Israelis sat around and thought, ‘hmm, how can we trick American Progressives into thinking we are ok? We know: Let’s anger our ultra-Orthodox neighbors and pretend to be pro-gay!’” We laughed, but it nevertheless hurts to see how assuming Israel is evil has become a defining tenet on the Far Left.
Still, the weather inside the cavernous Washington Convention Center was mostly sunny, despite the blustery wintery weather outside. AIPAC’s policy conference has become so big only in the last few years, reflecting a most welcome outreach strategy, and it works. I know of no other Jewish conference that has so many parents and grandparents bringing their children and grandchildren along to learn. I know of no other Jewish conference that is so welcoming to non-Jews, with white Evangelical Christians from the Right and African-American ministers from the Left uniting in their shared love of Israel. I know of no other Jewish conference that is so much fun, so mission-driven, and so well-run. And I know of no other Jewish conference that so effectively reminds us how lucky we are, Jew and non-Jew alike, to live in a world with a strong Israel – blessed by a strong American-Israel friendship.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!