An Israeli student’s journey to AIPAC

As an Israeli, I had heard about AIPAC, but – much to my embarrassment – never really understood the essence of the organization.

NEW YORK City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at AIPAC in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at AIPAC in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a delegation sent by Jerusalem’s Shalem College to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.
As an Israeli, I had heard about AIPAC, but – much to my embarrassment – never really understood the essence of the organization. During my time in Washington, I was staggered at the sight of the devoted masses of people working fervently to ensure that a strong Israel remains a top priority among US elected officials.
During our visit to the conference and the Shabbaton that took place before it, I noticed three major, intertwined concerns hovering over the crowds: left-wing antisemitism, the collapse of bipartisanship and the decline of Jewish support for Israel.
The American political arena has lately witnessed toxic antisemitic comments, masquerading as either “patriotic” or “progressive.” It was quite clear that the concern at the conference was focused specifically on the rise of leftist antisemitism. Perhaps this explains why the very first person to open the conference was a prominent African-American official from the Obama administration, Anton Gunn, who declared: “I’m a progressive liberal and I stand with AIPAC!”
The fear of leftist antisemitism is directly linked to another primary challenge. Israel was obsessively described as “one of the last strongholds of bipartisanship in the US.” But even though prominent Democratic leaders such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer delivered ardent Zionist speeches, the obsessive emphasis on bipartisanship subconsciously reaffirmed the fear that it is actually being undermined like never before.
Sadly, examples of the decline of Democratic support for Israel are becoming common. Democrats uttering antisemitic statements; Democratic presidential candidates deciding not to show up at AIPAC; and former president Obama hosting a gala for members of Congress on the same evening as the annual AIPAC congressional reception.
I learned that AIPAC activists are constantly being accused of dual loyalty, which is probably why speakers stressed not only why Israel is a Jewish or moral issue, but also why a strong Israel makes a strong America. Nuanced speakers even tended to stress that they stand with AIPAC, as opposed to Israel.
BEHIND THE scenes, we were exposed to yet another challenge: the changing of generations within the Jewish community. Supporters of pro-Israel organizations are unsuccessful in passing down these values, either because of assimilation or alienation due to Israel’s policies concerning the conflict and Jewish pluralism. During the Shabbaton, we heard a reform rabbi from New Jersey say that, “many different Jews are here – but you should also know that many Jews did not show up and will not show up.”
It was inspiring for me, as an Israeli, to learn the different methods AIPAC is using to tackle these issues. For instance, we learned that AIPAC successfully reaches out to new groups, such as Hispanics and African-Americans. Also, the committee acts on campuses all over the US to provide student leaders with tools and skills for political activism and pro-Israel values. The effectiveness of this outreach can be observed in the many ethnicities and ages present at the conference.
However, the most impressive feature I witnessed was lobbying day, when 10,000 activists arrived at Capitol Hill to attend meetings with their elected representatives.
Over time, it became clear that this power display was actually a staged play: AIPAC deliberately selected issues that are easy to agree with, and the activists who actually spoke were carefully chosen in advance. Nonetheless, this is still an effective and striking show, with a brilliant approach that says: “We talked for three days: Now it’s time to act.” In contrast to the rather sleepy civil lobbying scene in Israel, AIPAC exploits the American political system thoroughly.
After five days of speeches and conversations, I came to the conclusion that the AIPAC conference is actually a large and powerful fan club for Israel. Like any fan club, people spend time and money to talk about the object of their love, and to support one another when it is being attacked.
Eighteen thousand people with different opinions come together yearly to express solidarity with Israel, urging their elected representatives to strengthen ties with our tiny nation. The policy conference is only the tip of the iceberg, a culmination of relentless activity aiming to instill the importance of Israel-US ties.
This is not something that should pass unnoticed. As Israelis, we are simply unaware of these efforts, which are of vital importance to our country. I believe that our duty now is to make sure that Israelis are conscious of AIPAC’s work, and show the proper appreciation for its crucial activity.
For me, the experience was eye opening and thought provoking, and I thank Shalem College for the privilege of participating in it.
The writer is a junior in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Jerusalem’s Shalem College.