A British Jew in AIPAC’s court

The idealized image of Israel which I sensed at AIPAC allows for doubt to be dismissed.

The White House 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The White House 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Washington, DC, is a striking place. The sense of power is palpable and projected, most notably by the string of federal buildings lining the Mall from Capitol Hill down to the Lincoln Memorial. The monuments scattered across the Mall share this role. No understated plaques here. Certainly no modern British, dare I say, reserve.
Washington 2012 is how I imagine London would have felt in 1912 at the height of the Empire. An unshakeable confidence and, what’s more, a willingness to project that confidence. No shame here. No doubt. And what’s more, no room for either. In many ways a fitting setting for AIPAC Policy Conference.
Perhaps naively, I arrived at the influential pro-Israel American lobby group’s annual conference imagining something akin to a traditional British political party conference. I was very wrong. Debate? Discussion? Not a bit of it. As with the city in which it’s held, there’s no room for doubt here.
The AIPAC Policy Conference isn’t really a policy conference. It’s more a three-day preparation event for the lobbying trips on the final morning. Those who come are already believers, waiting to be preached to before heading off to Capitol Hill. There is no discussion of narrative, no debate about solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and certainly no constructive criticism of Israel. Not that there is anything wrong with that. In fact, quite the opposite.
AIPAC doesn’t dress itself up to be anything other than a lobby group, with an incredibly narrow focus; to promote the message that Israel’s national security is inextricably linked to that of the US. But that narrow focus takes confidence. To be able to ignore the competing narratives with which we are barraged on a daily basis; to resist deviating from message; to stick to your own basic points and ignore others – that requires a single- mindedness that can only come from an absolute belief that you are right. An absolute belief born from something intangible.
And that is, I believe, where the significance difference between Anglo and American Jewry’s relationship with Israel lies. I was surprised, actually shocked, at AIPAC’s conference at how little tangible connection many of the people I spoke to had with Israel. A few had only been there once, often for a bar mitzvah trip, and others hadn’t been for many years.
In many ways, I got the distinct impression that Israel was more a concept than a real place for many American Jews. And the difference is that a concept can be idealized in a way that a real place cannot. Americans clearly see echoes of their own history in Israel’s. We should not underestimate how powerful that is.
Brits, on the other hand, have a very tangible link to the Jewish state. Many have second homes there, nearly all have visited and many spend Pesach there every year. Our youth movements take over 1,200 sixteen-year-olds to Israel for a month every summer and hundreds on year-long program. Our real-life connection is strong – warts and all.
The idealized image of Israel which I sensed at AIPAC allows for doubt to be dismissed. It allows a single-mindedness which we seem to lack in the British Jewish community. And that lack of singlemindedness distinctly affects the way in which we approach Israel advocacy.
Take “lobbying,” for instance. In the UK it’s seen as a dirty word. “The Israel Lobby” is a term of abuse, conjuring images of shadowy dealings. So you can imagine my surprise as I arrived at AIPAC and not only was there a “Lobbying Helpdesk” but regular presentations on the big screens entitled “Lobbying in One Minute.” The difference is that if you are as sure of your message, as AIPAC delegates are, lobbying isn’t some clandestine act of persuasion, but rather a promotion of the simple truth. Why be ashamed of it?
I assume you think I’m about to argue that Brits should adopt this model. But I’m not. There have been a lot of comments recently about the mainstream British Jewish community’s approach to Israel’s advocacy.
The term “trembling Israelite” seems to rear its head ever so frequently. But these accusations are made by those whose ideal scenario would appear to be one in which British Jews spend their time squaring up to anti-Israel activists on street corners.
The fact is that the UK is not the US. Politicians here have different interests and the political climate is not that of Washington. The British public do not have an ideological and historical affinity to the Jewish state in the way that Americans do. British advocates for Israel take a more nuanced approach because we have to. The level of anti-Israel activity here is so much higher than the US (although even there anti-Israel activity is increasing, particularly on campus) and the approach that those activists take so sophisticated, that a blind, idealized view of Israel simply would not cut the mustard. Those supporting Israel need to be armed with a more nuanced set of tools.
It is this more nuanced approach that critics looking in from the outside mistake for “trembling.” For all the tremendous work that AIPAC does, its delegates simply do not possess this nuance. If you’re so focused on the narrow messaging of your organization that you’ve never heard of the Oslo Accords, as one young AIPAC campus delegate I spoke to hadn’t, how can you be expected to confront criticism of Israel from its most staunch enemies? And that’s the key; AIPAC doesn’t expect you to confront that criticism.
AIPAC was an eye opening experience. The scale, the single-mindedness, the belief. I went expecting to be able to bring back ideas and techniques for Israel advocacy at the Board of Deputies that could be applied to the situation in the UK. Instead I returned not with new ideas, but with a far better understanding of what we already have.
The writer is the public affairs officer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.