Day one at this year’s AIPAC conference saw the usual desultory Haredi demonstrators outside the Washington Convention Center venue with their placards denouncing the meeting. “Choose to Lead” is the AIPAC motto for 2018. There are 18,000 attendees, a figure slightly up from last year’s, including 3,600 students.
Never mind the annual orchestrated hoopla of the big staged events, with keynote speakers including all the predictable big names: vice president Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Bibi Netanyahu. It’s in the breakout sessions with experts, writers and intellectuals that you get to feel the pulse of AIPAC and its members.
In the “Regional Outlook: The Middle East in 2018” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), joking about how the Alaskan Jewish community refer to themselves as the “frozen chosen,” was optimistic about Israel’s relations with neighbors who had, until quite recently, been enemies. This moment offered a “unique opportunity” as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states align with Israel against a common threat—Iran. Reuven Azar, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, echoed this, speaking of what he labeled Israel’s “iceberg strategy”—many things are happening under the radar. The only existential threat Israel currently faces is a nuclear Iran—and there is an urgent need to have UN inspections of their facilities and to stop the Iranians from building Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles.
It was standing room only at the Eilat Stage in the AIPAC Village arena where Dr. Daniel Gordis, Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem (Israel’s first liberal arts college), posed the question “Why a Jewish State?” In 1896 Theodore Herzl had thought that if there were a state for the Jews, anti-Semitism would disappear. Jews would finally be freed from living at the mercy of others. He got that wrong! This year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded the highest level of anti-Semitism since they began collecting data. He expressed his utter dismay at the recent sight of placards saying “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville and that there was no wholehearted condemnation of this from Washington.
But today Jews all over the world know that there is a place for them—Israel has enabled Jews “to be actors in history.” Nowadays Kurds, Basques, Chechens, Catalonians, Native Americans and even Palestinians look enviously at what Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—has delivered. They see that a people can be reconstituted by sovereignty and how this has changed the existential condition of the Jewish people all over the world.
While acknowledging that there is fierce criticism of Israel by some young people, he suggested they should examine how Judaism has stood up for so many of the issues they champion. For example, the Bible condoned slavery but the rabbis deemed it unacceptable; the Ketubah was a revolutionary document ensuring women were not treated as property which could be abandoned. Current Progressive infatuation with the Palestinian cause struck him as an anomaly. In Gaza, if you have sex outside of marriage your brother can shoot you. There is no freedom of the speech, no free press, no women’s or gay rights. The recent phenomenon of intersectionality is “in certain circles, the latest manifestation of anti-Semitism.”
There is a litany of issues which one can criticize Israel about—the lack of pluralism, the influence of the Haredim, that there is no separation between “shul and state” and the need to find funding for Conservative and Reform schools amongst others. But if you say “to hell with it, I’m walking away,” it means you never cared about Israel all that much in the first place.
What is it about the annual AIPAC meeting that attracts attendees from far and wide? Joel Burnie, Associate Director of Public Affairs at AIJAC (Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council) had flown in all the way from Melbourne. “Networking is off the charts for me here. The policy conference is the biggest pro-Israel event in the calendar—it’s unparalleled in size and brings together the best and most comprehensive list of experts, speakers and pro-Israel personalities. I am proud to represent Australia at the conference and can’t wait to meet, mingle and celebrate Israel and its special relationship with the United States.”
AIPAC’s star studded cast of speakers, and access to phenomenal networking opportunities, remains unrivalled. Israel’s detractors might wish it otherwise, but there is no sign that, as some have suggested, AIPAC’s influence and reputation is on the decline.