For the 18,000 Israel supporters who came to Washington, D.C., this week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference was like a family reunion or a gathering of old friends, where everyone sticks to comfortable topics and tries to avoid provoking barely concealed disagreements.
After years of growing affinity to Republicans in Congress as the lobby played hardball against the Obama administration’s Iran deal, AIPAC needed to reaffirm its bipartisan and centrist credentials, even as the new administration of President Donald Trump was signaling that it would move a bit slower on promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and tear up the Iran deal than what had been conveyed during his campaign.
Many attending the three-day conference were Democrats who had voted for President Barack Obama.
“It’s great to be with a few thousand people who have some basic views you have,” said Jon S. Levinson, a Democratic Party and Jewish community activist in the San Francisco area.
“People are disappointed with Trump,” he said. “He put a hold on the Jerusalem embassy. What people don’t realize is that the issue between Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was settlements. It wasn’t their personalities.”
For the most part, the speakers and sessions limited themselves to educational topics and feel-good Israeli innovation rather than the policy that is the conference’s middle name.
“I think a lot of people are joining together more this year without the political unrest of last year,” said Baila Jacobson of Baltimore after the Maryland Lobby Caucus meeting on Monday morning at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where most events took place.
Outside of the convention center, separate protests against AIPAC were disrupted by members of the Jewish Defense League (more on that here). But those inside felt those protests were the minority.
“I think it’s incredible to have close to 20,000 people here for the same vision: strengthening and protecting the relationship with Israel,” said Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5).
Despite a general consensus that the conference was more unifying this year, Jacobson’s husband, Murray, said he could still feel some tension around certain issues, especially on Sunday night when Vice President Mike Pence spoke.
Pence gave what amounted to a textbook AIPAC speech to close out the conference’s first day. In an address that clocked in at just under 20 minutes, Pence affirmed American support for Israel, spoke of his personal admiration for the Jewish state — “the songs of the land and the people of Israel were the anthems of my youth,” he said — and assured the audience at the Verizon Center that he and Trump would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
But Pence briefly departed from the collection of familiar pro-Israel tropes when he discussed a commitment that candidate Trump made at last year’s conference on the same floor of the Verizon Center in Washington, when Trump said, “We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people — Jerusalem.”
“After decades of talking about it, the president of the United States is giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Pence said Sunday to raucous applause for what actually amounted to a step back from Trump’s declaration.
Pence then turned to the Iran nuclear deal, which AIPAC heavily lobbied against and has criticized since its approval in 2015. Pence said that Iran now has additional nuclear weapons they have developed due to the “disastrous” deal and that the United States “will no longer tolerate Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and jeopardize Israel’s security. Our commitment to Israel’s defense is non-negotiable. Not now, not ever,” he said.
Rep. Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, also heavily criticized the Iran nuclear deal as an “unmitigated disaster” when he spoke the following evening. He highlighted Trump’s commitment to Israel as “sacrosanct,” saying the president would repair the damage done by the Obama administration.
“These past eight years, they’ve been tough,” he said. “Our friendship has been tested. No single political spat or public disagreement can sever our historic alliance with Israel, but I think the actions of this past administration damaged this trust.”
Another crowd-pleasing topic turned out to be newly appointed diplomats David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the latter of whom was name-dropped by both Pence and Ryan. Friedman’s nomination drew opposition on Capitol Hill because of his support of Israel’s settlement movement and for damning American Jewish opponents of settlements using the pejorative “kapos.”
Pence praised Haley’s leadership in the international body for condemning a report that accused Israel of being an apartheid state.
“Ambassador Haley is already fighting tirelessly to end the one-sided actions of the U.N. that unfairly target Israel. And under President Trump, the United States will no longer allow the United Nations to be used as a forum for invective against Israel or the West,” he said.
If there was a star at the conference, it was Haley, who spoke on Monday night. She said the United States had “started leading again” since Trump became president, again criticized the Iran deal and took a hard line on the Palestinian Authority.
She also vowed that another resolution like U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which the Obama administration abstained from in December, would never pass the Security Council again. The resolution, which angered AIPAC and many at the conference as anti-Israel, called on Israel to cease building in territories it has controlled since 1967.
“The days of Israel-bashing are over,” Haley said. “We have a lot of things to talk about. There are a lot of threats to peace and security. But you’re not going to take our No. 1 democratic friend in the Middle East and beat up on them.”
Fifth-time conference-goer Kenneth Fils said he liked what he heard about Israel from the White House.
“I’m not necessarily Republican, although I’m very happy about Trump’s feelings about Israel and Nikki Haley,” said Fils, a Chicago resident. “What I really like is the pushback to Iran about what’s going on there and the pushback to the United Nations, because it’s such garbage.”
The conference’s slogan was “Many voices, one mission,” and Ellen Kahan Zager of Baltimore felt like she was hearing that diversity. “People come [to AIPAC] from all around the world, with all different backgrounds, but you also have a lot of people who are not Jews.”
Adrienne Potter Yoe, director of Israel and Jewish advocacy at the Baltimore Jewish Council, said she could tell the conference was trying to incorporate diverse voices, including progressive ones. She pointed to Daniel Hernandez Jr., an openly gay Arizona State representative who declared himself a progressive for Israel and whose primary issue is gun control. (Hernandez was an intern in the office of then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she was injured in the 2011 shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. He is credited with saving her life.)
The conference appears to be “making a real effort to make the left not feel that [AIPAC] is going totally right,” she said.
Between the marquee speakers were smaller sessions, most geared toward neophyte rather than veteran Israel supporters: “Egypt: A Primer,” “Yemen: What’s going on and why does it matter?” “Stories from the founding of the Jewish state,” “What can Israeli democracy teach the world,” “Iran Primer,” “Syria: A Primer.”
Others celebrated Israel as a startup nation, much as the country was once lauded for its kibbutzim and drip-irrigation technology: “Israel’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” “Israeli innovations in action,” “The politics of Israeli wine” (with wine tasting).
At the coffee bar next to the AIPAC Village on Sunday, historian Gil Troy was telling a clutch of people how Jews need to shake themselves from the “oys” of Jewish life and refocus on Jews’ success stories, such as Israel.
“If you have a session on Iran, it’s packed. If you have a session on how the Palestinians hate us, it’s packed. If you have a session on Zionism — well, thanks for coming,” he told them before taking the group back to the Jews’ earliest connections with Israel.
Connections with Israel can also be forged at the conference, especially for young Jews. Beth Tfiloh had more than 160 people affiliated with the synagogue and school at the conference, the largest school delegation in attendance. Sophomores Tali Burman and Toby Berman were making the most of their time and looking forward to lobbying on Tuesday.
“Last year as a freshman, I didn’t care too much about it. [This year], I had this shell of U.S.-Israel relations, but now I know more for when I go on campus,” Burman said, referring to activism on college campuses around Palestinians and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Berman agreed with her friend. “Growing up, you just learn to love Israel no matter what,” she said. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that much about Israel, and I have learned so much and feel like I can have a real conversation about Israel now.”
Israel’s Problems Become Jews’ Problems
It’s been said that AIPAC’s Policy Conference, the largest American-Jewish event, is not necessarily a Jewish event as it deals only with support for
Israel. That is no longer true.
With the concern about growing anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States and the BDS movement against Israel at the top of many Jewish groups’ agendas, the line between bad things happening in Israel and bad things happening to Jews elsewhere has blurred.
In a session called “When criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism,” Ira Forman, Obama’s special envoy at the State Department to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, offered the U.S. formula: Criticism may be anti-Semitic when Israel is delegitimized, demonized and treated with a double standard.
“We are not going to solve the problem of anti-Semitism,” he said. But the level of anti-Semitism can be lowered. To do that, Jews need allies and interfaith coalitions. “We need civil society to deal with it,” he said.
But what about Linda Sarsour, an audience member asked. The prominent Palestinian-American activist was an organizer of the Women’s March on Washington in January. When headstones were toppled in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis in February, she launched an effort among Muslim Americans that raised in excess of $100,000 to repair the gravestones. It was an unprecedented outpouring of support from Muslim Americans to American Jews.
Sarsour is also a vocal critic of Israel’s military and civilian presence in East Jerusalem and what most of the world calls the West Bank, Judea and Samaria.
Forman, who appeared unfamiliar with Sarsour, said, “If she’s using boycott language [rather than calling for an end to Israel’s existence], I’d work with her. We’re going to have to make some alliances.”
But in another BDS session, Benjamin Weinthal, a journalist with the Jerusalem Post and a research fellow at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, accused a multitude of groups in Europe of using Israel as a “human punching bag.” Welcoming refugees, some of whom harbor anti-Israel views, could make things worse.
“I understand these concerns,” he said of the refugee struggle. “At the same time, the influx of refugees is going to increase anti-Semitism [in Europe] and will give a shot in the arm to the anti-Israel mood in these countries where there are tens of thousands of demonstrators who appear any time there’s a conflict in Gaza.”
Until almost the end, the policy conference avoided one contentious policy: the two-state solution to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel through a negotiated settlement.
Until Trump’s inauguration, the two-state solution was clear U.S. policy. Now it is ambiguous. Similarly, AIPAC, too, has introduced a degree of ambiguity on its position. In November, it removed two states from its list of principles on the main page of its website. After a negative response, it reaffirmed its support for the principle.
On Sunday, the term “two states” was missing from the list of principles displayed on the jumbotron above the thousands in the Verizon Center. Then executive director Howard Kohr reaffirmed AIPAC’s support.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California read to the conference a letter in support of the two-state solution signed by 189 House Democrats and two Republicans. The letter’s backer was AIPAC’s rival, J Street.