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A Report from AIPAC’s 2008 Policy Conference

Philip Weiss
Fall 2008

I have to hand it to AIPAC. I am a non-Zionist Jew, and AIPAC knew my politics, but I still got press credentials to attend its June 2008 policy conference in Washington. I was there from start to finish, and count it as a real privilege. The lobbying group is famously well-heeled, and I even got free meals, down to chocolate-covered strawberries. Most of them I ate sitting next to a non-Zionist therapist who is trying to encourage a healing dialogue between Israel supporters and critics. She was at the conference from beginning to end, too.  
The policy conference advertises itself as one of the largest gatherings in Washington, with the Israeli head of state in attendance (then Ehud Olmert), and leading American political figures from Condi Rice to Barack Obama to John McCain, and many people have asked me what it was like. The answer is, a revival meeting set in Las Vegas. A feeling of complete devotion dominates all the proceedings. People outdo one another in declaring their love of Israel and hatred of its enemies. Unlike an accountants’ convention or political conventions, no one is there to promote themselves. No: they are devoted to a faraway cause as noble in their eyes as the first foreign issue I remember from my own boyhood, helping the starving Biafran children. Only in this case, it is the survival and future of endangered Israel. The atmosphere is both unquestioning and unquestionable. For while I often enjoy tangling with pro-Israel promoters about Israeli history or its conduct in the West Bank, at AIPAC I kept my head down. There was such a religious feeling in the air, it seemed crazy or even disrespectful to challenge the mood. My mother raised me to be well-behaved on those few occasions when I went into someone else’s house of worship. And so I marveled.  
“Jewish Interest” in American Politics  
It is remarkable to reflect that not 50 years ago there was not a “Jewish interest” in American politics. Non-Zionism was still an element of Jewish life, and it held that Judaism was a religion not a political allegiance. In the early 1960s, the American Council for Judaism sought to have fledgling AIPAC registered as a foreign agent and argued that Zionism has no hold on “the grass-roots of American Jews.” (The story is told in the recent book on AIPAC’s birth: America’s Defense Line, by Grant F. Smith.)  
All that has changed. Here I sat amid 5000-odd Americans whose deepest concern is a foreign country and who would insist at the same time that they are acting in American interests. The concern pervades all the events. Israelis are accorded great applause just for living their lives there. Mini documentaries narrating Israeli individual achievements against great odds — anti-Semitism, dislocation, the desert, malicious Arabs — are played with you-can-hear-a-pin-drop attention from the audience. Conference-goers are handed a soft-cover book the size of a small telephone book, titled Commitment Matters, with scores of full-page portraits of AIPAC donors, who offer their reasons for giving to AIPAC. Several ideas keep cropping up: The Holocaust touched my family, we have so much freedom in the West but I need to pass Jewishness on to the next generation, and most of all, we have to “ensure” Israel’s future. The word “ensure” is used on almost every page. So many times I began to circle each use.  
The ensure theme is sounded on the AIPAC stage. “It is we that are the guardians of that relationship,” AIPAC president David Victor said. While James Tisch, the Loews executive, warned the conference that if it weren’t for them, it might be 1939 all over again. As if the Holocaust now threatens Israel.  
The first thing that must be said about these statements is that serious people are making them and they reflect a tremendous responsibility. Imagine that tomorrow you were handed the feeding tube for an entire country! This is truly the way that AIPAC leaders feel from one day to the next.  
Shift in Orientation of Western Jewry  
The next thing to be said is that these attitudes represent a profound shift in the orientation of Western Jewry. In 1950, David Ben-Gurion assured the American Jewish community that Israel was not a threat to our position in the West, nor was Israel dependent upon us. But dependence has been the norm. The 1948 war of independence called on the assistance of Zionists in the United States in defiance of American laws barring military aid, and after the 1967 and 1973 wars, when Israel’s existence seemed to hang in the balance, the matter took on tremendous urgency. Young American Jews were summoned to serve Israel, if not by making aliyah (emigration to Israel) by advocating for the Jewish state in the corridors of power.  
The 1967 generation is the one that dominates AIPAC. And it senses itself to be the only thing standing between a flourishing Western society and its disappearance into a sea of mad Arabs. As Alan Dershowitz has written, “My generation of Jews was too young to fight against Nazism or for Israeli independence, too American to make aliyah ... too comfortable to put our bodies on the line for anything Jewish. Instead, we ... became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fundraising effort in the history of democracy.”  
I’d never question anyone’s sincerity at AIPAC, it was the motivation that seemed so deluded. It is a long time since 1973 when Israel was invaded by Egypt and Syria. The Arab nations have repeatedly stated that they would accept Israel’s existence in the pre-¬67 boundaries. In 1988 the Palestinians said that they could accept the existence of a Jewish state that takes up more than three-quarters of the historical Palestine. Yet all these bodies have made an absolute condition of the fair treatment of the Palestinians and of their right to self-determination. Even Iran’s Ahmadinejad, who has made such disturbing comments about Israel, has said that if the Palestinians achieve a modus¬-vivendi with Israel, so will he.  
Complex and Perplexing  
These issues are complex and perplexing. Arab rage brought down the Twin Towers, and our response to it has entangled the United States in a disastrous war in Iraq. But the atmosphere in the AIPAC hall was uncomplicated. The U.S. must stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel in the fight against radical Islam. We are in the same fight. And that lack of complexity is demanded of AIPAC’s guests: Barack Obama understands that. So do McCain, Condi Rice, John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi. At one point the Speaker of the House stood before the crowd holding up dogtags she had been given in Israel, with the names of Israeli soldier hostages on them. I wonder how often Pelosi has held up the dogtags of American soldiers?  
The fundamental confusion AIPAC produces is the confusion of American and Israeli interests, the idea that these two far-apart countries in such different conditions can be more than just friends, but completely congruent, so there is no contradiction between being pro-American and being pro-Israel. The suggestion that AIPAC promotes dual loyalty is offensive to most Zionists. They say that there is no contradiction between loyalty to the U.S. and Israel. But in fact the strong feeling of the gathering is that their loyalties are true and pure and flowing always toward Israel. Every Israeli story that is presented is a success story. And the American politicians who support Israel are called out in auctioneer style, in the famous Roll Call. When the two national anthems are played, one after the other, the giant room fairly explodes when it comes to the Hatikvah.  
I understand how Zionists have gotten themselves into this commanding position. Theirs is a historical movement that began with the rise of modern anti-Semitism in the 1880s and the Dreyfus trial in the 1890s. At that time, Jewish progress in Europe met great resistance. My ancestors chose to get out, and they were the lucky ones. The fact that Herzl turned out to be such an accurate diagnostician of the European malady gave his prescription — a Jewish state — historical inevitability. For many members of the international community, it seemed a legitimate response to the Holocaust. And if I’d been around in the 20s and 30s, in my family’s milieu of Poland/Russia/the Lower East Side, I’m sure I would have flirted with the Zionist movement myself.  
Invested in Israel’s “Old Glories”  
But that’s a long time ago. The people in the AIPAC convention hall are still invested in the old glories of Israel. On the cover of the Commitment Matters book are photographs of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. I bet many young Jews would have no idea who these people are. The AIPAC legions have not grown up, as their children have, with images of Palestinian protesters being shot and reports of the latest U.N. Security Council resolution that Israel has flouted. Ian Lustick, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, has lately written that Israel’s militant defiance of its neighbors might have made strategic sense for a while, but that policy has curdled after three generations of expansion into bone-deep Arab enmity. And meantime Israel’s leaders seem to lack any vision of how to imagine a better future than endless war with the Muslim world, which has left Israel a “failed European fragment” and “pariah state.”  
As I write this, of course, the U.S. is coming under a drumbeat of pressure from the Zionist community to bomb Iran. Israel’s difficulties with its neighbors never end. Nor our responsibility to take its side. Though happily, in September 2008, the Congressional leadership tabled an AIPAC-sponsored resolution calling for a virtual blockade of Iran after grass-roots opposition arose to the measure, calling it a provocation to war. That opposition included progressive Jewish groups, and an alternative lobby to AIPAC — J Street.  
Sadness of AIPAC Event  
That to me was the great sadness of the AIPAC event. Israel is in a corner. American Jews are not. Our children have a good (but challenging) future. We have many ways of imagining our future, including a “postracial” president and increasing freedom for minorities. You’d think that we might impart some of those ideas to the Israelis. No. The people in the hall park their own experience at the door. They seem to feel guilty about the fact that they have only given money, not put their own lives on the line by moving to Israel. And they will never question what their betters are doing. This gives the American Zionist community the aura of Communists in the 1940s and 50s: true blue party members who couldn’t see what Stalin was doing in the Soviet Union because they maintained a romance about that country in their minds.  
Like other beliefs that are so counter to reality, this one is bound to shatter. And when it does, the great challenge to those of us who have so honorably fought that delusion will be a Jewish one: to show compassion. •

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