By George Altshuler, David Holzel, Hannah Monicken and Dan Schere
For the 18,000 Israel supporters who came to Washington, D.C., this week, the 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 voted for President 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 didn’t realize is that settlements was the issue between Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. 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.
“It’s a little boring this year,” said Deborah Parness of Silver Spring, Md.
Outside of the convention center, separate protests against AIPAC were disrupted by members of the Jewish Defense League.
Parness and her husband, Avner, came to AIPAC to show their support for Israel, not for those in power there or in Washington.
“I would like to see Netanyahu replaced,” said Avner, who was born in Israel.
On March 26, Vice President Mike Pence gave what amounted to a textbook, but popular, AIPAC speech to close out the conference’s first day. In a just-under 20-minute address, 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.
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 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.
The crowd again rose to its feet when Pence namedropped newly appointed diplomats David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. 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 March 27. She said the United States had “started leading again” since Trump became president, 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 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 Fils said he was hearing many voices. “They seem to be more open to a greater variety of ideas, and that’s one of the things I like about this conference.”
Fils came to the conference with his girlfriend, Karen Andalman. She, too, said she had been hearing diverse viewpoints, but she had no use for Pence’s address.
“I really thought he was a puppet,” she said. “Everything was President Trump this, President Trump that. Very scripted. I didn’t feel he had any new great thoughts related to Israel.”
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 start-up 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 March 26, 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.
Back out in the AIPAC Village, 17-year-old Emily Greenspan was having lunch with friends, fellow students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
“I want to learn,” she said of why she was attending the conference. “I’m educating myself and learning other people’s opinions.”
Her friend Liat Dorani, 17, said that when they graduate from high school, they’re going to leave “this bubble” of pro-Israel comfort. For her, being at the conference comes down to basic education. “If someone asks me about Israel, I want to be able to answer the question,” she said.
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.
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. 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.”
The authors work for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.