“I am pro-Israel; I am AIPAC.” Thus began the 2014 annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In an opening video clip, individuals of diverse backgrounds — Jewish, Christian, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, African-American, Hispanic, mothers, grandfathers, sons and daughters, college students, and even former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman — described their affiliation and love of the Jewish state of Israel.
It was a stirring kickoff to an energetic, enlightening, uplifting, purposeful and critical gathering in which more than 14,000 people from across political, ethnic and religious spectrums came together to re-affirm the crucial importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
In addition to the emotional “I am AIPAC” rallying cry offering particular identifications of politics and background, we met those in Israel who look beyond the specifics of one’s identity to fulfill the universal moral mandate of the Jewish state.
For example, Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director-general of the Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, spoke about treating more than 200 victims of Syria’s civil war.
Muslims, Christians, Druze and Jews alike, Barhoum proclaimed, “Adam, l’adam – adam: A person, to another person, is just that — a person — a human being, in need of care.” When it comes to caring for another person, Israel considers “no race, no ethnicity, no border,” Barhoum said, adding, “The Jewish state may not owe anything to its neighbors who call Israel their enemy — but we help, nonetheless.”
And this was just the beginning of the three-day event, which included such headliners as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — not to mention Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It was the largest gathering in AIPAC’s history — and the attendees included a large young contingent. More than 2,300 college campus leaders participated. Some synagogues and high schools have begun bringing teens to educate them to be strong Israel advocates amid the increasingly hostile anti-Israel environment on university campuses.
The positive energy in every room of the Washington Convention Center was palpable, but the gathering was not at all oblivious to the challenges that Israel advocacy confronts, including an increasingly unstable Middle East and an Iran, still sworn to Israel’s destruction, still moving toward a nuclear capability that is an existential threat not only for Israel, but for the region and the world. Another challenge is the quest and hope that a lasting, secure peace can be achieved with the Palestinians, yet concern that the Palestinian leadership is once again insincere in the current negotiations, viewing the significant concessions Israel may face only as an incremental step in the ultimate goal of annihilation of the Jewish state.
The United States needs a reliable friend in this challenging region — and Israel has been and always will be this ally. The tone of the entire conference promoted unity and inclusivity in difficult times — an agreement that a Jewish, democratic state is of critical strategic importance not only for the Jewish people, but for the American people and for the entire peace-loving world.
That is why at this critical time, I, too, am AIPAC. I am a religious leader seeking to inspire a Jewish dynamism and a power of self-determination and pride that could not exist without a strong, secure Israel. I am a modern Jew who views with awe and appreciation the sacrifice of those who came before me to ensure that I can take groups through the united city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the people of Israel. I am an idealist, praying for peace, despite the obstacles. And yet, I am also a resolute pragmatist, realistic that the challenges to the peace and security that the Israeli public overwhelmingly desires must come with sacrifices, yes, but also lasting, enforceable assurances.
I am AIPAC because, as I tell my congregation, this event is the “best Israel experience, outside of actually being in Israel” — an annual reminder that many thousands of people, in every state, of every background, stand together in enthusiastic support of a strong, vital, U.S.-Israel connection — to proclaim: Am Yisrael Chai.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.