Open Zion

03.04.13

Feeling The Love At AIPAC

Despite being repeatedly accused of belonging to the IZC—the International Zionist Conspiracy—I have never attended “Policy Conference,” the AIPAC convention currently taking place in Washington. As an academic, I am not an organization man. This year, as part of my “Moynihan’s Moment” book tour, I spoke at the convention—and discovered an American Israel Public Affairs Committee which is more American-Israel lovefest than all-powerful PAC. What most struck me was the sweetness of AIPAC.

Before attending the conference, I had heard it all. One friend warned I would walk away from such a vulgar display of Jewish power “anti-Semitic.” Another coached me in the conferences’ subtleties, wherein participants are defined by the “lanyard” color around their neck, signifying their giving level. A third expected me to return with the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy’s Secret Decoder Ring.

But what impressed me was the AIPACers’ earnestness, intensity, and warmth. Jew and non-Jew, African-American and Latino, left and right, old and young, they conveyed far more innocent love than manipulative anger. One woman speaker rose in the opening plenary and proclaimed, “I love Israel,” explaining this love as a gift from her parents and a core component of her Jewish identity. A man featured in a convention video talked about the heritage of Israel commitment his Israeli parents transmitted but how the trauma of losing his mother-in-law in 9/11 was triggered his activism. He, too, spoke more in sweet sadness than edgy anger. This is a movement fueled by love not hate.

Moreover, on the two panels I participated on (so far) and in the big convention scenes I witnessed, the commitment to a two-state solution—which includes a Palestinian state—was taken as a given. Even the discussion about the Turkish prime minister’s ugly words last week calling Zionism a “crime against humanity,” often reflected more anguish than anger. (And allow me to add that his words challenge all of Israel’s critics: are you ready to denounce his poison and acknowledge that without the persistence scrutiny of U.N. Watch his words probably would have been overlooked?) The convention had a bit of a Sally Field strain, a sense, when leading politicians appeared, of the audience channeling the actress’s classic 1985 needy Academy Award acceptance “this time I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

Most AIPACers are not naïve—they understand the conflicts’ complexities and the Palestinians’ pain. But most cannot comprehend the disproportionate obsession with Israel, especially when Syria’s Assad slaughters 70,000, to name just one of many greater and simpler human rights challenges. And it was interesting how many of them use Israel to build a core Jewish identity and a platform to express their democratic ideals. There was tremendous excitement around the thousands of young attendees—with one young man on one of AIPAC’s well-produced videos talking about AIPAC as his entrée into American politics, stirring his desire to become “the first Jewish President.”

So, after day one, I walk away inspired—although a bit exhausted by what I see as the wave of hatred that emanates constantly from so many of Israel’s critics. I was thrilled by the hug I received from a Latino union organizer in San Francisco, who told me that after returning home from a Sabbath dinner my family and I hosted for him in Jerusalem shortly after the Gaza conflagration this fall he told his friends “we have to help make peace for that family and others, so they don’t have to fight."

And I was thrilled by another embrace I received from one of the policy conference’s rock stars, Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird. Baird gave a passionate, eloquent endorsement of Israel—again fueled more by love than by hate—but with some edge as he vowed to resist the diplomatic pressure to pile on against Israel. “We won’t go along to get along,” he said—echoing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s line about refusing to “tone down” as a diplomat: “What is this word toning down; when you are faced with an out-right lie about the United States and we go in and say this is not true. Now, how do you tone that down? Do you say it is only half untrue?” Moynihan asked.

At a reception for Canadians last night, I gave the Foreign Minister my book, and he gave me a big hug—my first official ministerial embrace. “I love Moynihan,” he exclaimed. Moynihan, also, wasn’t a hater. He was a fighter who understood, as Baird and so many of the AIPACers understand, that fighting for constructive core ideals is more effective than lashing out fueled by destructive, vindictive emotions. If Israel’s enemies learned that lesson too, we could achieve peace.