For the 18,000 Israel supporters who came to Washington this week, the AIPAC policy conference was like a family reunion, 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 more slowly 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 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 over lunch 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.
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 Sunday night, Vice President Mike 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 brought up the subject of a commitment that candidate Trump made at last year’s conference on the same floor of the same building.
“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.
A year ago Trump had told AIPAC: “We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people — Jerusalem.”
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 nuclear weapons 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 name-dropped newly appointed diplomats David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Friedman’s nomination drew opposition on Capitol Hill due to 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 her condemnation of 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 Monday night. 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 resolution, which angered AIPAC and many at the conference who viewed it 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 number one democratic friend in the Middle East and beat up on them.”
Fifth time conference-goer Kenneth Fils of Chicago 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. “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 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” and “What can Israeli democracy teach the world.”
Others celebrated Israel as 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 Sunday, historian Gil Troy was telling a clutch of people that Jews need to shake off the “oys” of Jewish life and focus 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 outside Philadelphia.
“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.
With the concern about growing anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (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 Jeruslaem 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.