Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In defense of AIPAC, or my first AIPAC Policy Conference

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to attend my first ever AIPAC policy conference.  Alas, I was only able to stay the one day because of a snowstorm that hit the region.  But it did not diminish my appreciation or amazement at what AIPAC is and what it does.

Now admittedly, AIPAC (The America Israel Public Affairs Committee), has been the news a lot lately, namely with regards to a bill that was trying to strengthen the sanctions against Iran if the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program failed.  Needless to say, the new bill did not come to a vote for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into in today’s blog.  I also was not a big supporter of this approach, but that too is a conversation for another day.

However, the stall of the bill has led to a rise in voices that have proudly or at least dubiously proclaimed that AIPAC has failed and as a result, is a failing organization.  One particular set of criticisms targets AIPAC because it is not a partisan organization.  And because it is a non-partisan organization it lacks the teeth to ‘punish’ any politician who goes against the wishes of AIPAC.  The comparison that is drawn is to the NRA, which is able to ‘punish’ politicians, as if all politics are a zero-sum game.

Of course this criticism fails to recognize that by tying all of its hopes to one political party, the NRA runs the risk of ultimately becoming irrelevant as the demographics of its members continues to trend older and whiter.

AIPAC, I feel is an entirely different animal.  It was begun out of a notion that during WWII and the Holocaust, Jews could not even garner an audience with anyone sitting in Washington DC.  All of the doors were closed to them.  And a group of Jews made the conscious decision not to let this happen again.

With that in mind, they created an organization to advocate for Israel, to make sure that Israel is always part of the political conversation, regardless of party.  They are one of the most successful lobbying organizations in Washington today.  And that is a good thing.  Just because one of their policies did not come to fruition, does not mean that they have somehow failed.  Instead I think it represents a growing awareness of the deep complexities in the Middle East and in Israel.

Part of the reason why AIPAC is so successful is not because of the strength of the Jewish people in the United States.  We only represent 2% of the US population, though some would argue it is fewer than that.  Instead it is because politicians know many of their non-Jewish constituents also love Israel.  Because Israel is a priority for them, Israel is a priority for their politicians.

Yes Israel has had historical strategic military ties deeply connected to the United States’ interests in the region.  Much of it began with the desire to impede the former Soviet Union’s hegemony in the region.  Lately it has much to do with the battles against terrorism and also to keep an eye on the countries in the region as they are undergoing unprecedented upheaval as a result of the Arab Spring.

As a result, AIPAC historically has pushed for greater strategic and military alliances through policy initiatives.  But this is changing.  Israel and the United States are still incredibly strong partners, but the partnership runs much deeper than just military cooperation.

What AIPAC does best is not necessarily to create policy but to create lasting strategic partnerships through Congress and beyond.  One of the most moving moments at the conference for me was when we listened to a Baptist minister from Chicago talk about how AIPAC enabled him to learn from Israelis how to better serve his embattled community.  He saw the scars from the missiles coming in from Lebanon, and he saw personally how the community rallied around the victims.  He brought back these same lessons to his Chicago community, and AIPAC helped him to connect with his location politicians to bring his vision to fruition.

And this is what Israel does and is all about.  She is helping to make the world better through countless small gestures that impact peoples’ lives where they live.  From technology to new farming methods, from solar energy to desalination projects, Israel is a hotbed of new and innovative ideas.

What is so exciting about AIPAC is she his helping to bring about these powerful connections.  But not only that, AIPAC is growing, and unlike some other lobbying organizations, she is also getting younger.  There were over 14,000 people this year at the conference along with the largest gathering of rabbis to date, covering all denominations including many of my own Reform colleagues. 

AIPAC now represents a larger diversity of interests and approaches with regards to Israel than ever before.  This is why being political, but non-partisan is so important.  AIPAC represents one of the last ‘big-tent’ approaches to politics.  Denomination, political affiliation, and even religion are much less important than a love of Israel.

This does not mean we all agree on what Israel is and how Israel should be.  Far from it!  We still see important conversations and disagreements transpiring with regards to the Palestinians and towards Iran.  But we all agree on the central premise that Israel exists, it has a right to exist, and that she represents a blessing to the world, even if she doesn’t always get everything right. 

I am proud to have gone to my first AIPAC policy conference, and I am sure it will not be my last.  I just hope next time, not to have to contend with a major snowstorm.  But if Jerusalem can survive a major snowstorm, so can I.  

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