Reflections on AIPAC Policy Conference 2018

By CRC Director Linda Scherzer

Last week more than 600 members of our Greater MetroWest Jewish community, including a CRC group of 40 teens and their parents supported by a grant from the Iris Family Foundation, converged on Washington for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. We joined 18,000 pro-Israel supporters – Jews and non-Jews, high school students and college student government presidents, African Americans and Hispanics, and more than two thirds of the U.S. Congress – to affirm and celebrate the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

As in past years, this policy conference served to educate and inspire with plenaries showcasing (among others) the best of Israeli technology, disaster relief efforts across the globe, and the incredible innovation powered by Israel’s start-up nation ethos and commitment to tikkun olam that has helped provide water and electricity for villages throughout Africa.

In more than 100 breakout sessions, delegates heard from Israelis fighting to keep the two-state solution alive, and learned about the changing face of the pro-Israel community in America and the threats posed by Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. We heard from AIPAC-trained college students on campus who urged the more than 3,600 students in attendance to ignore the theatrics of apartheid walls and BDS boycotts and focus instead on building strategic relationships with campus leaders, who one day may populate the halls of Congress. And we heard from African-American leaders talking about the importance of building new alliances between Jews and African Americans in this country, while at the same time proclaiming their support for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

But the overarching success of this year’s policy conference lay not in the numbers who attended, the quality of the breakout sessions, or the money that was undoubtedly raised.  What was most remarkable about this gathering was the coming together of a diverse group of people — American citizens and elected officials, many of whom disagree, often vehemently, on a host of domestic issues — who came to champion and celebrate the U.S.-Israel relationship. In a nation that has been wrought by fracture and angry division, Policy Conference stood as a model of civility, bipartisanship, and respectful political discourse. To see leading members of the Senate on both sides of the political divide – from Democrats Bob Menendez and Chuck Schumer to Republicans Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio – speak to the ideals and shared values that bind our two countries; pointing to the regional threats – specifically Iran’s violations of the JCPOA and it’s role as an exporter of terror – threats to both Israel AND the U.S., brought all of us closer. It was an inspiring display of unity and bipartisanship in a city that has become increasingly and bitterly divided.

Yes, many of us who were in the Washington Convention Center struggle with the policies of the Trump administration, represented at the conference by Vice President Mike Pence. We worked hard to reconcile our gratitude for the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its intention to open the U.S. embassy there in May, with our distress over many of its other policies, foreign and domestic.

Still others wrestle with the complexities of Israel and Israeli government policies on a range of issues from paralysis in the peace talks to its treatment of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. We know that, for all the thousands of AIPAC supporters in the convention center last week, there are hundreds of thousands of other Jews, millennials and older Americans, who are feeling distanced and disconnected. (To its credit, AIPAC has made huge efforts to bring liberal progressives into the fold, identifying future leaders and thoughtful critics of Israel on college campus who are open for a nuanced discussions about peace and the Palestinians.)

Recognizing the importance of capturing this segment of the population, AIPAC’s new president, Mort Fridman (from Bergen County, NJ), made a plea to liberal progressives from the main stage, telling them there are “very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall. We need you and we cannot let that happen.” Executive Director Howard Kohr emphasized that AIPAC is deeply committed to a two-state solution and that paralysis in the peace process should not be cause for celebration. And Jennifer Mulhern Granholm, the former governor of Michigan and a self-professed liberal progressive supporter of Israel, reminded the audience that being pro-Israel, and celebrating the values that bind our two countries does not mean that she is anti-Palestinian. In fact, that was one of the predominant and recurring themes of this year’s conference.

It IS complicated, and growing ever more so, both here and in the Middle East. Rather than focus on our differences and a widely polarized environment, AIPAC provided the forum and political model for how to reach across the political aisle, engage in meaningful discourse, celebrate the commonalities, and acknowledge the disagreements, but never lose sight of our shared goal of a strong and secure Israel supported by a healthy U.S.-Israel alliance. It’s a model for political discourse that should be emulated by our own Jewish community. And as I travel through Israel this week with a group of New Jersey legislators – Democrats and Republicans – it’s a model I’ll be bringing to the discussions we’ll be having here as well.

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