In the basement of Penn Social, a sports bar just off the mall in Washington, DC., one Reform, one Orthodox, and two Conservative rabbinical students are playing Dance Dance Revolution.
Between the chirp-y Japanese pop music coming from the arcade game and the din of the bar, it’s hard to hear that the two dancers are discussing whether or not God wrote the Torah. Waiting her turn at the game, one of the students strikes up a conversation with her waiting dance partner about Hillel leadership.
Welcome to the AIPAC Policy Conference, the annual gathering of Jews and non-Jews in Washington, DC devoted strengthening the relationship of the United States and Israel. It’s an interesting year to be here. A presidential election is brewing. The Israeli election is weeks away. Fear of a rising wave of anti-Semitism grips American Jews. A president who is unpopular with Jews has become, in the eyes of many, Israel’s greatest champion. And just weeks ago, a member of the House of Representative — a black, immigrant, Muslim, female member — invoked AIPAC in a viral tweet, sparking an intensely divisive debate.
But don’t confuse AIPAC Policy Conference (‘PC,’ as returners know it,) with Birthright or Bar Mitzvah parties or any of those hallmarks of Jewish living that carve cultural niches via joy and full-fat cream cheese. There are no bonfires and no ice-breakers. It’s a conference. Running Sunday morning through Tuesday afternoon (longer for those who arrive Friday for the pre-conference Shabbaton,) that means a minimum of 48 hours of wearing pantyhose.
48 hours of eating $13 kosher tuna sandwiches. Two full days of standing in line to enter a pitch-black room where speaker after speaker recite identical talking points. Constant references by speakers to the most gruesome facts of the Holocaust. Hours turn into days inside a featureless, climate-controlled building that stretches — escalators to lobbies to sky-bridges to bathroom stalls — like a vast, deserted shopping mall. Policy conference means 48 hours in a stripped and charmless Hogwarts packed with 18,000 of your closest tribes members and allies, united in their desire to talk about the most talked-about topic in the world.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the gilded, dusty pressure point of the entire world, is about 1.5 million square feet. “That’s twenty-seven football fields!” some rabbis like to interject.
The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is the size of about 40 football fields. And at 18,000 participants this year, attendance at AIPAC has ballooned by almost 12,000 people in a decade Counting by players on the field, this year’s conference was the equivalent of about 1,636 football teams suiting up to discuss American politics and the Middle East. “I want a beer on me at all times during these things,” a man in a tie hisses into his phone, only hours into the first day.
Sweating beers made for damp handshakes in a basement ballroom near the convention center that night. The reception for Stand With Us, a right-wing pro-Israel organization, has a swank after-services oneg feel. Children eat chocolate-dipped strawberries; college students speak gravely about Israeli security. In the lounge of the women’s bathroom one woman advises another on perfecting a pro-Israel presentation. (“Do you have a PowerPoint? Because people are dying for a good PowerPoint.”) I chat with a conservative man from Orange County. A New Yorker by way of Seattle, it’s rare that I get to speak to a Republican. “How do you feel about your county going so blue in the election?” I ask.
“Bad,” he says. “I felt bad.”
Across the mall in the Museum of the Bible, organizers of the “Judea and Samaria AIPAC Reception,” are blasting a folk-rock version of Hatikvah as guests deride the two state solution. A few blocks away, Camera on Campus, a group that bills itself as a support and education system for pro-Israel students on “hostile” college campuses, has taken over a bar where undergrads are making halted conversations, holding iPhones in their fists like little metal security blankets.
Bitty blazers and ponytails, Cornell kippot, and team lanyards announce the presence of the 4,000 college students at the conference. They jump to ask questions at breakout sessions. “Palestinien rights?” I see a tiny girl scribble in a yellow notebook during a session on LGBTQ Israelis. “What did you think?” I ask a young-seeming person at the end of a session. “With a lot of the inertia lately regarding like Israel and the Democratic party, I felt it was important for someone like me to come and hear from interesting speakers like the ones on this panel,” he reels off, referring to his notes on the talk before commenting further. A first-year student at a small liberal arts school chases me down the hallway to clarify her comments on Black and Jewish unity. She follows up with an email within the hour.
The co-Presidents of Tufts Friends of Israel expound on the successes of their tour guide from earlier in the weekend, Congressman Ted Deutch. “He’s one of the best Jewish politicians in American history,” one president enthuses. “And he’s had incredibly strong leadership on gun control, so it was incredible to be on the house floor” — “with him” his co-president murmurs at the same time.
“Jinx! One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten,” she says to her fellow-leader, turning immediately back to the topic of foreign policy. A group of 16-year-old girls from Los Angeles’ Milken Community School politely educate me on the importance of AIPAC-funded trips to Israel for non-Jews. “The Jews are like, a very small demographic,” one tells me gently. “I think, more people need to support Israel beyond just the Jewish people.”
“There’s not that many Jews,” adds her friend.
Like the Israel of Tel Aviv beach and the Israel of checkpoints, there are two AIPACs. There are bright-eyed college students gathered around outlets, charging their phones and talking about the necessity of dialogue. And there are politicians like US Ambassador David Friedman, whose eyes grow watery with passion as he urges Jews to define ourselves by the rocket that flattened a family’s home the day before, caring “not a whit” about their denomination or politics, only their religion.
There are sessions like one in which lesbian Israeli activist Chen Arieli explains that we should move away not just from gender binaries but from “binaries of left and right, too.” Later that day, Vice President Mike Pence, who has advocated for federal funding for programs that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior” receives a standing ovation. A session called “Stopping the Use of Human Shields” is open to the press, but “Improving Life In Gaza” is not. Neither is “Preparing For Campus Activism.”
Greetings from a cheerful Herzl, a tickled Ben Gurion, and Sassy Golda Meir! #AIPAC2019pic.twitter.com/enMVl65M66— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) March 26, 2019
In between sessions on Monday, I slump in a chair in the late sun coming through the windows of the atrium, weighing the pros and cons of lying down on the carpet on my face. A silver-haired couple asks to join my table. Seeing on their badges the name of a place near my dad’s hometown, I take out my headphones and ask how the day has been for them. “I’ve been coming to AIPAC for twenty years,” the man says in an unrecognizable accent, snatching a few of his wife’s sweet potato chips.
“He hasn’t been every year for twenty years, and these are mine not yours,” she says, as he unwraps a kosher roast beef sandwich.
“I’m a survivor,” the man volunteers calmly, the same way I tell people, “I’m from Seattle.”
“Born in Belarus in 1940,” his wife chimes in, as he spreads mustard on his bread. “So just imagine that.”
I imagine it. The man opens up a pouch of roasted red pepper hummus.
Nikki Haley is their favorite AIPAC speaker, they agree, though they bicker over the exact wording of her quote about wearing heels to the UN from last year’s conference. “She’s a rockstar,” the husband says in a thick accent. Last night at dinner they met a group of Israeli Druze men. “I offended him,” the woman tells me. “Because I said — ‘I know Druze support the State of Israel!’ and he said, ‘I don’t support the state of Israel, I am a member of the State of Israel.’” She was happy, she said, to apologize.
I work up the courage to ask the man what he, as a survivor, makes of every speaker referencing their trips to concentration camps. “I’m cool with this,” he says, thoughtful. “Because the Holocaust is still in the memory.” He pauses. “In Belarus, everywhere you step, you’re stepping on Jewish blood.”
But Mike Pence, I say. He doesn’t like gay people. They were victims of Hitler, too. He thinks this over. “I’m not against gays,” he says. “But Pence has a right to interpret the bible literally.” He gets up to throw away their plastic leftovers, requesting to take my dirty napkin. His wife turns to me, and says quietly, “Everything he does is going to be for the protection of Israel and the Jewish people.”
They rise, for a session on Israel and Hispanics, taking a last look at my name tag. “Don’t Google me!” I blurt. “It’s all liberal.” They laugh. “Don’t worry, we don’t know how to Google,” he says. His wife looks at him sternly. “We do know how to Google,” she says. “But what did that speaker say this morning, about talking to people we disagree with?” She means Arthur Brooks, who wrote the book “Love Your Enemies.” She stares at me through wire-rimmed glasses.
“I love you,” she says. They leave.
On Monday night, the Marriott Hotel lobby is packed. The bar is a mosh-pit of middle aged women in sheitels and college students in sports coats. Across the room, a woman listens eagerly to a man propped in an armchair, shoes off, each foot resting on an additional armchair. Inside the glass walls of the lobby restaurant is easily the best-attended, chicest, most convivial of the half-dozen AIPAC parties I’ve seen.
It’s the LGBTQ reception.
I step away from the open bar and narrowly avoid knocking into Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Later she speaks, followed by Congressman Mark Takano and Ofer Erez, the first openly transgender IDF person. “There are too many straight people,” a millennial attendee with perfectly carved facial hair says. “Straight people who aren’t down.” But he recollects himself. “I appreciate that there are so many AIPAC leaders here,” he says, looking around at the room, wall-to-wall with members of congress and young, laughing people. “I actually really appreciate that.”
And the conference has clearly shelled out for this event in particular. “I don’t think any other party at AIPAC has an open bar,” he says.
I step back into the lobby, where many are eyeing the LGBTQ party with what looks like jealousy. Sitting in an arm chair taking down notes, I hear a male voice behind me mutter, “I’m like a predator at these things,” followed by snickers. I glance up, and a man who looks to be in his 30s slides into the seat across from me, backed by two more grinning men.
“Hey,” he says, smirking and taking my hand. “Where do you go to school?”
It’s the rare bad interaction of the weekend for me. Long out of school, wearing a press badge, and surrounded by members of my community — nonetheless, it’s hard to exit conversations with insistent men. When the seated man starts going over the extensive volunteer work he’s done on behalf of Israel I know I should get up and leave. But I feel strangely obligated to thank him. Like me, it’s his first time at the conference. “So, says one of the friends, eyes glinting. “You’re both AIPAC…virgins.”
In the lobby waiting for a Lyft, I overhear a college student talking about taking a class with a negotiator on the Iran deal. “Hey quiet,” his friend laughs. “You’ll get stoned to death for saying that here.”
Just a week before the AIPAC policy conference, I chatted at a party with a man who works for an Israel advocacy group that was very present at AIPAC. Representative Ilhan Omar, Representative Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour — all terrorists, he said. Terrorists? I asked. Yes, terrorists, he insisted.
Suits and air-conditioning, a steady stream of like-minded speakers, an event staff with the precision of a corps de ballet — they all make people so polite. No one on the AIPAC stage or at any session I attended called Muslim women terrorists. No one got up and called sexual harassment by Jewish leaders a joke. At least, not into a microphone.
Students who want dialogue and adult men who want students, survivors seeking to protect and professional racists with nice job titles — they’re hard to tell apart under institutional lighting. Break out a beer, and a kosher roast beef sandwich. Then see if you can spot the difference.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny