The many challenges facing Israel and its relations with the United States were not lost on participants of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual gathering in Washington.
The 12,000 delegates at the policy conference, which kicked off on Sunday, were inundated with speeches, meetings and reading material talking about the need to maintain foreign aid, fight against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and secure Israel in face of the deteriorating stability of its Arab neighbors.
A speech by AIPAC’s president, Michael Kassen, opened a window into the political challenges the lobby faces, those that have to do more with changing demography of the American electorate than with developments in the Middle East. Kassen reminded delegates about how the AIPAC system works, by engaging with elected officials beginning from the state level and until they make it to key positions in Washington.
“That formula worked,” he said, “and it still works.”
But, Kassen noted, it becomes harder to implement this formula when the face of Congress is changing in such a rapid pace. Important positions in congressional committees dealing with Israel, Kassen said, “are increasingly held by individuals with little foreign policy experience” and some, he added, have never visited Israel.
Furthermore, many new lawmakers voting on issues relating to Israel, have a “different life experience.” They are younger (just as many members, he said, were born after the Iran hostage crisis than those who remember it), and more diverse, with a growing percentage of non-white voters making up the American electorate.
“We must do more to keep pace with this rapid change,” Kessen said, adding that he is “thrilled” that “each year AIPAC looks more like America.”
This was an effective segue to the presentation of African-American political leaders who support AIPAC, but a look at the audience made clear that AIPAC is still largely an organization made up of white Jewish activists. Opening the conference, AIPAC sought to stress American-Israeli cooperation rather than military challenges facing the country.
A tear jerking moment at the opening session of AIPAC’s policy conference, set the tone for the bigger-than-ever gathering of the pro-Israel lobby.
It was a moment crafted to drive home the message of a relationship between the American and Israeli people not based solely on security concerns but on innovative technology and shared human interests.
Staring the presentation was Dan Webb, an avid hunter from Pennsylvania who became paralyzed following a hunting accident. In a touching video Webb told the story of his injury and his miraculous recovery thanks to an Israeli medical innovation that allows paralyzed patients regain their ability to walk. Many in the gathering, filling to capacity Washington’s conference center, were already in tears, but when Webb solely walked onto the stage, assisted by crutches and the Israeli-made device, emotions bubbled over.
And if that was not enough to excite the crowd and send a message of cooperation between the two nations, Webb was joined on stage by Dr. Amit Goffer, founder of Argo Medical Technologies that developed the device. Dr. Goffer, in a wheelchair, promised that his company is working on further developments that will allow people like himself to walk too.
Adding to the point were a list of Israeli innovators, including an impressive presentation by a scientist who made a breakthrough in superconductor research, and an Israeli activist who managed a campaign in Africa to circumcise African males as a way of reducing transmission of AIDS.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.