If you walk the halls of the cavernous Walter E. Washington Convention Center during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual three-day conference, you might encounter Theodore Herzl, Golda Meir, and David Ben Gurion, or at least, people dressed as them, replete with enormous, grinning mascot heads of the iconic characters of Israel’s history. If you head down to the “AIPAC Village” in the basement, you will find a replica of the Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, also — apparently — willing to suffer selfies. But the thing that will stand out the most is the number of young people prowling the halls, who lend the whole confab something of a celebratory feel.
In previous years, there were hordes of young Jews protesting outside AIPAC. Not so this year, where high school and college students mobbed the hallways in excited, chattering gaggles. Many if not most were Orthodox, but a fair number called themselves progressive when asked. And some even spoke of finding themselves happily taking up the pro-Israel cause at bastions of leftydom like UC Berkeley.
Dalia Breziner is the AIPAC campus liaison to Berkeley, and she’s been coming to the conference since she was in high school. “There was this initial connection with AIPAC because I agreed with their mission about bipartisanship and their approach to lobbying,” she said.
When she says she agrees with the mission, she means it. “We try to take the mission that they use in Congress and apply it to our campus activism,” Breziner told me. She does this by “finding allies,” she explained. “I find people that have shared values on campus, and basically I go and talk to them about why Israel should matter to them, why it matters to me.”
Her strategy focuses on the conversation more than the outcome, and Breziner works with and even helps advance those in student government who disagree with her, like the student body president. “He was not very pro-Israel, still isn’t, but very much listened to me,” she said.
This insistence on having the conversation rather than achieving a specific outcome, on developing and maintaining relationships with those she disagrees with, is both how Breziner advocates for Israel as well as why she does it.
“You have this incredible democracy and this government that includes people from all over the spectrum, and they still all come together and love the country but completely disagree,” she explained of Israel. “And I think that’s the same at a place like Berkeley, where I personally know that this person doesn’t care a lot about Israel’s psychological innovation, but he’s a member of the LGBTQ community, so I’m going to talk to him about that, and why Israel should matter to him.”
It was a perfect encapsulation of the AIPAC strategy: Keep it bipartisan. Keep it personal. And always remember that U.S. support for Israel is about shared values.
They were the same themes that AIPAC’s delegates would bring with them to Capitol Hill on the last day of the conference, where they were bussed en masse to meet with their elected officials and present AIPAC’s agenda. This year’s agenda included security assistance for Israel as well as a bipartisan resolution that condemns the boycott of Israel and reissues support for a two state solution.
Note that while @AIPAC’s agenda “thanks” the senators who supported the Republican anti-BDS bill S1, it “urges” House members and Senators to support the bi-partisan anti-BDS resolution authored by House Democrats that doesn’t infringe on free speech, with “bipartisan” in bold. pic.twitter.com/rAtR9C4GKB— Batya Ungar-Sargon (@bungarsargon) March 25, 2019
On Tuesday morning, in conference rooms throughout the capitol, Republican and Democratic Jews from across the United States sat with their representatives and, in voices unused to public speaking and sometimes wavering, told personal stories about why these bills and resolutions mattered to them.
The agenda, too, reflected the commitment to bipartisanship. Though a Republican anti-BDS bill has already passed the Senate, AIPAC chose to push the bi-partisan resolution instead.
As the delegates assured their Congressmen and -women, AIPAC would never ask them to sign something that’s not bipartisan.
The United States is in the grip of a devastating divide. Culture wars once waged on university campuses have become the legislative agendas of our Troll in Chief, President Trump, as well as those who fashion themselves his opponents. If there’s a topic Trump thinks Democrats care about (immigration! transgender people in the military! abortion!), he will at some point come for it.
Trump is more symptom of our divide than cause, yet none have taken as much advantage of an age in which preferences have metastasized into entire personalities. Politics in contemporary American life have taken over not just our news cycle but our entire identities. Our social media feeds don’t discriminate between a selfie with a puppy and an oped from the New York Times, making politics personal, intimate. Those who disagree with us are not simply wrong; they are attacking us where we live, at the place where we are our most curated selves.
There is just one place that I know of where people are determined to get over their differences and work together for a cause that’s bigger than their personal preferences. That place is AIPAC. And at a time when the United States has devolved into the most intense partisan divide in recent memory, AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship is nothing short of radical.
AIPAC is the last vestige of a better America, a bipartisan America, an America that knows how to put aside its differences and get things done.
“How we treat the AIPAC member sitting beside us is as important as how we treat our guests on the stage,” said a disembodied voice over a loudspeaker minutes before programming started one afternoon. “You may disagree with the person sitting next to you. But you are united in your mission.”
And what is that mission? “Our job is to persuade them with love,” Arthur Brooks exhorted conference goers. “Nobody in history has ever been insulted into agreement.”
Of course, AIPAC has not always been the staunchest defender of its most valuable asset. It did severe damage to its brand and caché when it took on President Barack Obama, who was and remains hugely popular with progressive Jews — who are also the majority of American Jews. AIPAC sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iran Deal, pulling out all the stops to obstruct the deal, ultimately to no avail.
But the Iran Deal was only one of many missed opportunities for the lobby to insist upon bipartisanship — or better yet, to choose to use its clout on the Hill to push for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, AIPAC’s unspoken policy has been by and large to stay silent in the face of Netanyahu’s careening ever rightward.
As the strongest of the groups that lobby for Israel, AIPAC’s moral failure is a grave one. With its waffling on the two state solution and its unwillingness to criticize the occupation of the Palestinians, AIPAC certainly doesn’t represent where American Jews stand on Israel, the vast majority of who oppose the occupation and feel urgently the need for a Palestinian state.
And yet, despite its moral failings, AIPAC should be held up as a strategic paragon. For at a time when Americans can’t seem to cross the aisle to accomplish anything, there’s something magnificent — and magnificently American — about AIPAC.
As AIPAC Managing Director of National Affairs put it, “This hall is one of the last places where you can find everyone from progressive Democrats to conservative Republicans working together and applauding together. That is all the more reason to protect against that which can divide us. For the sake of our movement, we have to look to the person to our left or to the person to our right who might actually be more right or more left. We have to see our political opposites not as adversaries but as central to our success. We don’t have to agree on everything. But we have to agree to protect and respect each other’s place in this tent.”
How ironic that AIPAC and its supporters should have their loyalties called into question, when they are modeling for the rest of us how to be true Americans.
Speaking of loyalties, not everyone is welcome into the warm, bipartisan embrace offered by AIPAC. Freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has struggled repeatedly over the past few weeks to talk about the Israel lobby without offending American Jews, was repeatedly referenced throughout the conference, as were her comments that U.S. support for Israel is “All about the Benjamins” — specifically, AIPAC’s Benjamins — and her complaints that she is being asked to “pledge allegiance to a foreign country.”
From Nancy Pelosi to Netanyahu himself, few of the speakers could resist invoking and joking about Omar’s misstatements. Meanwhile, only two Democrats -– Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez -– mentioned the rising and lethal anti-Semitism on the right, spurred on by Trump himself.
But it wasn’t all humor. AIPAC officials cast the organization as both under threat and determined to prevail.
“This AIPAC feels different because it is different,” said AIPAC President Mort Fridman. “Our loyalty to the United States has been questioned. And people are watching to see what happens next.” In the face of adversity, “our determination increases,” Fridman said.
“We will not be intimidated!” Others vowed. “We will double down.”
If the language of being assaulted yet strong, beleaguered but defiant, both in need of protection and capable of providing rescue sounds familiar, it should. Over the course of the conference, AIPAC representatives spoke about AIPAC with that special set of tropes usually reserved for Israel, as others at the conference demonstrated (“Israel is strong! But threats are still growing!” Schumer declared. “Everyone was bullying this kid in the corner. It was abusive,” Nikki Haley said. “You have to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves… Israel is alive and kicking!”).
Encoded in this narrative framing is a clue about the persistence of Israel’s appeal, not just among American Jews but among American non-Jews, too. For while American Jewish attachment to Israel is certainly reasonable in light of the Holocaust, whose survivors still live among us, and while Israel truly is a strategic ally in the Middle East where the U.S. needs one, and while Christians may have eschatological reasons for being attached to Israel, it is the romance of Israel that provides the leaven to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
American attachment to Israel is at the end of the day not about Israel but about America. And for Israel’s staunchest supporters, Israel is a kind of tiny micro-America onto whom America can impose all its hopes and dreams and fears and desires. Hearty yet scrappy, wholesome yet sensual, the underdog who somehow always wins, the woman who desperately needs you to save her yet ultimately saves you, Israel is America’s inverse, an object of longing and adoration and respect and patronage all wrapped into one glorious, gorgeous Middle Eastern package. Notice how Israel is always referred to as “she.”
And with its trips and its agendas and its conferences and its talking points, AIPAC provides the plot, the characters and the narrative arc of that romance, which work as the glue that ties all the disparate groups in the Israel lobby together.
Of course, narratives are not meant to be accurate; they are meant to inspire, to motivate, to lend emotional texture to values. And just as it is ridiculous when Israel, a country with the seventeenth strongest army in the world, is spoken about as threatened by an economic boycott that has failed to harm it in the least, it was ridiculous for the powerful lobby to portray itself as Congresswoman Omar’s victim. Importantly, Omar seems to have learned how to criticize AIPAC for its actual shortcomings.
I —like so many others—have not criticized AIPAC because of its membership or the country it advocates for. I’ve criticized it because it has repeatedly opposed efforts to guarantee peace and human rights in the region.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 26, 2019
But these are not the only reasons that the far left has taken aim at AIPAC. Neither is Israel’s occupation. It’s rather because AIPAC lobbies so effectively through bipartisanship that the far left cannot brook its existence, for the simple fact that the far left has put its eggs in the opposite basket: boycotts.
It’s not just Israel that must be boycotted, or AIPAC, which was itself was subject to calls for a boycott (which failed). It’s anything that strays from the party line, even a little. Think of how liberal Zionists have now become the great bugbear of the anti-Zionist left, despite the huge amounts of agreement between the two groups. Instead of coalition building through a bipartisan approach to advocate for justice for the Palestinians, a cause for which support is strong in the American Jewish community, the far left has chosen to alienate the liberal Jews most anxious — and most able — to end the occupation.
To a movement for whom criticism of Israel is not enough and Zionists, too, must be boycotted, AIPAC’s achievements through the opposite of boycotts — through doing the work Breziner does, working with people one disagrees with — are not just wrong; they are a total affront.
Seeing bipartisanship succeed in the exact arena where BDS, the boycott of Israel, has failed, is surely a further thorn in the side.
But if it’s proof of anything, AIPAC is proof that far from compromising one’s values, bipartisanship only makes them stronger. In fact, bipartisanship in the case of Israel is working too well, for those of us who care about justice for Palestinians; bipartisan support for Israel has been so powerful that the U.S. has failed to demand that Israel end its occupation of the Palestinians.
It’s a strategy the left would do well to embrace, not least because bipartisanship is the only way to beat President Trump.
The truth is, remaining bipartisan — or rather, finding their way back to bipartisanship — was far from the path of least resistance for AIPAC when the President of the United States is a troll who has made Israel his pet project. There was an equally plausible scenario in which Israel became another casualty of the culture wars, relegated to the dustbin of Trump’s other deplorable attachments in the eyes of the nation.
That day may yet come; certainly, Trump has freed American Jews to criticize Israel, by revealing to them how similar are Bibi’s and Trump’s ethnonationalist views, and how ugly they are to those of us who favor liberal democracy, equality before the law, and self-determination for all people.
But the days in which the Democrats abandon Israel wont be anytime soon, in no small part because of the efforts of pro-Israel Jews. The “movement,” the “mission,” has been and will remain too important to them to let their own divisions over Trump interfere. Some Jews love Trump and many more hate him; but they all love Israel more than they care about him.
Israel remains the one thing that Trump failed to troll, despite the huge amounts of attention he gives the topic. And it’s clear that AIPAC has played no small role in this. Last year’s conference, like this year’s, seemed designed to stop Trump from appropriating the Israel lobby. And though the conference’s audience applauded at the appropriate moments for Trump’s “pro-Israel” achievements, like moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, it did so with much less enthusiasm than last year; at one point, Ambassador Ron Dermer had to beg for a standing ovation.
There’s a lesson there for Americans desperate for a better tomorrow: The only way to beat Trump is with bipartisan love.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.