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AIPAC and the Secret Worlds of Peoplehood

Washington was unseasonably cold last week when 13,000 pro-Israel delegates assembled here for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference.  Normally this assemblage is a scene of high drama, but this year—with no American election, no Israeli government upheaval, no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and a litany of crises not quite at the boiling point—it was comparatively subdued.  Thus, certain prosaic aspects of AIPAC were brought into higher relief.  These may be more important than the dollar amounts of U.S. aid to Israel or the security cooperation between the two countries. 

Relevant Links
AIPAC and the Politics of Reaffirmation  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. Obama’s speech at this year’s AIPAC conference projected the sense that Jewish thanks and loyalty to his administration were not only deserved but required.
A Tale of Two Lobbies  Ruth R. Wisse, Jewish Ideas Daily. What Jewish lobbying for Israel seeks openly to clarify and explain, Arab lobbying works, largely in secret, to negate and obscure.

The conference takes 13,000 self-selected activists and raises both their hopes and their fears regarding Israel’s security.  Key messages are conveyed repeatedly through video testimonies projected on eight titanic screens.  The presence of many thousands of well-dressed high school and college students—who are constantly lauded from the podium by high-profile speakers—shows that cultivation of the next generation of activists is ongoing even in the absence of controversy.  

One name hung unspoken over the conference: Chuck Hagel.  Some people assailed AIPAC in advance for its presumed opposition to Hagel; then, when it took no stance, others criticized it for not joining the surprisingly small number of Hagel opponents. AIPAC’s position, which was as clear in public as it was in private conversations with staffers, is that it can and must work with any administration or presidential appointee. The coming uncertainty was written into the grim faces of these staffers as they declined to discuss the matter further.  But AIPAC plays a long game, which outlasts any one administration. Bipartisanship and evenhandedness are AIPAC’s baselines.  Every Democrat keynote speaker is automatically balanced with a Republican.  Still, careful observers moving from the large plenary sessions to the smaller breakout groups would have thought they were attending two different conferences.  In one breakout session after another, whether it was devoted to Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian Authority or, of course, Iran, the American strategic void was repeatedly noted and criticized.  “Leading from behind” has turned out to be a neologism for inaction that has permitted worst-case scenarios to appear repeatedly.  

The contrast became even sharper when Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and former Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini spoke forcefully about the need for concerted policies regarding Hizballah and Syria and condemned the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration of independence.  All speakers pointed to a new kind of linkage theory: Iran remains the overarching threat to Israel, but the growing Shia-Sunni proxy war in Syria has now drawn in Lebanon and Hizballah, prompted Saudi and Qatari intervention, and been exacerbated by Turkish ineptitude.  Iran is the hub, but American inaction on all these fronts is the weak link. 

In the plenary sessions, higher-level diplomats like Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams took milder, generous or hopeful tones regarding the administration, as did elected officials, who staked out predictable ground. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s fear that “some of our nation’s leaders are complacent” about Israel’s enemies was matched by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer’s reassurance of “our clear intent and firm commitment.  America and Israel cannot leave any uncertainty in the minds of those who describe us as their common foes.” 

If individual speakers expressed dissatisfaction with American policy, and delegates privately displayed frank disappointment over the Hagel appointment, none of this was in evidence when Vice President Joe Biden took the stage.  Biden delivered a bravura performance with his trademark homespun touches, including references to his father and to his own first meeting, as a young senator, with Golda Meir.  It fell to Biden to state the administration’s positions forcefully.  “President Barack Obama is not bluffing,” he warned, adding, “We are not looking for war.  We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully.  But all options, including military force, are on the table.” 

Biden provided assurances that the United States will “prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”  Does this mean the technology, raw materials, final assembly, deployment, or use of a nuclear weapon?  Biden did, to be sure, assert that the administration meant to “prevent, not contain” Iran, correcting once again Hagel’s misstatement on the subject during his disastrous yet ultimately successful confirmation hearings. 

But if Biden was well received, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was embraced by the crowd with the kind of warmth American Jews reserve for Israeli military heroes, as was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke via video.  These speeches, too, had a boilerplate character, and were all about Iran, Syria, and the twinned absolutes of Israel’s independence of action and its strategic partnership with the United States.  But what does “strategic partnership” mean in an era when the American “war on terror” has been declared finished and its two land wars in Asia have ended in disarray?  The Obama administration's answers to these questions remain unclear. 

Under these circumstances, it is the responsibility of groups like AIPAC to go beyond speaking of Israel functionally as the Middle East’s only democracy, the scientific, technological and cultural success story that creates marvels like the ReWalk, which permits paraplegics to walk, or SpaceIL, which aims to land an Israeli probe on the moon, or even as the country that is America’s closest ally in the region and acts as America’s largest aircraft carrier.  Perhaps the “shared values and interests” that AIPAC cites in a general way need to be articulated in more specific terms: individual liberty, full equality for women, freedom of speech, religion, assembly and press, respect for law, the embrace of tolerance, and a strong sense of self-preservation and national identity founded in religious tradition. 

These values are rarely discussed directly at AIPAC, in part because to do so would constitute too emphatic a reminder of their near-total absence in surrounding societies, some of which are U.S. allies or clients.  But in their fullest sense, strategy and partnership are expressions of a kind of shared culture.  The closest analogue to the U.S.-Israel relationship is the other, now diminished, special relationship, with the United Kingdom. 

These shared values also form the basis of what may be one of AIPAC’s most interesting and underestimated roles in American society.  For one thing, while the word “Zionism” was mentioned only once from the main stage, AIPAC is perhaps the prime mover of Jewish peoplehood in America, whose cause is precisely the Jewish national home, bridging the religious-secular divide and moving across denominations and generations. 

Equally significant is the systematic construction of a unique cross-cultural entity, a sense of shared American-Israeli peoplehood.  No cause, force, or organization brings Americans, primarily Jews but also Christians, together like the cause of Israel as managed by AIPAC.  It creates a fuzzy hybrid, a cultural, quasi-religious nationalism rooted in history.

Steny Hoyer articulated this with unusual clarity: “America’s ties with Israel run far deeper than matters of security and statecraft.  The United States, a young nation, and Israel, heir to an ancient birthright, were founded on the same values.  These are the principles of human dignity and basic justice first laid out in the Torah and embraced by America’s Founders.  A line connects the wisdom of our shared scripture to the hearts and minds of those who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and our Bill of Rights.”

The closing ceremony of the policy conference—the roll call, where attending U.S. senators and congressmen are presented to the delegates—enthusiastically weaves American institutions, American Jews, and Israel into a single entity with a shared destiny.  This is a modernized, ecumenical version of the historic Congregationalist vision of America as the New Jerusalem, linked practically as well as theoretically to the Old Jerusalem, restored under the Jews.

In the absence of educational and cultural systems that celebrate the “Hebraic” origins of American tradition, it is left to AIPAC and the occasional congressman to remind us and, more important, to defend this source of America’s strength.

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Shlomo on March 12, 2013 at 11:49 am (Reply)
Mr. Joffe offers a warm evocation of Jewish-American-Israeli solidarity under AIPAC. These events are very necessary. Unfortunately, we haven't seen the end of Obama, who told the UN General Assembly in 2012 that, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." Since when does the President of the United States join the Organization of the Islamic Conference in suppressing "blasphemy"? Under Obama, carrying over from Bush II, we have seen increased penetration by Muslim Brotherhood operatives in the United States and American support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. Islam is antithetical to the traditional Judeo-Christian values described by Mr. Joffe, let alone the Enlightenment values of modern Europe and the United States.
Jonathan Grant on March 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm (Reply)
Given that Israel is "the scientific, technological and cultural success story that creates marvels like the ReWalk, which permits paraplegics to walk, or SpaceIL, which aims to land an Israeli probe on the moon..." then why is the USA-which is involved in a debt crisis and sequestration and has trouble paying its bills- providing foreign aid to Israel, to the tune of $3 billion? Charity begins at home!
Dovid on March 13, 2013 at 10:16 am (Reply)
The posting of (Pamela Geller fanboy) Shlomo is silly. Misogynist, anti-democratic Haredi Judaism (Monsey, Williamsburg etc.) is much more antithetical to Judeao-Christian (and Enlightenment) values than Islam is. Any number of Muslim majority countries have had a female head of state. Has the USA ever had a female President? Has a picture of a woman ever appeared in a haredi publication? Give me a break!
Elliott A Green on March 13, 2013 at 2:42 pm (Reply)
Jonathan, PM Netanyahu proposed stopping US aid to Israel in a speech to Congress in 1996 during his first time in office. But this did not happen and probably more because of US Govt desire to supply aid of various sorts to foreign countries which it wants to influence than because of any belief on Netanyahu's part that Israel needs or should want the money. The State Dept and other foreign policy bodies of the US want to influence foreign govts and one of the instruments for doing that is foreign aid. So the US Govt wants to give more than Israel wants to take, IMO. Just bear in mind that both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority get mucho dinero from the US and from rich Arab states. Moreover, the PA gets a lot of dough from the EU and Japan.
So why aren't you complaining about the US money going to the PA and Egypt???
Mark Caroff on March 14, 2013 at 10:06 am (Reply)
13000 meals were served at the AIPAC conference. Not a single one of them was tasty. Truly a shanda!

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