The Anthropology of AIPAC

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Few events in contemporary American Jewish life generate as much passion as the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), held in Washington this year on May 22-24. Some negative varieties of that passion were evident outside the gigantic convention hall, where a small crowd of protestors, ranging from CodePink on the Left to Neturei Karta on the Right, was kept at bay by the police. Their cries, banging drums, and banners made their sentiments clear, but the overall effect was as shambling and unkempt as the contrast between pink t-shirts and black kaftans was jarring.

Inside the hall, the over 10,000 conference participants presented a diametrically opposed vision, as well as passion of a wholly different sort. The best way to view them may be in terms of a tribe or small society.

In such a society, culture—knowledge, beliefs, values—is transmitted between generations. At AIPAC, parents or teachers escorted teenagers dressed uncomfortably in their Sabbath best; by the afternoon, most of the boys' shirts had come untucked, but few shuffled their feet or were unruly. Close to 2,000 college students, Jewish and Christian, circulated in immense packs and gathered in sessions designed especially for them. The thousands of adults of all ages moved through the convention center with earnest resolve, passing through security checks that grew progressively more stringent in the run-up to the arrival of the two major speakers, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The robust intergenerational experience at AIPAC emphatically rebuts an idea recently advanced in some quarters with deep anxiety, in others with unseemly eagerness: that young American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel. Nor could the enthusiastic cross-generational sense of identification with the Jewish state that was on display at AIPAC have been something worked up for this one occasion. It is, rather, a tribute to the long-term efficacy of the group's clear message, its strong organization, and its persistence in pursuit of its goals: creating connections among the next generations of American Jewish leaders, American public figures, and the state of Israel.

The nature of the message is important. AIPAC's is simple: the organization is the "voice of pro-Israel America"; Americans are in general invited to make their voices heard in political life (a "pastime as American as sports"); the maintenance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is vital to both countries.

Self-limitation is also important. Unlike some organizations, AIPAC does not preach, hector, or demand that Israel adopt specific policies of one stripe or another; instead, it scrupulously follows the lead of the sitting Israeli government. Nor, unlike some American Jewish organizations, is it involved with social, political, or cultural issues outside of its core mission. There is no AIPAC position on abortion, global warming, or gay, lesbian, and transgender issues.

In contrast to J Street, which evidently aspires to be the Jewish branch of the Democratic party, AIPAC represents itself as unaligned with either American political party. Whether or not that has always been the case, today the message is underlined in every poster and photomontage: for every Republican figure standing alongside an AIPAC representative, there is a Democrat, and vice-versa. At the conference itself, both Democrats and Republicans were present in abundance.

Moreover, interviews on the conference floor, notably those conducted by Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, revealed both detractors and supporters of President Obama. Although the contrasting receptions accorded the speeches by Obama (cool) and Netanyahu (hot) may have suggested a different picture, these were less an expression of predetermined attitudes than a reaction to substance—only when the President unqualifiedly called for Israel's return to the pre-June 1967 lines did the room fall silent.

An AIPAC conference is a drama performed for a select audience and designed to produce powerful feelings of closeness.  Most impressive in this respect were the plenary sessions and banquets that engaged nearly the entire cohort of 10,000 attendees.  Next to the display of intergenerational solidarity, nothing better illustrates the quality of AIPAC's success. Such ceremonies of reaffirmation are only imaginable if issues are vividly defined, limited in number, and urgent enough to mobilize and focus the emotions of thousands. 

At a kind of parallel conference held in a hotel lobby across the street, the movers and shakers who were in town for the event met one-on-one with elected officials. Those meetings, the essence of Washington politics, were publicly visible to any passerby. Indeed, virtually all conference discussions took place out in the open and, despite the dire threats hanging over Israel today, were conducted in a measured and basically optimistic tone.

It may be these very qualities that account for the fury AIPAC induces in its opponents both within the American Jewish community and among the battalions of its outside critics, the latter of whom range from foreign-policy "realists" to anti-Semitic lunatics. To them, there must be more at work here than simply firing up members and turning them loose to lobby Congress and attend events in their own communities. How could there not be?

In the eyes of its critics and enemies, the AIPAC conference is at best an exercise in cynicism, a momentary drawing-back of the curtain to allow the "Israel lobby" to flex its muscles publicly before returning to its nefarious work as a shadowy cabal. But to perceive AIPAC and its conference in this way is to misunderstand them entirely, if not deliberately. American Jews have a business-like passion for American politics, but like anything else, that passion has to be cultivated and sustained.  If Israel were remotely as bellicose, imperialist, theocratic, and plain evil as its critics propose, neither American Jews nor Americans as a whole would support it.

But the opposite is the case. As poll after poll consistently shows, there is a widespread and growing appreciation that U.S. and Israeli interests are and should remain politically aligned. And this is hardly a matter of shared interests alone: as the same polls and many studies show, close ties between the U.S. and Israel are based not solely in perceptions of mutual security, let alone in abstract ideas, but in tangible political, social, and religious values shared by the citizenries of both countries.

These bedrock circumstances provide the best explanation for the success of both AIPAC and the U.S.-Israel relationship itself. It is, in anthropological terms, a matter of shared knowledge, beliefs, and values—of, in short, culture. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.  

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