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AIPAC and the Politics of Reaffirmation

Politics is a matter of emotions as much as intellect, and rituals and ceremonies are central.  The annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C. is, perhaps above all, a ceremony of reaffirmation of the relationships among American Jews, non-Jewish Americans, the American state, and Israel. 

Relevant Links
The Anthropology of AIPAC  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. What accounts for the cross-generational passion so vividly on display at the annual conference of the “Israel lobby”? It’s not what the critics say.
How AIPAC Beat J Street  Josh Block, Foreign Policy. A year ago, U.S.-Israel relations were in a state of constant confrontation. As of now, the storm has cleared. What happened?
Obama's AIPAC Seder  Lenny Ben-David, Times of Israel. The president insisted he would prevent Iran from getting a “nuclear weapon.” Perhaps more interesting is what he did not say.
War is Inevitable  Barry Rubin, PJMedia. If Obama says Israel can’t live with a nuclear Iran, how can Netanyahu fail to attack? And how can Obama fail to support him?

In a period when American politics seems especially bereft of magnitude or of figures who can truly fill a stage, AIPAC's plenary sessions give a sense of grand political theater.  They are held in a hall over 900 feet long, accommodating thousands of individuals.  Words, images, and music are carefully crafted to strengthen participants' intellectual and emotional commitments to Israel and the American political system, as well as AIPAC itself.

This year's conference coincided with a U.S. presidential election campaign.  The statements that American presidents make to AIPAC are not about the operational substance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.  In presidential speeches, the ins and outs of intelligence and security cooperation take a back seat to optics and emotions.  

This year the question of Iran's nuclear program loomed over the entire event, and President Obama had his work cut out for him. 

No American president since Eisenhower has had a more strained relationship with Israel, seemed more personally aloof from Israel and its supporters, invested more political capital in the Arab-Israeli peace process, or been more inept at it.  No American president has been more deferential to and indulgent of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a people, from Obama's obsequious Cairo speech of 2009 to his recent apologies over accidental incinerations of Korans in Afghanistan.

When Barack Obama took the AIPAC stage, to polite but not overwhelming applause, he launched into one of his more important campaign jobs: to reassure Jews that Israel is an issue somehow outside partisan politics.  There has been analysis of the way Obama's speech forcefully rejected "containment" of a nuclear Iran and declared that America would instead "prevent" Iran "from acquiring a nuclear weapon" (whatever "prevent," "acquiring," or "nuclear weapon" meant).  But what does Obama's manner of presentation tell us about his attitudes towards Jews and Israel?

Obama's AIPAC speech

One might have anticipated that Obama, in his AIPAC speech, would feign concern or even contrition at the misapprehensions and miscommunications between his administration and Israel.  He could have said that U.S. policies had good intentions but their execution was flawed, or that unfortunate messages were unintentionally sent or received.  None of this happened.

Instead, Obama recited how, thanks to him, security and intelligence cooperation between the United States had reached new heights.  Increased military aid (actually begun under the Bush administration) had enhanced Israel's security and permitted the sharing of advanced technology that only goes "to our closest friends and allies."  He said that "my administration" had defended Israel in the United Nations. 

After this rousing beginning, which also included a recitation of his personal connections to various Jews and pandering to Shimon Peres, Obama revealed his palpable sense of exasperation, bordering on pique, as he scolded Jews and others for doubting his administration's support for Israel.  Their doubt, he asserted, "is not backed up by the facts."  In one sentence he demanded that the Israel issue not be used as a political tool; in the next, he made his audience's position on this issue a personal referendum on him.

Why doesn't Obama just apologize to the Jews? American Jews are generally undemanding when it comes to such apologies (except from celebrity anti-Semites).  They ask little from political leaders except to be heard and be allowed to participate vigorously in the political process.  But Obama projected the sense that Jewish thanks and loyalty to his administration were not only deserved but required.  One word for this is hubris.

The atmosphere that preceded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's AIPAC speech could not have been more different.  The Maccabeats and the Idan Raichel Project warmed up the crowd, giving the evening the feel of a rock concert. There were benedictions from a rabbi and a minister, followed by carefully paired speeches from Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Nancy Pelosi.  McConnell actually outlined a new Iranian policy, including a congressional authorization of force to prevent Iran from going nuclear.  Pelosi spoke emotionally about her family's deep relationship to Jews and Israel and the Obama administration's policy of diplomacy and sanctions toward Iran.  Retired Israeli Brigadier Shaike Bareket, part of the team that convinced the Nixon administration to supply Israel during the 1973 war, took the stage simply to thank the United States for its continued support.

Then, with minds and hearts prepared, Netanyahu took the stage.  He, of course, enjoys certain advantages that no American president has; but his presentation told as much about his understanding of America as it did about his sense of the audience. In a political masterstroke, Netanyahu recalled that he had received a standing ovation after addressing a joint session of Congress.  "Now," he said, "I ask the 13,000 supporters of the state of Israel to stand up and applaud the representatives of the United States, for standing up with Israel.  Democrats and Republicans alike, I salute your unwavering support for the Jewish state."

Netanyahu's AIPAC speech

The room rose and shook for over a minute in celebration—not of Netanyahu or Israel but of the American political system itself.  The assembled guests, who would spread out across Capitol Hill the next morning to lobby on Israel's behalf, were also applauding themselves and their own participation in that system.

Effective politics shortens the distance between individuals, creating unity and belonging around shared beliefs.  No politics can be wholly or even mostly intellectual; even if such a politics could exist, it would be simply anti-human.  And the most effective politics creates a shared sense of belonging not through scolding or fear but through a sense of being wanted, not by politicians but by the polity and by causes that are larger than the individual.  This is a lesson that American democracy, a cause in need of reaffirmation, could re-learn from AIPAC.

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Independent Patriot on March 13, 2012 at 8:28 am (Reply)
Then the day after he spoke, Obama took back everything he said to reassure Jewish-Americans. Yet, sadly, most Jews in this country will still vote for Obama because he is a Democrat (they are hamstrung by a truly disturbing mental illness, which hides the fact that the Democratic National Committee is beholden to virulent anti-Semtites); and, in the end, Israel is not really that important to most Jewish-Americans. They worry more about aborting a disabled child or gay marriage than about the survival of another six million Jews.
tessie on March 13, 2012 at 10:52 am (Reply)
Another robotic speech by Obama, with the familiar cadences and misrepresentation of truths. The room certainly had its share of typical robotic Democratic Jewish voters who hang onto every lie emanating from their messiah. But more important than the lies were the dangerous ramifications of his words. Iran praised Obama for taking an anti-war stance. Obama made it clear that he was not attacking iran and that if Israel attacks Iran, the whole world will suffer economically. He put Netanyahu in a catch-22 situation on the world stage. This rhetoric aligns the United States more with Iran than Israel; and it targets jews everywhere, including foolish Jewish-American Democratic funders, media, and voters. He will finish what Iran starts. I hope to God I am wrong.
Al on March 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm (Reply)
"Why doesn't Obama just apologize to the [American?] Jews" (meaning the American Jews at the AIPAC conference)? For what, exactly? Perhaps some advice is in order to Obama's staff: Get the Maccabeats to warm the crowd up for him next time.
TXJew on March 13, 2012 at 7:30 pm (Reply)
Mr. Obama is President of the United States, not deputy Prime Minister of Israel. Hope the President kicks Bibi to the curb and resets American-Israel relations to their proper form: patron and client.
Archie1954 on March 14, 2012 at 1:08 am (Reply)
Irael is a small, unimportant state located in a dangerous neighbourhood. Throughout its short artificial life as a creation of the United Nations, it has mangaged to alienate all its neighbours and more than half of the rest of the world. Without unconditional U.S. support regardless of Israeli atrocities (such as the USS Liberty) and theft of Palestinian lands, peace in the area would have been achieved decades ago. So, in a very real way, the United States is directly responsible for the ongoing violence in the Middle East. AIPAC is simply the conduit for the corruption of the American political system by Israel through the use of America's own money, gifts from the American government to Israel or from Zionist individuals of great wealth living in the United States. Everyone knows the truth of the situation but is frightened to say it. However, things are changing. It won't be long before the threats by AIPAC against American Congressmen who don't bow to its wishes will no longer be effective. The sooner that happens, the better.
Manny jakel on March 14, 2012 at 7:09 am (Reply)
Thank you, Alex. TERRIFIC.
Tulsalou on March 14, 2012 at 11:38 am (Reply)
One has to read the Israeli press to understand that Netanyahu's quack is worse than his bite. Apparently, only in Israel does the press realize the danger of the war-mongering cheered on by AIPAC. The AIPAC crowd is the same group of right wingers who in 2004 kept chanting "Four more years--four more years" during Bush II's AIPAC speech. Obama's true support of a realistic Middle East policy will again gain at least 75% of the American Jewish vote in November.
vp on March 19, 2012 at 11:44 pm (Reply)
The relationship between American Jews and Israel as a nation, or as a representative of our collective ideology, has been severed (or has been fading?) for some time. Obama is talking to at least two different groups when he talks to AIPAC now. I don't feel Obama owes American Jews an apology. I want him to pressure Israel on the humanitarian issues that divide opinions right now. There's a kind of racism at AIPAC. Perhaps Obama, being a minority group member, is sensitive to it.

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