AIPAC and the Politics of Reaffirmation

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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. 

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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