An Insider's Look At AIPAC Conference: Just Me And 10,000 Other Attendees
05/24/2011 - 16:09
Gary Rosenblatt

Along with The Western Wall in Jerusalem and the ice sculptures at swanky Passover hotels' lunch buffets, the annual AIPAC conference in Washington surely must rank as one of the Seven Wonders of The Jewish World.

To be part of a four-hour dinner program Monday night at the downtown Washington Convention Center for 10,000 delegates and honored guests - including 70 U.S. Senators and 270 members of the House - is an awesome experience, and I use that adjective purposefully. AIPAC officials noted that the room we were in was longer than the Washington Monument is tall. I only half-kiddingly observed to someone at my table, several football fields away from the speakers' podium, that we were probably seated in suburban Maryland.

The entire wall behind the podium was filled with video images of the speakers, and photos of Israel. The overall effect was of a highly sophisticated and polished presentation, not to mention the number and level of dignitaries in attendance.

I was fortunate to be at a dinner table, having been told by an AIPAC official that 575 of my journalistic colleagues were relegated to a closed off area of long tables and chairs, prohibited from mixing with the delegates, and, most importantly, on their own for dinner.

So thanks to whoever assigned me to Table 1090, along with a few other lucky scribes.

And by the way, the chicken entrée was not bad at all.

One needed the meal to fortify one's self for the marathon of speeches to come, and especially for the famous Roll Call, when four AIPAC officials took turns rapidly belting out the names of every one of those hundreds of elected officials present, in alphabetical order, to the accompaniment of martial music. It took about a half hour.

I knew I was in for a long evening when the invocation - a rhetorical duet featuring a Conservative rabbi from New Jersey and black Baptist minister from Detroit, arms locked in unity - took at least ten minutes.

As for the speeches, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) had numerous applause lines in pledging undying support to Israel as America's most loyal ally. Though neither man displayed a lick of charisma, the crowd ate it up.

One highlight of the evening leading up to the grand finale, Prime Minister Netanyahu's address, was a powerful video featuring two soldiers wounded in combat - an American who lost an arm in Iraq and an Israeli wounded in Gaza. Both were eloquent and humble in saying they were honored to have been wounded serving their country, and expressing solidarity with each other's country.

As the screen went dark, the two men were introduced, and the crowd jumped to its feet in applause on seeing them in person. It was an emotional moment, which lost a bit of its impact when the former soldiers delivered additional remarks of five to ten minutes each.

My mantra, and futile complaint about Jewish public events, is "less is more." But it never works that way. And truth to tell, the AIPAC conference is not geared to pleasing the media, nor should it be. It's aimed at its delegates and does a terrific job of educating them about the issues through a variety of speakers at breakout sessions and of firing them up to be passionate, effective lobbyists - in Washington and back home.

As for the prime minister's remarks, I wrote about them in my column this week.

I would just add that the crowd responded very effectively when five people heckled him - one at a time and a few minutes apart. Each time someone shouted out against Israeli policy, the delegates rose to their feet in applause of the prime minister, drowning out the protester. (Note to planners of this fall's General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.)

What leaves me worried, though, was the mood of anger and fear among AIPAC delegates stemming from President Obama's State Department speech - particularly the line about the pre-1967 war boundaries being a starting point for negotiations - and revved up by Prime Minister Netanyahu's repeated insistence that those borders are "indefensible."

It seemed like Netanyahu purposefully responded in a confrontational way, initially and again Monday night. So it was not surprising to see some pro-Israel groups labeling Obama "the new Arafat" and putting out ads asserting that the President had called for Israel to "retreat" to the pre-`67 lines.

It's an emotional and dangerous over-reaction that could undermine the very theme of the AIPAC conference: "Best Together" in referring to the U.S. and Israel.


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A lot goes on at such important meets, and it’s really difficult to keep the whole thing interesting but the wounded soldiers being present at this year’s AIPAC conference is certainly most humbling for me.

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when i see this newspaper's editor habitually badmouth bibi and continually make excuses for obama's very overt antpathy towards israel i feel that something is very wrong. i'm sure this post will be made to diaappear since what i'm writing does not fit the apparent agenda of a newspaper that i used to enjoy reading. the jewish week seems of late to be tilting towards the same agenda as j street which is not "propeace/pro-israel" but rather something much more negative.

To Harold,

You and I are now engaged in dialogue. We are anonymous strangers and I doubt we are likely to gain a whole lot from our dialogue but I am glad we are talking about the protesters and even some of the issues that matter.

I'm not exactly sure what you're trying to prove by comparing AIPAC to JStreet. If you're telling me they have more power (wealth, influence, connections, political capital) I would agree you wholeheartedly. But it's not really a fair comparison seeing JStreet has only been around for 3 years compared to AIPAC's 48. And I'm sure we can both appreciate the significance of well established Jewish organizations. Also, would it surprise you to know that most young American Jews do not identify as Zionists?

On your second point, would you say Israel has ever seriously consulted liberal policy makers on the borders issue? or even anyone other than right-wing Likudniks? And during Netanyahu's term? I don't think so. I do no claim to know what exactly the protesters' goal was that night. But they did spark some dialogue including this one and I'm sure at least a handfull more elsewhere.

This little bit of questioning the paradigm is what I think Israel needs. Specifically, we who support Israel should keep an open mind if we want to continue parading the only democracy in the Mid East. Is this walking my talk? Yes, in part, and just a small start.

The AIPAC confab opened no old wounds. Mr. Obama is pro Muslim and
Mr. Netanyahu is pro Israel - no news here. However, what I found amusing
was Mr. Obama trying to "patch it up" after his failed comments on the '67
border with Israel. Also the comical bitching of Mr. Obama's media bunch
outraged that Mr. Netanyahu dared to "lecture" a sitting U.S. President
on Middle East policy in the Oval Office - and even worse - before Congress!

Ah yes: What a tangled web we weave - when we first try to deceive. . .

Gary - it was three AIPAC officials (not four) calling roll. And the catch phrase was "better together" (not "best"). And, indeed, the chicken wasn't bad!

You are a dinosaur, Rosenblatt. Wake up and say something useful.

Those protesters represent the liberal Jewish American youth. AIPAC can keep their collective head in the sand all they want but it will do no good. Please, Gary, acknowledge the plurality of American Jewry.

Matt, you've got to be kidding. First, there are MANY young people whose views are more in line with AIPAC than with JStreet. Please don't stick your head in the sand and try to pretend that the younger generation are all liberal and dovish on Israel - they're simply not. AIPAC had 10,000 delegates. JStreet has a fraction of that.

Second, those protesters were not even representative of liberal Jewish American youth. To be liberal suggests being open-minded, engaging in dialogue, hearing a diversity of views. The protesters aren't interested in any of that. Their goal was to shut down dialogue. By each one protesting every few minutes, their goal was to interrupt Netanyahu's speech as much as possible - not to listen to it, respectfully disagree, engage with it, dialogue with people who share his views - no, simply to shut down views they don't like as much as they can. It's time for those who espouse "pluralism" to actually walk the talk.