Recently, I found myself seated on an airplane next to a rabbi reading a book on archaeology. Attempting to make conversation, I commented on some forms stuck into the seat pocket that he clearly attempted to leave visible, notable for their large red, white and blue Star of David on top.
As it turned out, the archaeology-enthused rabbi was a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and was headed to their annual policy conference. Thanks to the Israel Education Fund, so was I.
AIPAC is exactly what its slogan says it is, namely “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” Founded in 1963, AIPAC is likely the most powerful lobbying group affecting American foreign policy and their annual conference in March draws large numbers of heavy hitters from both Washington and Tel Aviv. This was not a conference where objectivity was going to be present in abundance, but then again, no one ever pretended that it would be.
For the incurable foreign policy nerd such as myself, AIPAC is an invaluable opportunity to see the functioning of America’s most effective foreign policy lobby in person. It was an exhilarating and somewhat terrifying thought that decisions of war and peace were perhaps being made in the same building as I was in.
My days alternated between speeches given by marquee speakers in a giant room that gave one the feeling of being in an aircraft hanger with smaller talks, security lines, food lines and in one case, a concert by what I was told were some of the leading names in Hebrew pop music. There were also all sorts of special meals and meetings to mingle with members of Congress and other VIPs for those who had donated substantial amounts of money to AIPAC or were otherwise important — a group which, sadly, excluded me.
Despite the variety, there was one real focus to this conference: Iran. Though every aspect of the America-Israel relationship was dealt with at some point, from sports to medical technology, the real issue on everyone’s mind was Iran’s nuclear program and what could be done to stop it.
To the average American, the Holocaust is something that exists only in the distant past. For the Israelis though, it is the defining moment of national identity. Tomorrow is not promised to residents of the world’s only Jewish state, being possibly the world’s only country that large numbers of people believe shouldn’t exist at all.
The Israelis at the conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, were not prepared to take any chances with Israel’s continued existence. To them, a regime with such a strong anti-Israeli bent with nuclear weapons is simply not an acceptable option.
In light of that, it is not surprising that the overwhelming impression that I got from the conference is that AIPAC and its supporters are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that the regime in Tehran doesn’t get the bomb up to, and including, military strikes.
My personal highlight was being able to see President Obama speak in person on Sunday morning, who showed that his reputation as an orator is well deserved. Going before a somewhat hostile audience (the man behind me muttered to himself “He’s lying! How can anyone believe him!” throughout the entire speech) he still managed to give a defiant speech and point to a record of close collaboration between Israel and the United States under his administration.
Others speakers were intriguing for a variety of reasons. Prime Minister Netanyahu exuded the most passion at the podium, helped by an audience that gave him the most standing ovations of anyone the whole conference. Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, gave a moving speech about his life from a shetl in Poland to the highest offices in the Jewish state. A number of other lesser lights spoke as well, ranging from Senator Joseph Lieberman to ex-swimsuit model Kathy Ireland.
Three of the four Republican candidates for President spoke as well, (isolationist Ron Paul was likely not invited) though only Rick Santorum showed up in person, the other two opting to speak via webcam, as it was Super Tuesday. All three were faced with the difficult task of attacking President Obama for holding virtually the same positions they did. They all tried gamely and did fairly well at it too.
Mitt Romney spoke with unexpectedly human emotions and Newt Gingrich promised his first day as president to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv, which went over well with the crowd. Santorum claimed he had the best record of action regarding Iran’s ambitions, although he felt the need to close by warning about radical environmentalists and the threat they pose to America.
Soon enough though, I was back on an airplane, this time without any nearby rabbis, going back to a world of just studying policy, not seeing it in the making. My consolation was the hope that someday, I would be back to stay.