With the coming of spring and the blossoming of cherry blossoms comes the annual migration of pro-Israel activists to Washington, D.C., for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, which recently concluded.
Some refer to this as the Zionist conspiracy, although it is an odd conspiracy that meets in a convention center with 14,000 attendees, two-thirds of the Congress and hundreds of reporters. With all of the video cameras, it is more a mega-bar mitzvah than a secret conclave.
It is a crazy quilt of grandparents, students, businesswomen, college undergrad presidents, rabbis and ministers. Everyone is there for the same goal — kind of like a Steelers home game if all the fans read the Commentary blog and were better dressed. The big machers get to wear various ribbons tacked on to the bottom of their name badges connoting special interests or leadership roles. Some have so many that it is difficult to visit the urinal without a major status rearrangement.
For a couple of decades I have been coming with my wife and whichever daughter was available to participate in the cabal. The conference tends to be longer on intellectual discussion than on funny hats. A scholarly talk by Michael Oren was followed by a call and response stem-winder from Pastor John Hagee that had the Jewish grannies on their feet.
I tend to go to the breakout sessions featuring Christian Zionists, or African- American Zionists or Hispanic Zionists — your mom has to tell you that you look pretty; it’s nice to hear it from a stranger. As Sally Fields said, “You like me you really like me!” Cathy Ireland loves Israel? I knew that there was something vaguely attractive about the former swimsuit cover model.
Political speakers are interspersed with the latest in Israeli tech and medical inventions, many of which are saving American lives on the battlefield or behind the wheel. The sometimes longish security lines are a matchmaker’s dream as emails and phone numbers are exchanged. “Didn’t Chelsea convert?” “No, you’re thinking of Ivanka!”
The etiquette for speakers with whom one doesn’t agree is for them to be treated “as you would guests in your home,” which, if you have experienced insufferable guests, you know how much fun that can be. There is always a valiant but inevitably mangled attempt at Hebrew by some of the speakers. After several challenging years at Hebrew school I can only sympathize.
There was a tiny cadre of picketers, some Jewish, who with all of the various mass slaughters taking place throughout the world, somehow only get roused to protest against the Jewish state. My wife warns me every year not to engage with them but as an experienced protester myself, you have to give these self-hating Jews and their anti-Semitic brothas from other mothas some props for turning out.
Lately, AIPAC has been coming in for some criticism from the left and Pat Buchanan for advocating for stronger sanctions on Iran. They say that AIPAC is losing some of its clout. You wouldn’t know it from the ever-increasing and spirited turnout, which, although, slightly more conservative than American Jews as a whole, has far more Democrats than Republicans among its membership. As long as Americans understand that Israel is, like the United States, a country of refugees and immigrants where anyone who signs up for the creed is welcome, the bonds will remain strong. Many of those involved think back to the dark days of World War II or even the Six-Day or Yom Kippur wars and understand the serious and real existential threat of a nuclear Iran.
The highlight of the weekend is the trek to Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Over the years you get to know your congressmen, which can be fun after you get over the lobbying butterflies. You get to see the abysmal design aesthetic that permeates the typical congressional office. We once met the aid of a freshman congressman in the fenced in storage locker in the attic of a congressional office building.
After some pleasantries, we discussed the issues with the member or a key aid. We made an informed request to support some piece of proposed legislation in a way that might make a professional Gucci wearer blush.
Many people and most Jews can name the important Jewish holidays. Everyone knows the Fourth of July. The 2 1/2 days of the AIPAC policy conference were a combination of the best of two traditions. Helping to promote a love of Israel by petitioning our members of Congress is exhilarating, and fun, and Zionistic and patriotic all at the same time. Will we see you there next year? Meet us at the falafel kiosk. The SodaStream is on us.
(Lou Weiss, a member of the Chronicle board of trustees, lives in Squirrel Hill.)