By Alex Joffe
Washington was unseasonably cold last week when 13,000 pro-Israel delegates assembled here for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Normally this assemblage is a scene of high drama, but this year — with no American election, no Israeli government upheaval, no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and a litany of crises not quite at the boiling point — it was comparatively subdued. Thus, certain prosaic aspects of AIPAC were brought into higher relief. These may be more important than the dollar amounts of U.S. aid to Israel or the security cooperation between the two countries.
The conference takes 13,000 self-selected activists and raises both their hopes and their fears regarding Israel’s security. Key messages are conveyed repeatedly through video testimonies projected on eight titanic screens. The presence of many thousands of well-dressed high school and college students — who are constantly lauded from the podium by high-profile speakers — shows that cultivation of the next generation of activists is ongoing even in the absence of controversy.
One name hung unspoken over the conference: Chuck Hagel. Some people assailed AIPAC in advance for its presumed opposition to Hagel; then, when it took no stance, others criticized it for not joining the surprisingly small number of Hagel opponents. AIPAC’s position, which was as clear in public as it was in private conversations with staffers, is that it can and must work with any administration or presidential appointee. The coming uncertainty was written into the grim faces of these staffers as they declined to discuss the matter further. But AIPAC plays a long game, which outlasts any one administration. Bipartisanship and evenhandedness are AIPAC’s baselines. Every Democrat keynote speaker is automatically balanced with a Republican. Still, careful observers moving from the large plenary sessions to the smaller breakout groups would have thought they were attending two different conferences. In one breakout session after another, whether it was devoted to Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian Authority or, of course, Iran, the American strategic void was repeatedly noted and criticized. “Leading from behind” has turned out to be a neologism for inaction that has permitted worst-case scenarios to appear repeatedly.
The contrast became even sharper when Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and former Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini spoke forcefully about the need for concerted policies regarding Hezbollah and Syria and condemned the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration of independence. All speakers pointed to a new kind of linkage theory: Iran remains the overarching threat to Israel, but the growing Shia-Sunni proxy war in Syria has now drawn in Lebanon and Hezbollah, prompted Saudi and Qatari intervention, and been exacerbated by Turkish ineptitude. Iran is the hub, but American inaction on all these fronts is the weak link.
In the plenary sessions, higher-level diplomats like Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams took milder, generous or hopeful tones regarding the administration, as did elected officials, who staked out predictable ground. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s fear that “some of our nation’s leaders are complacent” about Israel’s enemies was matched by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer’s reassurance of “our clear intent and firm commitment. America and Israel cannot leave any uncertainty in the minds of those who describe us as their common foes.”
If individual speakers expressed dissatisfaction with American policy, and delegates privately displayed frank disappointment over the Hagel appointment, none of this was in evidence when Vice President Joe Biden took the stage. Biden delivered a bravura performance with his trademark homespun touches, including references to his father and to his own first meeting, as a young senator, with Golda Meir. It fell to Biden to state the administration’s positions forcefully. “President Barack Obama is not bluffing,” he warned, adding, “We are not looking for war. We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully. But all options, including military force, are on the table.”
Biden provided assurances that the United States will “prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Does this mean the technology, raw materials, final assembly, deployment, or use of a nuclear weapon? Biden did, to be sure, assert that the administration meant to “prevent, not contain” Iran, correcting once again Hagel’s misstatement on the subject during his disastrous yet ultimately successful confirmation hearings.
But if Biden was well received, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was embraced by the crowd with the kind of warmth American Jews reserve for Israeli military heroes, as was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke via video. These speeches, too, had a boilerplate character, and were all about Iran, Syria, and the twinned absolutes of Israel’s independence of action and its strategic partnership with the United States. But what does “strategic partnership” mean in an era when the American “war on terror” has been declared finished and its two land wars in Asia have ended in disarray? The Obama administration’s answers to these questions remain unclear.
Under these circumstances, it is the responsibility of groups like AIPAC to go beyond speaking of Israel functionally as the Middle East’s only democracy, the scientific, technological and cultural success story that creates marvels like the ReWalk, which permits paraplegics to walk, or SpaceIL, which aims to land an Israeli probe on the moon, or even as the country that is America’s closest ally in the region and acts as America’s largest aircraft carrier. Perhaps the “shared values and interests” that AIPAC cites in a general way need to be articulated in more specific terms: individual liberty, full equality for women, freedom of speech, religion, assembly and press, respect for law, the embrace of tolerance, and a strong sense of self-preservation and national identity founded in religious tradition.
These values are rarely discussed directly at AIPAC, in part because to do so would constitute too emphatic a reminder of their near-total absence in surrounding societies, some of which are U.S. allies or clients. But in their fullest sense, strategy and partnership are expressions of a kind of shared culture. The closest analogue to the U.S.-Israel relationship is the other, now diminished, special relationship, with the United Kingdom.
These shared values also form the basis of what may be one of AIPAC’s most interesting and underestimated roles in American society. For one thing, while the word “Zionism” was mentioned only once from the main stage, AIPAC is perhaps the prime mover of Jewish peoplehood in America, whose cause is precisely the Jewish national home, bridging the religious-secular divide and moving across denominations and generations.
Equally significant is the systematic construction of a unique cross-cultural entity, a sense of shared American-Israeli peoplehood. No cause, force, or organization brings Americans, primarily Jews but also Christians, together like the cause of Israel as managed by AIPAC. It creates a fuzzy hybrid, a cultural, quasi-religious nationalism rooted in history.
Steny Hoyer articulated this with unusual clarity: “America’s ties with Israel run far deeper than matters of security and statecraft. The United States, a young nation, and Israel, heir to an ancient birthright, were founded on the same values. These are the principles of human dignity and basic justice first laid out in the Torah and embraced by America’s Founders. A line connects the wisdom of our shared scripture to the hearts and minds of those who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and our Bill of Rights.”
The closing ceremony of the policy conference — the roll call, where attending U.S. senators and congressmen are presented to the delegates — enthusiastically weaves American institutions, American Jews, and Israel into a single entity with a shared destiny. This is a modernized, ecumenical version of the historic Congregationalist vision of America as the New Jerusalem, linked practically as well as theoretically to the Old Jerusalem, restored under the Jews.
In the absence of educational and cultural systems that celebrate the “Hebraic” origins of American tradition, it is left to AIPAC and the occasional congressman to remind us and, more important, to defend this source of America’s strength.
Alex Joffe is a frequent Ledger contributor.
Michael Kassen of Westport is chariman of AIPAC.