I recently returned home from an exhilarating and emotional three days in Washington DC at the AIPAC Policy Conference. With over 16,000 delegates in attendance, and over 650 rabbis and cantors from across the denominational spectrum, this was AIPAC’s largest Policy Conference to date. This was not my first Policy Conference. This will not be my last Policy Conference. I appreciate the effort AIPAC staffers have made to ensure AIPAC is a big tent, to make sure that those of us who identify as progressive and liberal still feel that there is a place for us, who still desire a strong US-Israel relationship.
There were specific progressive rabbi learning sessions as well as breakout sessions that touched on issues that are important to me, including some that focused on NGO’s in Israel committed to co-existence, others that focused on LGBTQ rights and equality in Israel, and others that grappled with what it means to be progressive and a lover of Israel.
AIPAC has worked diligently to widen their tent. That being said, I could not help but also feel that my views on Israel were not always welcomed by the 16,000 delegates. Previous conferences have had various representatives from Knesset speak. In recent years, I have heard representatives from the right and left in Israel speak. While Netanyahu would address the conference, I’ve also heard Herzog, Livni, and Barak at different times speak to delegates in addition to Netanyahu. With elections in Israel only two weeks away, only the Prime Minister was in attendance. It was difficult to show one’s support for Israel, and for AIPAC, without showing one’s support for Netanyahu.
That made it ever more challenging for me to feel like I had a place, like I had a voice. The Prime Minister of Israel received more than a hero’s welcome. In fact, when he spoke, delegates around me were screaming, even crying. I felt like I was surrounded by teenagers at a One Direction concert. The irony — as opinion polls suggest — is that he is much more beloved by those in attendance than by those whom he serves in Israel.
As a Zionist, my Jewish values are intertwined with my views on Israel. While I support a strong and secure Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship (and thus, went to the AIPAC Policy Conference), I also strongly support a two-state solution. In years past, talks of peace — the necessity of peace — were an integral part of the Policy Conference. To my disappointment, those words were hardly uttered at the conference. It is no surprise then that days after the conference, Netanyahu apparently said that he no longer sees a two-state solution as a viable option.
Additionally, I believe as a Jew and a Zionist, that it is my responsibility to challenge Israel when the country does things that are detrimental to the peace process. The building and expanding of settlements in the West Bank does nothing to advance the prospects for peace. The word ‘settlement’ was barely mentioned. Any attempt to admit that such development is a barrier to peace was met with groans, hisses, and boos. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, speaking about the unbreakable US-Israel relationship, had only a single line about the United States’ opinion that continued settlement development hurts the prospects for peace. Delegates sitting around me booed and shook their heads in disappointment. In a breakout session, when former Congressman Barney Frank said that construction of settlements is an obstacle to peace, he again was met with push-back by delegates.
Don’t get me wrong: The AIPAC Policy Conference is an amazing experience. I have never been to a conference so well run. The videos are well produced. The signage catches your eye. Even the smart phone app allows you to stay up-to-date on all information regarding the conference. The conference has also become a get together for Jewish lay leaders, Jewish professionals, educators, and clergy, the only such conference that brings together 16,000 people.
Still, I fear that as hard as AIPAC tries — and I do appreciate them trying — fewer and fewer of those delegates truly make up such a diverse spectrum. I will continue to search for my place in the tent of AIPAC. I will continue to make my views and my thoughts heard. I will continue to proudly march on as a progressive, sharing my sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes critical views of Israel. I hope that my views will be welcomed in AIPAC, not just by the organization, but also by its delegates.
– Rabbi Jesse Olitzky