At the end of the AIPAC policy conference, maybe during Joe Biden’s pandering speech, I sat biting into a napkin trying to keep from crying with a joyful sense of purpose that the conference had given me. This post is all about that joyful feeling, and what it might mean to those who come to this site.
This was my second AIPAC policy conference. The last one I walked around in a kind of shock. This time I felt more comfortable. For you are in a perfect bubble the whole time–but the pleasure is the knowledge that you can actually leave, and a different world is a couple hundred yards away.
The constituents of the bubble are nice, intelligent, conservative well-dressed Jews in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and they are all savvy and canny. When you talk to them, you find that no one needs to educate them about the situation. They have been following it all their lives. They only need to educate themselves about the latest Israeli government policy nuances; and then they are ready to go forward and lobby and testify. No one can ambush them or surprise them. They are tough, they know their stuff. There are some newbies at the edge of the crowd, but the rank-and-file are this aging population of faithful.
When they are gathered in the hall (as Mike Desch and Jim Lobe both pointed out to me), it seems like a plenary gathering in the Former Soviet Union. On the stage are the Politburo, 40 or 50 people at tables, most of them old and rich, with name cards in front of them, all revered by the people in the room. The people on the stage establish the new line. The degree of variation from that line will be minimal; the famous Jewish idea that if you have two Jews, you will have three opinions, does not hold here. For the entire conference is psychically built on one issue—Jewish survival—and on questions of Jewish survival, Jews defer to their leaders, as the Torah shows. There is utter orthodoxy. As I came into the hall for the Shimon Peres speech, two Jewish women (Rae Abileah and Medea Benjamin) were being dragged out kicking and screaming. Their opinions on Gaza were not welcome. The next day when two women interrupted Joe Biden’s speech, the whole conference rose as one to applaud and drown them out. Very Brezhnev.
The leaders of the bubble know that there is trouble outside. The best speech at the conference was by AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr, on how Israel is under attack. In true Soviet style, I will call it the “Predicate for Abandonment” speech. Eloquent and stirring, and Kohr delivered it beautifully (watch it here)–the aim of the speech was to rally the faithful. But the true awareness in the speech was that outside the bubble of the conference and Washington, things are changing, people are beginning to question the message. It was a Shakespearean speech in the sense of a leader– and Kohr is a vibrant strong leader–reminding his followers about the threats against them in often poetic terms.
“What we are witnessing is something more than simple defamation. What we are witnessing is the attemped delegitimization of Israel—the systematic sowing of doubt that Israel is a nation that has forfeited the world’s concern, a nation whose actions are in the strict mening of the term, indefensible. This is more than simply spewing hatred. This is a conscious campaign to shift policy, to transform the way Israel is treated by its friends, to a state that deserves not our support but our contempt, not our protection but pressure to change its essential nature. I want to be clearly understood here. I am not saying that these allegations have become accepted. But they have become acceptable. More and more they are invading mainstream discourse… These voices are laying the predicate for abandonment. They are making the case for Israel’s unworthiness to be allowed what is, for any nation, the first and most fundamental of rights, the right to self-defense.”
Superb. Later Abileah, who was dragged from the hall, said she found Kohr’s words inspiring. “It was kind of exciting to hear how big our movement has become”
The takeaway of Kohr’s speech was that the people in the room must not let the delegitimization of Israel “penetrate the halls of congress and the councils of the president.” And that of course is AIPAC’s idea: we use our influence at the highest levels to maintain orthodoxy.
The amazement was how far these new ideas have actually touched AIPAC itself. As Benjamin and Abileah showed, they are even entering the hall. Several of the blogger/journalists in and around the conference were not on board the Zionist program, and there was a joke getting around about the “anti-Zionist minyan.” During the banquet Monday night Eli Lake (the excellent reporter for the New York Sun and now Washington Times who is very pro-Israel but who is not socialized (I excuse him because he reminds me of myself)) was calling out high-schoolish challenges to a table where some of these writers were sitting. He yelled at me, “What’s your twitter feed! What’s your twitter feed?” He yelled at Ali Gharib of Inter-Press: “Tell Jim Lobe [the sage at Inter Press] there’s a neocon cell in the Obama administration”—a joke, I guess, aimed at exposing our thinkng as conspiratorial.
Still: the bubble has not broken. The most contradictory bubble moment came when I asked an AIPAC member about whether Brian Baird, the Washington congressman who has visited Gaza, is a threat to Israel in Congress, and the member said that Baird was a special case, he just happened to represent the district where Rachel Corrie was from, and Baird was compelled to speak for her. “No matter what you think about the Corrie case, even if you think it was just a traffic accident, it was also a tragedy.” My breath was taken away. Rachel Corrie was a beautiful young woman whose murder has touched countless progressives. Hers is just like the martyrology of Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the Jewish martyrs to the civil rights movement who are mentioned again and again in AIPAC as our nobility.
The comment was especially upsetting because a few hours before I had seen Craig and Cindy Corrie. They had come to the convention to talk about their daughter’s story. They were joined at lunch that day with members of Code Pink and Palestinian activists and leftwing bloggers and Rabbi Weiss of Neturei Karta, a motley assembly if ever there was one, Weiss undoing his black slicker as he came in from the rain. Cindy Corrie said she was trying to find out who makes the teargas canister that maimed Tristan Anderson and killed Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahme. Craig Corrie told the group that he had been demonstrating that morning outside the conference and gotten into a discussion of aid to Israel with an AIPAC member. The man had ended up hugging him and “he was shaking in my arms,” Corrie said. “He was personally shaking in my arms.”
Suffice it to say that these religious moments happened outside the bubble. Inside the bubble the attitudes are tough and focused. I blogged earlier about asking AIPAC members how they felt about a Palestinian state. It is way down the list, after Iran, and there are so many conditions on that state it is ridiculous. It can’t be a terrorist state; and Palestinians are terrorists, etc.
“I understand,” one big friendly older guy said to me, “that everyone wants to try to point a finger at Israel over Palestinian conditions, and we have to take that issue away from them in the political discussion.” I said, “Well the reason we need to remove that issue is that it’s a true fact that the world blames Israel for Palestinian suffering.” He said, “The Palestinians are responsible for everything that’s happened to them. They’ve chosen to be led by…”
I said, “Wait, you’re analyzing it; I’m just saying, the world blames Israel.”
He rallied. “That’s like a homeless person blaming his parents for the way they raised him. People have to take responsibility for their situation.”
I am trying to convey how thick are the clouds of denial about any degree of Jewish responsibility for Palestinian suffering. It is amazing that in this context Eival Givady, an Israeli general who is apparently Kadima, would come off as liberal, and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, would come off as fair-minded, and Aaron David Miller would come off as a raving radical. When of the three, Miller is the only one outside the bubble. (And within a day or so I must get to his great speech at the policy conference).
While I was talking to the nice older guy who made the homeless analogy, his wife was texting. Then she leaned over to say that she had escaped a little town Germany in 1939, a few months after her stepfather was picked up during Kristallnacht, and she’d grown up in Shanghai. Her husband explained to me that they are involved in AIPAC in order to make sure that their 16-year-old grandson remembers the Holocaust. The grandson has told them that he believes in talking to Hamas and Iran. So they brought their grandson to the concentration camps in Germany in order to show them what “talking” to evil people leads to.
As I sat there next to them, I remembered the most important line in Avraham Burg’s book, The Holocaust Is Over, Let Us Rise From Its Ashes. I cite this line frequently, but not enough. Burg says that the Jews forgave the Nazis too quickly, in part so as to get reparations, and the result was that they projected their unhealed rage on to the Arabs, and made them Nazis. This teaching is true for the neoconservatives/Eli Lake on Saddam Hussein and the AIPAC policy conference and Marty Peretz re Ahmadinejad. This feeling of Jewish existential hazard is so overpowering to these people that they are incapable of absorbing the central lesson of the American experience in the Middle East in the last five years: that after suffering thousands of dead from suicide terrorism, the U.S welcomed the perpetrators of that violence into a government in Iraq. No, the Jewish experience of suffering and persecution is too vivid and large, it crowds out all other human episodes of suffering right now.
Talking with the Holocaust survivor, I understand that fully. Out of filial honor of that suffering, countless speeches at AIPAC end with Holocaust remembrances.
A Jewish friend of mine outside the bubble was upset by the matter of Jewish identification. At lunch after the conference, she said that this is a sick form of identification for young people–to go through life thinking themselves as victims, when they’ve hit the jackpot in terms of human civilization in the United States. I love that, jackpot. She said that when someone lectured her about Israel recently, she said, Why don’t you move there if you think it’s so great; you don’t want to move there, you like it here, and why do you like it here, you like living in a diverse society.
These are familiar themes to many readers fo this site, Jewish privilege, Jewish Holocaust identification, Diaspora Jewish presence and dual loyalty. And let’s be clear, the policy conference is a festival of dual loyalty.
What I have to add today is that when I was talking to that Holocaust survivor, I held her hand and thanked her for telling me her story. I took my anti-Zionism and tried to plant it in the middle of this field of Zionism. At my last AIPAC policy conference, I felt myself to be outside the community that was in the room. But this time, I accepted all these people as my tribe. The torment at the heart of my writing here is that I grew up in tribal ways; and I recognized that woman as an older Jew like my parents and my parents’ friends—in fact I even ran into one of my parents’ friends there!–and the basis of my napkin-biting moment is that AIPAC brought me home to this identification. I put aside my assimilationist feelings, my intermarried goyim-loving feelings, and got back to the fact that this is the community I was raised in and love and have grown out of but still love; and I am not going to be deracinated.
And as a member of the tribe, I say: you have gone down the wrong path. Like the adherents of Communism, these Jews have formed a religious identification with an ideology. They are making a tragic error. They have identified themselves with a human rights abuser that has imposed Jim Crow conditions and apartheid and worse on 3 million Palestinians. AIPAC is now demonizing Iran to Congress so as to distract our country from the problem, as they helped to demonize Iraq before, and they are causing incalculable suffering. Hans Blix and others say that an attack on Iran will only set the nuclear program back a few years.
Israel’s behavior is a Predicate for Abandonment; Kohr is right. But their answer to the Predicate for Abandonment is a bubble and bribery. The congressmen who are brought in, the presidential candidates—are all bribed to support Israel.
There are better bases for interaction than bribery. At the all-night Passover/Nakba vigil this spring in Philadelphia that Adam Horowitz and I attended, we were asked to write down one word to explain ourselves. Horowitz’s word was “accountability.” Accountabilty not just to Jews but to the world. What I felt as Joe Biden pandered to these incredibly powerful and influential Jews who have camped outside the “halls of Congress and the councils of the President,” was that I am just as drawn to matters of Jewish history and power as all the people in the room. Horowitz and I, who run this site, are both Jewish and unconfused about our identities. We love our traditions and people and we understand the tremendous power they have in human civilization. We went to AIPAC because we aim to play our part, too, in Jewish history; and we will.