Author Archives: Simona Fuma

The Takeaway

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

Now that the AIPAC conference is over, what is the buzz on the street? Lots of pundits are saying that Netanyahu and the Obama administration are headed for a collision course on two issues: a Palestinian state, and Iran.

First, as regards the Palestinians: In his speech to AIPAC yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden called on Israel to freeze settlements, allow Palestinian freedom of movement and increased security responsibility. Meanwhile, on Monday night Rahm Emanuel apparently told a closed reception of top AIPAC donors that making progress towards peace with the Palestinians will make it easier to get regional support to stop Iran. This set off a brief firestorm in Israel, where politicos fearfully interpreted this to mean that the administration intended to “link” the Iran issue with Israeli progress on the Palestinians.

In any case, the mood and attitude towards negotiations is decidedly cooler in Israel. The editorials in Israel’s three largest dailies this morning all call on Netanyahu to reject American pressure.

“The bottom line is that among Israelis, there is a clear and solid majority against a two-state solution,” states the editorial in the right-leaning Yisrael Hayom. But just to show you how political punditry can be a game of parsing and re-parsing ambiguous statements, Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg claims that Biden’s speech actually was soft on Israel.

Second, Iran. Few dispute that Iran is on the path to acquiring a nuclear weapon in the not-too-distant future. Iran says it wants to destroy Israel. So the question is, what to do about it?

Israel is very, very scared and emphasizes the need for tough action now, and doesn’t rule out military action. AIPAC is trying to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, and has significant support in Congress. But the Obama administration says it does not want to introduce new sanctions right now because they are trying to engage Iran with an attitude of “mutual respect.” By way of a rationale, the administration says it is trying to build international support in case more crippling sanctions are needed later.

Still, I find the administration’s motives somewhat murky. Perhaps, like this journalist, Obama thinks the Iranian threat is overblown and that Israel and its supporters are the bellicose ones.

Or maybe the Obama administration doesn’t mind if the Iranians get nuclear weapons — even though many of its Arab neighbors do. Or maybe he fears confronting Iran because Iran could retaliate by trying to block oil traffic out of the Persian Gulf, sending oil prices sky-high and dashing any prospects for an economic recovery.

At the AIPAC conference on Sunday I met a nice gentleman from th e left-leaning Woodrow Wilson Center who mentioned he was writing a book on Iran. I asked him what he thought of AIPAC’s push for sanctions legislation and he said “it is probably too soon for sanctions.” I just hope his analysis is not out of date by the time he finishes his book.

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs.

Posted on May 6, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Art of Lobbying

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

Despite being an AIPAC critic, public affairs strategist Dan Fleshler acknowledges that “there is no organization or company in America that turns out so many volunteers for a day’s worth of congressional lobbying, each and every year.” When I boarded one of four lobbying buses for Illinois delegates, deputy Midwest director Samantha Margolis thanked everyone for coming and told us that what we are about to do “is the most important part of why you’re here.”

After chatting for a while with my fellow passengers, we were off!—trailing behind our police escort blaring sirens—as if we were a head of state or a convention of Saudi oil barons. I never got to the bottom of why AIPACers get this VIP treatment—some people I asked thought it had to do with security—and then I noticed that journalist Dana Milbank addressed the issue in a 2005 column: “How much clout does AIPAC have? Well, consider that during the pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference yesterday, a fleet of police cars, sirens wailing, blocked intersections and formed a motorcade carrying its conventioneers—to lunch.”

We arrive at a congressional office building and 200 AIPACers from Illinois file in to lobby their two Senators: Dick Durbin and Roland Burris, who was appointed to Obama’s vacant Senate seat by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich under questionable circumstances. The lines outside the House office buildings are so long that one House intern tells me, “I’ve never seen it like this.”

And now I am in a bind. The AIPAC staffers were very adamant that I could only sit in on the lobbying session if I didn’t write anything down and kept what was said “off the record.” It seems silly, since any of the 200 people there could blog about what happened.

But I’ll just give you the general outlines. Both Durbin and Burris said they were co-sponsoring the Iran sanctions bill. Burris was deferential to the crowd, calling them “very intelligent” and warning that he might not have the answers to all their questions. The questions, mostly about his position on Iran, were indeed very intelligent and polished, but his comment was such a Jewish stereotype! Did Burris really feel intimidated by the intelligence of the AIPAC delegates or was he just flattering them in a way he thought they might like to hear? And were they aware that he was buttering them up, or were they themselves trying to play up the impression of being a very intelligent, wealthy and formidable audience?

I know I’m probably reading too much into one little comment, but this is how I felt throughout the entirety of the AIPAC conference. All communication between lobbyists and politicians was coded—and it was a job to decipher what they really meant.

There is a certain type of person who reads Politico, watches Sunday morning talk shows and revels in the intricacies of political signaling and maneuvering. Back at my synagogue in Chicago, those who generally went to AIPAC Policy Conference were ambitious, verbally gifted lawyers and businessmen who read every political magazine and had a Washington fetish.

The dancers and social workers tended not to go — maybe because they couldn’t afford the $500 conference fee, airfare and hotel. Each one of these AIPAC activists was formidable on his own — so I can see how thousands of them might be a force to be reckoned with. But nevertheless, I can see how the culture of Washington politics would appeal less to naïve idealists and more to lawyer types. There is certainly a lot of idealism in AIPAC surrounding Israel, but the means of helping Israel can be slick and, let’s say, practical.

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs.

Posted on May 6, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Peace and Love

This entry was posted in History, Israel on by .

Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

I am sitting at the closing plenary session of the AIPAC conference. In another hour, 6,500 delegates will board buses to Capitol Hill, fanning out to various House and Senate offices to try to influence the political process.

But this morning, two political heavyweights are speaking: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Vice President Joe Biden. It’s show time again: Some of the smaller breakout sessions are informative, with think tank fellows and politicians hashing out slightly different points of view on security issues, but the large plenary sessions are pure political theater.

Both the speakers and audience know their roles and their lines. Politician: say something warm and fuzzy about Israel. Audience: standing ovation. Politician: Speak, euphemistically, about Israel “taking risks” for peace. Audience: no response. When Kerry says, “President Obama has said he wants his administration to begin direct talks with Iran, and we need to give this strategy a chance,” he is greeted with stony silence. Kerry then calls for freezing settlements, which actually gets a smattering of applause.

But by far his biggest applause line comes at the end of his speech when he tells the story of visiting Masada on one of his numerous trips to Israel: “We stood at the end of the cliff and altogether we shouted across the chasm Am Yisrael Chai…the State of Israel lives. The people of Israel live! Israel lives!” The audience whoops and claps and exults in the moment.

Shortly after Biden starts speaking, there is an unexpected interruption. He is being heckled! Who is this woman and how did she get past the Secret Service? Later on the bus, a man says she is from an organization called Code Pink. As the security guards forcibly escort her from the premises, thousands of people stand and burst into raucous applause in order to drown her out.

Biden says things the audience doesn’t like. America is taking a new direction in foreign policy, he explains. The status quo in the Middle East for the last 10 years has not worked, he says, and therefore “the United States will approach Iran initially in the spirit of mutual respect.” Drop-dead silence. Biden says that if America’s efforts at engagement don’t bear fruit, at least it will be popular in the world and will have more international backing for “other options.” Later, on the bus to Capitol Hill, I talk to some folks from the suburbs of Chicago. Biden (and Obama’s) conciliatory approach gets a clear thumbs down.

“Look, we’re children of the sixties,” says a woman from Skokie, Illinois, “but when you grow up you realize it’s not all about peace and love. We’re not all the same deep down and not everyone wants the same thing.”

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 5, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

AIPAC’s Critics

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

On Monday afternoon, a dozen or so pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside the conference in anticipation of the gala dinner. They blocked the path that the well-heeled AIPAC delegates must walk from the convention center to the Renaissance hotel, carrying signs with slogans like “Free Palestine” and “Judaism against Zionism.”

Some of the delegates stop to argue with them: “If you lived in Palestine they would cut your throat,” says a middle aged Iranian man to the black-hatted Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a Neturei Karta rabbi who said he has met Ahmadinejad several times. “How could you sit with that animal?” the man asks.

Weiss replies: “The Torah says that even if you have someone whom you think is your enemy, you should approach him,” adding that the Jews should have approached Hitler and that Zionist boycotts against the German leader are what brought out his anger. In other words, Zionism caused the Holocaust.

Aside from the protesters outside the conference, AIPAC has more respectable critics in Washington these days. “There has been denigration in mainstream culture of the US-Israel relationship,” Senator John Kyl said in his speech tonight. These critics depict the Jewish lobby “as a narrow self-interested ethnic lobby.”

But in fact, he insisted, anyone at the conference tonight can see that the pro-Israel movement consists of “Americans from many walks of life, ethnic and religious backgrounds.”

Books like The Israel Lobby and the recent Transforming America’s Israel Lobby lay out the critique Kyl refers to in detail. Basically, the idea it posits is that a bunch of hawkish neoconservative Jews with dual loyalties are putting America’s best interests and security at risk in order to promote the interests of a militaristic foreign entity that is visiting injustice on the Palestinians.

Is there any truth to this critique? A full analysis would require more space than I have here, but I’ll say this. Although there are indeed participants from all ethnic backgrounds at the conference, the vast majority of the people here are Jewish. Their love for Israel is motivated by Jewish motivations—in other words, it is something irrational, ineffable that they feel and can’t necessarily explain why. “It’s something bigger than me,” one 60-something delegate said. They also happen to be a very impressive crowd: well-dressed, well-degreed, articulate, attractive, driven — far more so than any group of people you’d meet in your day-to-day life — depending on what you do day to day. Many of these people, I am given to understand, are well off.

Now here’s the question: Is there anything wrong with a group of successful people banding together to promote a cause they care about? Wouldn’t anyone do the same if they could? Lawyers and retired people band together to lobby Congress, and in a way lobbying for Israel is more selfless because it is a cause of the heart rather than the pocketbook. And yet AIPAC’s critics consider the organization particularly nefarious. The question is: is it their fault if they’re good at playing the political game?

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 5, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Gala Dinner

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

I am sitting at AIPAC’s gala dinner. Over 800 round tables are covered with shimmering golden tablecloths, bottles of kosher wine, china, and flickering candle centerpieces. The gala dinner is arguably the highlight of the conference, with over half the US Senate and Congress in attendance, along with White House chief-of-staff and Rahm Emanuel. In some ways the dinner is the height of slick Washington showmanship and in others it resembles an El-Al flight, where the passengers refuse to sit down, despite repeated exhortations from the flight crew. “Please take your seats,” former AIPAC president Robert Asher urged the restless crowd tonight, but the schmoozing opportunities were too abundant for them to listen.

As more than 6,000 banqueters dig into their stuffed cornish hen with broccoli rabe and sweet potato puree, the evening kicks off with the AIPAC “Roll Call.” Three national board members ascend the podium and read off the list of White House staff, members of Congress, Israeli dignitaries and foreign ambassadors in attendance. “From Wisconsin, Russ Feingold!” they exclaim, and so on and so on. Every once in a while, a popular name elicits sustained applause: Rahm Emanuel, John Bolton, Joe Lieberman, Al Franken.

Although it may seem like distasteful chest thumping, this exercise is at the heart of the way AIPAC operates. A promising young AIPAC activist will have money, a passion for Israel’s security, and the sophistication to cultivate politicians and articulate AIPAC’s message. The person will be encouraged to host fundraising events with other pro-Israel activists where the politician will learn that it is politically and financially worthwhile to adopt a pro-Israel position. AIPAC’s message usually consists of maintaining or boosting US military aid to Israel, and advocating policies that promote Israel’s security interests as an Israeli centrist politician might see them. For instance, this year, AIPAC is promoting tougher economic sanctions against Iran (not military action, as someone further to the right might do). It is also calling on the administration to adhere to certain principles in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including a Palestinian commitment to end violence, direct bilateral negotiations, and maintaining America’s “special relationship” with Israel.

At the 2006 Policy Conference, AIPAC’s executive director Howard Kohr explained AIPAC’s origins:

In 1943 ten years and two million European Jewish deaths after Hitler rose to power, a group of American rabbis traveled to this city in an attempt to get a meeting at the White House. Their goal: to make a direct appeal for the United States to save their Jewish brothers and sisters from the gas chamber.

The meeting never happened. White House officials sent word that they were too busy to take a meeting.

My friends, decades later, in our nation’s capital, at a conference of the size and diversity our forefathers would have found inconceivable, the Vice President of the United States will come to us in what will be the largest American Jewish audience that any Vice President has addressed…”

Both power and perceived power are central to AIPAC’s M.O. The Center for Responsive Politics ranked the “pro-Israel industry” 40th out of the top 50 industries that gave to Congressional elections in 2004, behind lawyers and retired people. But it is perceived as extraordinarily powerful nevertheless. When Chas Freeman withdrew his candidacy for chair of the National Intelligence Council, he blamed the “Israel lobby.” Although his attitude was critical, his depiction of their power is not necessarily an insult.

“There is tremendous power in this room,” Senator John Kyl said from the podium at the Gala dinner tonight. “Power for good,” he hastened to add. One of the speakers tonight was Dick Durbin, a 30-year veteran of Congress from Illinois whose career is the kind of cautionary lesson AIPAC would like all politicians to heed. In 1982, Illinois representative Paul Findley became known as “Arafat’s best friend in Congress” after meeting with the PLO leader. Durbin was handpicked and funded by former AIPAC president Robert H. Asher and defeated Findley “in a landslide,” Asher gloated.

After Asher’s introduction, Durbin took the stage. “No one could have a better friend than Bob Asher,” he said, and encouraged other members of Congress to follow his lead building relationships with AIPAC members. “I recommend it.”

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 5, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

City of Angels

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

Here’s a mystery: Why does Los Angeles have the largest contingent at the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. this year? After all, greater LA has about 500,000 Jews, while New York City alone has over a million. New York is a four-hour drive from Washington, while LA is a 5-hour plane ride. Also, demographers would tell you that most indicators of Jewish affiliation are higher in New York than LA. For instance, synagogue membership averages at 34 percent in LA but 43 percent in New York. It’s a cliché, but aren’t people supposed to move out west to shake loose their old identities?

I don’t know the answer, but apparently there are a handful of activist rabbis in LA who are not embarrassed to urge their congregants to get involved in AIPAC. These include the rabbis of the Conservative Sinai Temple, the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple and the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom. I met David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple, at a panel discussion for his congregants last night that included Congressmen Eric Cantor and Rob Andrews as well as pollster Frank Luntz.

I wasn’t allowed into the closed event–an AIPAC staffer stood at the door and turned all uninvited guests away—but when I did manage to slip in, they were discussing the pending legislation on Iran that AIPAC is pushing. Rabbi Wolpe is a star of the Conservative movement. He was named #1 pulpit rabbi in North America by Newsweek last year, and his congregation boasts 2,200 families, of whom 192 individuals have flown into DC with him for this event.

On first meeting him, it’s apparent that he is handsome, sharp-minded and charismatic. When I ask him whether his more liberal congregants are put off when he recruits for AIPAC, a woman immediately jumps in. “I’m liberal!” she shouts. “I’m a pro-choice, gun-control Democrat!” says Janet Halbert, adding that she also supports Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. “But this is both sides of the aisle, this is about the strength of the US-Israel alliance.” Halbert is so fired up that Rabbi Wolpe simply adds, “I agree with what she said.”

As I sit in one of the sleek seating areas of the Washington Convention Center, the din of conversation is so loud it amounts to a roar. To my right is a group of Israelis speaking Hebrew. To my left, a pair of middle-aged men are conversing in Farsi. Half of Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation are of Persian descent. It was they who notoriously scoffed at New York Times columnist Roger Cohen a few weeks ago when he told their congregation that Iranian Jews had a good life in Iran. “They’re always treated as second class. Religious minorities have no voice. Jews or Baha’i get arrested for espionage,” Joseph Marvisi tells me.

There is a large presence of Persian Jews in their 20s at the conference–perhaps 200. These are first generation youngsters who are doing well and want to get involved in the political process: hosting politicians in their bachelor and bachelorette apartments and making political donations — which is the way AIPAC works its influence. Many of them also view this as an opportunity to look for spouses–although they won’t say so outright. This is the first generation of Iranian girls who don’t get married at age 19. Their parents have started giving them more freedom to get an education and explore new roles. Twenty-year-old political economy student Kayla Lahijani explains the attraction to AIPAC thus: “It’s a way to seem smart and active. It’s not just about looks.”

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 4, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

People Watching at AIPAC

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

I was going to write a blog post about why AIPAC’s regional branch in Los Angeles is so strong (apparently LA — or, possibly, California — has a larger contingent here than New York). But there was a late afternoon plenary session starring Newt Gingrich and as I stood on the main convention center floor among the schmoozers and stragglers, I couldn’t find any Angelenos to interview.

One of the great pleasures of attending large Jewish gatherings is the anticipation and fun of bumping into people you know. Amid the buzz and the delegates walking to and fro was a guy I had been a camp counselor with in the 1990’s. There was my buddy Barak from Jerusalem; a rabbi from Chicago; an ambitious young lawyer who had been on the board of my synagogue.

Not only that, but there were minor celebrity spottings as well: a host of congressmen, Canada’s former justice minister Irwin Cotler, and Israeli TV correspondent Gil Tamary. Last but not least was Torah celebrity Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, sitting outside the plenary among a circle of admirers, looking pretty and delicate in a blue silk blouse.

“It is wonderful to see Jews unifying as one around Israel. It is an amazing outpouring of every segment of our population,” said the petite blonde Holocaust survivor, who says she tries to attend the AIPAC conference every year. Although it is a great mitzvah to make aliyah, she says, “Israel needs many different soldiers,” and the AIPAC delegates living in the United States are doing their part to help the Jewish State. The most pressing issue is Iran. “We have to do something. Tomorrow might be too late.” Jungreis cites a midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni (Isaiah) asserting that before the Messiah arrives the King of Persia will develop a weapon that would terrorize the world. So does that mean Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon is a given? “All negative prophesies can be altered.” For instance, explains Jungreis, in the Purim story, Haman’s decree is altered by proactive Jewish involvement—and so is the prophecy against Nineveh in the Book of Jonah. “These are critical times for the Jewish people. We must respond to the challenges,” she warns. “We must cling tenaciously to our faith in Hashem.”

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 4, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Urgent: Iran

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference.

So the big issue at this year’s policy is Iran: specifically the threat that Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability as early as next year. All attendees received a glossy pullout with the word “URGENT” splayed above a photo of Iranian president Ahmadinejad in a white lab coat inspecting his nuclear facilities.

AIPAC is pushing for legislation that would impose economic sanctions on companies that provide refined petroleum to Iran—this would be crippling to the country’s economy, since Iran produces a lot of oil but it doesn’t have the refining ability to make its cars go. Despite the talk of sanctions, there were rumblings that Israel may need to go further. “There is nothing to do militarily and we are not capable of it,” a grave Ephraim Sneh, told about 200 well-dressed conference attendees in one of this afternoon’s breakout sessions. Nevertheless, he told the rapt crowd: “I consider [a preemptive strike] as a last resort.”

The former deputy defense minister and Labor Party Knesset member said that if necessary, Israeli could develop the capability to strike Iran in a short period of time. During the 1976 Entebbe hostage crisis, he said by analogy, “Someone asked me, ‘those hostages, can we bring them back?’ Seventy-two hours later I was with them in the airplane flying back home.”

And what about living with a nuclear Iran, practicing deterrence? Sneh outlined six reasons why this would spell disaster for Israel: He said immigration to Israel would come to a halt under the shadow of a nuclear Iran; Israelis with skills and education would leave the country; there would be a sharp reduction in business investment; terrorist regimes would walk taller while moderates in the region would be cowed; and, finally, Israel would not be able to act, say by taking military action in Gaza, due to the fear of an Iranian nuclear reprisal.

During this morning’s plenary session, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the assembled multitudes that “If we [the United States] and Israel are not totally on the same page, next year, if not handled properly, there could be a serious face-to-face argument between Israel and the US.” His remark was greeted with silence, but his message was clear: While pushing for sanctions, Israel activists in the US need also prepare for the fallout should a military strike occur.

Coming up next: Why are there so many Angelenos at the AIPAC conference?

Posted on May 3, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Grand Spectacle of AIPAC

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference.

It started yesterday. “Look there’s someone with a kippa,” I said to my husband, as we walked to the Chabad Center in central DC. Then we saw another, and another. In New York, or certain suburban neighborhoods, this might not be an unusual sight, but in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC it is rare to see so many yarmulked heads in quick succession. At the Chabad Center, we were seated at a lunch table with friendly and loquacious AIPAC delegates from all over the country: Alaska, San Francisco, Kansas.

There was more Jewish paraphernalia in evidence: an IDF kippah, Israeli-and-American flag lapel pins, a delicate gold Star of David necklace. In the overwhelmingly liberal atmosphere of Obama’s DC, particularly within the city limits, one does not often see such bold assertions of Jewish identity. Jews go under cover—after all, it’s easier to get a high-ranking job in the State Department or Department of Defense if you don’t appear too Jewy.

Six thousand AIPAC delegates have descended on DC this weekend and though most are not identifiably Jewish (a minority are not Jewish at all) they bring a certain sensibility to the capital: an unabashed pride in, and identification with Israel. Although critics of AIPAC often identify the lobby with “neocons” most of the people I’ve spoken to described themselves as liberal, at least on domestic issues. When it comes to Israel, however, they are more hawkish.

Right now I am sitting next to Michael and Catherine Rossman of Toronto. They can’t actually lobby Congress on Tuesday, but they’re here to learn and experience. Michael explains that he is a Liberal by nature, but voted Conservative in the last few elections because of their stance on Israel. “My religious Zionist beliefs trumped my political beliefs.”

This morning the conference opened with a plenary session in a vast hall of the convention center, the size of two football fields. Klieg lights flashed blue, then white, then red over the assembled masses, many dressed in business suits or in conservative shirts and slacks. Large screens magnify the speaker and rousing drumrolls and music between speeches: in a word, pure spectacle. You walk in off the street, and have the feeling of being caught up in something much larger than yourself.

Reverend Kenneth Flowers, of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit gave a rousing speech in the tradition of African-American preachers like Martin Luther King. ‘Relationships matter,” he said, echoing the theme of this year’s and vowed to use his relationships with those in power “to fight for Israel to be safe, secure and protected.”and ended his speech with the words “Glory Hallelujah! Glory Hallelujah! Glory Hallelujah.” At which point the audience rose to their feet and applauded wildly.

In fact, all of the morning’s plenary speakers, which included the mayor of Los Angeles, Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) and Representative Jane Harman, received standing ovations, and their speeches were punctuated by applause throughout, especially when they said something to the audience’s liking. For instance, former James Woolsey got applause and laughs for calling Hezbollah “totalitarian, theocratic genocidal maniacs,” while Jane Harman got applause when she spoke out about a recent wiretap scandal involving herself and AIPAC having a “chilling effect” on the “bipartisan US-Israel relationship” which, she said, activists have every right to promote.

I’m off to one of the breakout sessions on policy issues and will post again in a few hours.

Posted on May 3, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy