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

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