Free dialogue more important than free press at AIPAC

Free dialogue more important than free press at AIPAC

When I went on my first date with Lauren, the woman who is now my wife of 16 years, I almost blew the potential for us spending our lives together before we had even spent more than five minutes at dinner. 

As most first dates begin, we asked each other what we did for a living. She told me that she had just moved back to the tri-state area from Los Angeles after having served as the associate director of the West Coast region of AIPAC. I laughed sarcastically and said something like, “Why would you ever have dedicated time to such an obviously biased organization?!”  

Now, I can look back at the interaction and absolve myself for having been youthful and naively judgmental. I am lucky because Lauren didn’t simply walk away that evening, and because I have grown up enough over the years to actually know an organization before I judge it.

I am an ardent Zionist. I believe without a thriving Israel, there is no chance for Jews to thrive in the diaspora. Indeed, I have spent some of the most important times of my life there and have led 17 congregational trips in my 21 years of service in the rabbinate. Part of my heart beats there, even while my family and I live here.

When I arrived at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills 12 years ago, AIPAC approached me to get involved. They told me they had heard of my dedication to Israel, and thought that we would be the perfect match. I thought otherwise. From my viewpoint, they were only interested in a partisan agenda. I was wrong.

Five years ago, I finally agreed to attend their annual policy conference. They wanted me to convince congregants to go with me, but I needed to check it out for myself. That conference began a journey for me, which has been eye-opening. 

AIPAC does indeed have an agenda: supporting the Zionist dream and perpetuating the Jewish homeland. They do everything in their power to lobby a Congress which almost exclusively represents non-Jewish Americans. AIPAC highlights and celebrates Israel’s contributions to innovation and the furthering of democracy in a neighborhood where only dictatorships exist. Of the 18,000 attendees at their annual conference, at least a couple thousand are Latino and African American. 

But, perhaps most poignant to me is that AIPAC is one of the few organizations left in this horrifically polarized nation of ours that doesn’t just allow for a spectrum of opinions; in fact, they encourage pluralism and difference. They encourage unanimity in support of our homeland, but not allegiance to any side of the political aisle. Israel is becoming more of a polarizing issue than ever before in my lifetime, and AIPAC’s proverbial big umbrella encompasses all opinions offered. Indeed, that is why I not only attend the national policy conference annually, but I am proud to say that this year B’nai Jeshurun is one of the largest delegations from New Jersey.

Last week in this publication, there was an editorial proffered that critiqued AIPAC about its media policy (“Why we won’t be at the AIPAC conference,” March 1). In a day and age when the press is under unfair attack, I tend to sympathize with the rebuke. NJJN and The New York Jewish Week claim that it is hypocritical to invite the press to the conference on one hand, but on the other, not permit them entrance into most of the breakout sessions. They also claim that the press is treated suspiciously and forced to walk through different entrances, and wonder if this is an attack on transparency. 

I agree that we need transparency more than ever nowadays. But I think the opinion of NJJN is shortsighted. The breakout sessions allow not only panelists, but also participants, to make themselves more vulnerable and open to dialogue than in most conferences I have attended in my career. Moreover, because of the openness and safety of being “off the record,” I have seen civil discourse which is not just lip service, but which results in actual changes in opinions. Yes, the safety that “off the record,” provides in this context allows for, and fosters, an environment in which the game really does change and real solutions to problems are found. 

We should all advocate for a free and open press in our democracy, but the press has the responsibility of knowing when it is communally prudent and helpful to step forward and when to step back. The press needs to report the truth, but imagine how much better the story could be when there is enough privacy to help actual progress occur on the ground. The story may be more attractive when a reporter gets to write about the juicy details of disagreement, but perhaps a better story can be written about the extraordinary progress made because of the space that was created for safe dialogue without the fear of being taken out of context.

I prejudged AIPAC and its ways years ago in a way which could have cost me the woman I married. Not only am I wary of my actions all those years ago, but I am also measured in how I now cast judgment. I hope that the press will do the same as they consider the need for safe space under the Big Tent that we all so desperately need in this day and age.

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