Some 200 delegates from MetroWest and Central New Jersey were among the record-breaking 7,500 people attending the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The three-day conference began Sunday in Washington and was to culminate in a massive lobbying blitz on Tuesday afternoon. Conferences in recent years have drawn upward of 6,000 people.
The conference opened after two weeks of tensions between Jerusalem and Washington over Israel’s announcement during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden of plans to add 1,600 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem.
Many Jewish leaders said publicly that the Israeli announcement was a misstep, although in its statement AIPAC said the White House “should make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel.”
Members and rabbis from more than a half-dozen north Jersey synagogues sat in the audience Monday at the Washington Convention Center to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeat American objections to Jewish settlement construction, saying it “undermines America’s unique ability to play a role” in the peace process.
At the same time, Clinton said the administration’s commitment to Israel was “rock-solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever” and proclaimed, “There is no greater strategic threat than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Interviewed by cell phone about the testy disagreement between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations, Marjorie Rozman of North Caldwell said she was “disappointed.”
“I felt the dispute should have been privately handled,” she said. “This is not really a public matter, and Hillary Clinton was castigating Israel in a light that was not beneficial to the peace process or the U.S.-Israel relationship. She did say the friendship had not been compromised, but I think it really gave a bad taste to people.”
Randi Brokman of West Caldwell, like Rozman a member of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, said she found “people who weren’t so keen on applauding those who had condemned Israel in such a strong way. But the AIPAC leadership has been very strong about how we can respectfully discuss this with them, while showing condemnation was unacceptable. Hillary didn’t offer an apology, but she certainly addressed the issue.”
Leah Beker, education director at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston and a native of Tel Aviv, was also pleased that the secretary of state addressed the tensions during her 47-minute address.
“I was very worried” about the rift between the American and Israeli governments, said Beker, “but I was very happy that Hillary Clinton did not avoid the problem. She really addressed it and made me feel we are still one big family.”
Rachel Schindler, a senior at Mountain Lakes High School and also among the 30-plus members of Agudath Israel in attendance, said the controversy over the east Jerusalem housing issue “should have been handled privately by the Obama administration. But there was some validity to the criticism, and the announcement made when Biden got there was not right. I think some people here are very angry and wanted an apology from Hillary, which she did not do, and I don’t think she needed to do.”
The record turnout — in particular the 1,300 high school and college students in attendance — made the conference “quite remarkable,” said Lori Klinghoffer, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ’s Israel & Overseas chair. She said that Clinton, while playing “the tough-love card in terms of the events over the last 10 days,” sent a clear message that “the United States-Israel alliance is still very strong,”
Another message, Klinghoffer said, that was heard from Clinton and “from every representative and professional at AIPAC” was the issue of no nuclear weapons for Iran, “the number one priority on the AIPAC agenda.”
Melanie Roth Gorelick, associate director of the UJC MetroWest’s Community Relations Committee, spoke with NJJN along with the Hillel directors of several NJ universities, whose attendance at the conference was sponsored by the CRC.
“Hillary gave an amazing speech,” said Gorelick. “She really gave a strong statement about the closeness of the United States with Israel. People felt positive about her speech. She talked about the need for all sides to get to the table and work toward peace.”
Jonathan Golden, Drew University’s Hillel director, said, “It was unfortunate that things got blown up” between the two governments. “Hillary went very far in reaffirming the close relationship between Israel and the U.S.”
David Sanders, faculty adviser to Hillel’s chapter at Montclair State University, found himself in disagreement with many attendees over the Washington-Jerusalem rift.
He said the approval of the Jewish housing project during Biden’s visit “was a really stupid thing to announce. It is hard for me to understand how it could have been unintentional.”
Sanders also disagreed with delegates who blame the Obama administration for escalating the issue.
“I do think it is important that the United States, when they feel Israel is not doing the right thing, say it,” said Sanders. “The feeling here is that friends should speak in private with each other — but I’m not so sure.”
Scheduled speakers included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, congressional leaders, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Activists will lobby for enhanced Iran sanctions and the signing of two congressional letters aimed at underscoring close U.S.-Israel relations.