I was a first-time attendee at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. While I can’t compare the “enthusiasm level” at this year’s conference with prior ones, I do believe that the recent op-ed by Dr. Gilbert Kahn,mischaracterized the essential tone and vitality of the conference.
The conference was the largest in AIPAC history and included delegates from every state. I personally was struck by the fact that not only were Jews of various movements represented, but the audience also included significant numbers of African-Americans and Latinos across what appeared to be a wide political spectrum.
Among Dr. Kahn’s observations, he reports that nothing Secretary of State Kerry told the audience “inspired much enthusiasm” and perhaps Kerry would have been better off traveling straight to Kiev to deal with the Ukrainian crisis. To the contrary, I think most people reacted as I did: first, enormously impressed that Kerry would keep his commitment to address the AIPAC crowd before flying overnight to Kiev, and second, deeply appreciative of the efforts of the U.S. and Kerry individually to find a solution to the Middle East conflict.
Dr. Kahn also suggests that two prominent Israeli business leaders who “spoke enthusiastically about the Kerry initiative” were “met with flat receptions.” Not where I was sitting. The speakers were focused much more on business opportunities and entrepreneurship than political developments, and I thought they were well received. Not getting a rousing standing ovation from 14,000 people doesn’t equate to “flat reception.”
Finally, Dr. Kahn comments on the “evolution” of the make-up of the attendees at the conference, concluding that the “trend line” is toward more Orthodox and conservative/Republican-leaning people. I don’t know how many of AIPAC’s members (or conference attendees) are Orthodox or Republican, and I don’t know their ages; I’m in the Reform Jew/Democrat box. But when the heads of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements stood together on the AIPAC stage, and when “conservative” Republicans similarly stood together with “liberal Democrats,” that made a powerful statement about the unifying theme of the AIPAC message. And the 2,300 college students who were in attendance were not there just to party.
While it is difficult these days to have a great deal of optimism about developments in the Middle East — and perhaps that was reflected in the reaction to the speeches — that should not be confused with the passion and depth of belief of those at the AIPAC conference. I’m planning to go next year and take my daughter along.