Day one of the 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference proved to be upbeat, smooth and respectful.
By Mark Jacobs
Whether you’re a first-timer or a veteran attendee, there’s no denying that this is one heck of a production. The mere scale and professionalism is grand and polished. There may be a swirl of controversy about AIPAC and Israel outside of the Washington Convention Center, but inside these walls, the enthusiasm for the U.S.- Israel relationship is giddy, unified and thunderous.
Security was, as expected, out in full force, from the armored trucks blocking the streets outside to the bomb-sniffing dogs as you entered the building. The scene was a stark reminder of the possibility of dangers that always lurk, yet once inside, the atmosphere felt calm, safe and festive, as if an oasis of proud and loud pro-Israel activists had been created and protected within this massive hall.
The opening moments of Policy Conference are always touching, as the event begins with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, followed by Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva — sung by a disabled former IDF tank commander.
The attendees know that they have three long, packed days ahead of them, but for five minutes or so we sing together, exhale together, and marvel at and celebrate the alliance between the two countries, one the world’s premier superpower and the other a tiny desert land, no bigger than the state of New Jersey, on the other side of the planet. This is the reason we have come here.
The opening session then begins with a diverse group of pro-Israel activists, people from different age groups, faiths and ethnicities, all introducing themselves and then proudly declaring, “I stand with AIPAC.” Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, then delivered his annual address, but with a tone that seemed more ominous than previous years: “We’re being challenged in a way,” he warns, “that is new and far more aggressive.” The intent of our critics and enemies, he says, “is not meant to inform, but to demonize” us.
The morning session is punctuated by speeches from campus activists and world leaders, all proclaiming their wholehearted support for Israel and their pledge to continue their efforts.
The large crowd is then treated to a massive sing-a-long led by ‘Koolalum,’ an Israeli social movement that produces international choruses of participants from all different backgrounds, often Arabs and Jews. “When we sing together,” the leader says, “we stay together, we heal, we grow, we love.”
After a few rehearsals, suddenly the massive screens cut to a LIVE audience in Jerusalem of thousands of people at the Tower of David singing and swaying simultaneously with the AIPAC crowd: “Sing out loud — together we’ll come through.” It was, to put it lightly, an incredibly touching and uplifting moment.
The day then turns to the ‘break-out sessions’, multiple smaller groups that take a deep dive into a wide variety of topics, including such topics as Missile Defense, Water Technology, Advancing Palestinian-Israeli Co-Existence, African- American Outreach, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Medical Innovations in Israel and many others. It is a massive download of a vast array of information, presented by engaging and credible experts.
The mood this year is warm and inclusive. No sign of controversy whatsoever. AIPAC, it seems, goes out of its way to reflect its commitment to bipartisanship, and this year seems particularly pronounced. We hear from a number of ‘progressive’ pro-Israel Democrats, and all are warmly and politely embraced by the crowd.
A leader of the new ‘Democratic Majority for Israel’ presented, as did a member of the Knesset from the Labor Party who was surprisingly and sharply critical of the government (“We are stuck in this conflict; we need a two state solution with equal rights and opportunities for Jews and Arabs”).
Day one has been upbeat, diverse, smooth, respectful and, as always, highly informative. People are in great spirits, all seemingly in agreement that this year’s conference has so far hit the perfect tone.
Rabbi Dan Gordis, the esteemed scholar/writer from Israel, delivers a positive and comforting message. He reminds the group that despite all the enormous problems the Jewish people face, “We’re doing great! When have we ever been in better shape than now? These are the greatest days of the Jewish people in 2,000 years.”
His words leave us smiling and hopeful, a feeling only bolstered by looking around and seeing thousands of supporters — Jews and non-Jews — who have come together in solidarity.