Blogging AIPAC: part one of two
Written by Bwog Staff
DC on a Sunday is about as exciting as Butler on a Thursday. So with press pass in hand, Bwog contributor Armin Rosen attempted to stave off the ennui the only way Washingtonians know how: with a couple strong shots of special interest politics.
My first thought upon arriving at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference’s first plenary session: should I feel inspired at being in a football-field sized room with more Jews than I’ve ever seen in one place in my entire life, or disgusted that we were watching a panel moderated by a former higher-up in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq? Failing to reconcile the two, I condemn them to a queasy coexistence, made worse when the panel, which included former CIA director James Woolsey expounded upon the existential threats posed to the Jewish state by various Islamist entities. Six humungous jumbotrons behind him shuffle through images of a maniacal-looking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and an impotent-looking Syrian president Bashir al-Assad. Israel advocacy is a high-stakes business, they beam at me.
How sinister is this scaremongering? I’m willing to write off Woolsey’s claim that preventing Iran from getting nukes is a “job for American diplomacy and the American military” as a convenient (albeit wildly irresponsible) turn of phrase, since packaging trumps substance at any “policy” conference like this one. The AIPAC conference seeks to prove that the American-Israeli alliance is worth defending. Saber-rattling aside, beginning the conference on a bleak, pessimistic, existential note sells that idea brilliantly. Manipulative? Sure. Alarmist? Probably. On point? In this blogger’s opinion, you better believe it.
After another hour of hardcore pessimism—espoused this time at a panel of policy wonks arguing that political instability in the Palestinian territories makes it impossible for Israel to reach a stable peace—I happen upon a nondescript gentleman from Illinois claiming to be a Republican candidate for president. After chatting with him for a few minutes I decide that there’s something profound about a plainspoken middle-American elevating himself to populist messiah status and endeavoring to redeem a corrupt and dishonest electoral system. But there’s something equally profound in the inevitable electoral defeat that will prove that system utterly irredeemable.
Crazy or not, the candidate provided a raison d’etre for AIPAC that would have resonated were I there as a delegate rather than a journalist representing various campus rags: Israel advocacy among young Jews, he said, comes from powerful feelings of personal identity and association. For Jews, identity translates into obligation—so too, he reasoned, should American identity translate into a greater sense of civic consciousness for a feckless generation of teenagers hypnotized by MTV dating shows and bad rap music. This was an profound statement, especially coming from a nutjob, and especially, especially coming from a presidential “candidate.”
The evening plenary revealed maybe the sharpest tension within AIPAC’s attempt to sell strong bilateral ties to Israel, as the nightcap was dedicated to de-Judaizing the Israel lobby—always problematic, since an overly non-Jewish Israel lobby reinforces the images of Israel as an American strategic outpost or the fulfillment of evangelical eschatology. Middle East expert Michael Oren spoke on the prevalence of a kind of Zionism in 18th and 19th century American thought, arguing that the perception of America as a promised land for persecuted Christians gave rise to “restorationism,” the idea that Christians given safety from exile by an American Israel had the responsibility to help Jews realize the biblical promise of the literal, Palestinian Israel. Oren convinced me that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman were all restorationists—but Oren seemed to completely miss the way in which restorationism objectifies Jews as pawns in the fulfillment of nationalistic and theological objectives that couldn’t have less to do with Zionism or Israel in their modern manifestations. “Zionism” as an amalgam of Christian theology and the Puritanical conception of America as a literal holy land is as old as America itself. But apply such ideas to our current dialogue on Israel and the fact that Jews are given almost no agency in their own national upkeep—bearing in mind that the “restorers” in restorationism were invariably Christian—is one of the least of your problems.
As if to accentuate the most rankling aspects of Oren’s speech, AIPAC tactlessly followed his talk with 20 minutes of evangelical bombast, during which evangelical pastor John Hagee rambled through reductive World War II comparisons (Ahmadinejad is Hitler, Gaza the Sudetenland, etc.), repeatedly used the Bible as proof of the eventual triumph of Israel and the Jewish people over Islamic extremism, claimed 2007 as a “year of destiny,” and called the alliance between 50 million evangelical Christians and 5 million Jews a “match made in heaven.”
He received about a half dozen standing ovations. Slightly nauseous, I sought out LionPAC president Ari Gardner, C ’08, at a post-session student meet-and-greet and asked him what he thought of the pastor’s speech. “I think having someone stand on the podium and say that 50 million people of any race or religion support Israel is breathtaking,” Gardner answered. “I don’t think we’re in a position to turn down help freely offered.”
Looking around the Washington convention center at pro-Israel black, white, Jewish and Christian students from every geographic region and placing them in my mind alongside 50 million fanatical Christian pro-Zionists brought back a glimmer of inspiration. But it might take a good night of sleep to make the disgust go away.