In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m on the Minnesota Council and the National Council of AIPAC. I’m a proud Zionist and see ensuring a strong relationship between the United States and Israel as an integral part of my rabbinate. I’ve been attending the AIPAC Policy Conference with the Minnesota delegation in Washington, D.C., for the better part of a decade. And this year, I was proud to join nearly 200 other Minnesotans lobbying all of our elected members of the United States House and Senate.
This number is quite important and shows a tipping point in our delegation. We represented 1.25% of the 16,000 in attendance. 1.25% may seem small, but when the general Minnesota population represents 1.71% of the full United States population, this number is quite substantial. Further, reflecting on the number of those in attendance and the world Jewish population, nearly one out of every 1,000 Jews in the world attended this year’s conference, and next year promises to be even larger and even grander. This year I started understanding relativity in a way I had not previously.
And in that vein, I often marvel at the pomp and circumstance of it all—the seemingly endless list of notable speakers and presenters, the video screens in every direction, the army of staff and personnel there to address all questions of delegates. I imagine that immediately after the conference ends, work begins on planning the spectacle of the next conference, because, as I’ve come to learn, every detail matters. And this led to two important observations, which when read in relative context, provided an important takeaway for me this year.
First, I was sheltered this year. I had the privilege to stay at a hotel connected to the Washington D.C. Convention Center. From the beginning of the conference through our lobbying on the Hill just after the close of the conference, I was protected from the elements. But more importantly, I was protected from the protesters. Most common are the Neturei Karta—an Ultra-Orthodox group (formed in 1938) that opposes Zionism and calls for a dismantling of the State of Israel, adhering to the belief that Jews are forbidden to have their own state until the coming of the Messiah. This group is nefarious for radical actions such as attending the Holocaust (read: Holocaust Denial) conference in Tehran in 2006.
Alongside the Neturei Karta the past several years have been throngs of supporters of BDS—many of them Jews. This is frighteningly representative of a global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel under the disingenuous banner of compelling Israel to “[comply] with international law and Palestinian rights” and “was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, and is coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), established in 2007.”
Some may recall one of the many major targets of BDS as the Israeli home seltzer production company SodaStream. As SodaStream puts it, they “are leading a revolution against bottled and canned beverages, providing consumers with a better-for-you and better-for-the-planet alternative to store bought soda.” But because one of SodaStream’s factories was located in Ma’ale Adumim (in the disputed territory of the West Bank), it became a subject of protest. SodaStream eventually closed their West Bank plant in 2014, ironically putting nearly 900 Palestinians out of work who were otherwise gainfully employed by the plant.
I describe and present these two groups because both of them – especially the Jewish members of these groups, who, to me, are traitorous to Jewish national unity – usually cause me the greatest amount of spiritual pain in attending the conference. Year after year, I find myself physically ill over the necessity of walking by these groups. But this year, they were kept out of my sight and I found my experience profoundly elevated.
Nevertheless, on my walk to the Hill, I passed by the only group of protesters I witnessed this year: a large crowd, gathered under the banner of BDS. I made my way to Representative Keith Ellison’s office, and as David Axelrod already shared, “Representative Ellison allocated a full hour this year to hear our concerns (his staff took over after half that period). Further, and though time did not allow Ellison to elucidate clearly what he meant, the representative appeared to convey that he believes the regime in Iran to be a rational political actor (like us and others in the West).”
We spent the duration of our time, as compelled by this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference lobbying agenda, discussing the threat of a Nuclear Iran. We did not discuss the Peace Process as in years past. We did not discuss Strategic Partnerships between the US and Israel, or support for the Iron Dome project or other avenues of Israel’s self-defense. We focused on Iran as an existential threat toward Israel and, frankly, the West and the world in general.
After a convivial conversation with congressman Ellison and his staff, on our way out of the congressman’s office, my friend and student Sami Rahamim shared a similar observation with me. There, sitting front and center on congressman Ellison’s desk, was a SodaStream bottle. This is the first year that one of the most seemingly insignificant details struck me as either incredibly important, or, at the very least ironic.
Out of context, it was a bottle of seltzer. But played against a backdrop of cacophonous protest immediately prior to entering the congressman’s office, this seemingly innocuous bottle of seltzer glowed in the corner of my eye. Granted, it could have been just that: a bottle of seltzer. It could have been a subtle, silent, symbolic statement of support. It could have been a passive disregard for the BDS movement. Regardless, it was there and the congressman, who some often decry as not supportive of Israel, had at the very least not consciously caved to the vitriol of BDS and the protesters outside his door. And there we were – proud supporters of the US-Israel relationship and members of AIPAC – not on the outside, but on the inside.
This year, my primary takeaway from AIPAC Policy Conference is that when the frenzy of hate-filled protest is muted, and true bipartisan dialogue is amplified, this gives way for even the smallest symbols, sometimes the slightest show of support, to drown out the grandest of pomp and circumstance. And it’s always better to be on the inside of that conversation.