As a result of last year’s Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign at the University of Minnesota, I’ve stepped up my pro-Israel activism. Following a semester abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, I went to Israel with JNF’s Caravan for Democracy program, then came back to campus committed to being a leader in the pro-Israel community on campus. Thanks to Minnesota Hillel and the JCRC, I was able to attend my first AIPAC Policy Conference, where I found a louder and stronger voice for my activism.
Over the course of three days, 18,000 pro-Israel activists, including some 4,000 students, attended informative breakout sessions, lobby trainings, and listened to a high-profile and diverse selection of elected officials, community leaders, and inspirational Israeli success stories. Support for Israel is unique because it’s undeniably bipartisan (Reps. Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell all spoke on the same stage; when else will that happen?) In a country where very few issues bring together Democrats and Republicans, this is worth noting – and celebrating. AIPAC brought together many voices for one mission, and we all left stronger.
I found this overwhelming spirit of bipartisanship refreshing. On the U of M campus, Israel can be an extremely divisive issue and pro-Israel activists must be prepared to face unfounded attacks on our beliefs, values, and commitment to social justice. Yet as we lobbied our representatives on Capitol Hill, that resounding emphasis of bipartisanship and shared values I had been feeling during the first two days of the conference was largely reinforced by our states’ representatives and senators standing with us. Liberals and conservatives alike agreed: Israelis and Palestinians have the right to be safe and secure. Through a strong US-Israel alliance – and by condemning BDS – we can achieve that goal.
By the time lobby day arrived, I was motivated and confident about my purpose in Washington. My advocacy skills were sharpened after lobby training with fellow Minnesotans and discussions on the global political climate. At a conference this large, I expected to get lost in the crowd but my belief that my voice mattered in this movement was much stronger than when I arrived. On Sunday, I attended a panel with three female Israeli Parliamentarians, Merav Michaeli and Tamar Zandberg from the opposition’s Zionist Union and Meretz parties, and Orthodox-feminist Rachel Azaria of the centrist coalition party Kulanu. They were inspiring, boundary-pushing, and passionate. These three Members of Knesset spoke about how they often stood up for each other in Israel’s parliament. They share a “sisterhood.” They spoke about how women’s rights should be everyone’s priority, across genders and across the aisle (or as Israel would have it, aisles). The bond these MK’s displayed is reflected in the US-Israel bond. This is being an ally: standing together to defend enduring values, despite partisan differences. This is my pro-Israel values as much as my feminist values.
While there were many impressive speeches from well-spoken politicians and world leaders, the speech that most resonated with me (and many other attendees) was that of US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. Her remarks were not about her political ideology or a partisan agenda, it was about her steadfast commitment to being an ally and activist. When I spoke to my members of Congress about structural anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and the divisiveness of the BDS movement, I was following in the footsteps of the strong, unapologetic female activists I had been surrounded by the past two days. They were Democrat and Republican, Israeli, American and South African, Jewish and Christian, young and old.
At my first AIPAC policy conference, it was not the star-studded speaker lineup, networking with other students and professionals, or the lively receptions that stuck with me most. My greatest lesson was how I, a progressive, pro-Israel female student, can be unapologetically proud – both on my campus and on Capitol Hill.