The goal of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — seeking bipartisan support for Israel in Washington — is now more important than ever as our nation becomes increasingly polarized. There are precious few issues Republicans and Democrats seem committed to, but one of them is ensuring that Israel is strong and secure.
AIPAC’s annual policy conference is the largest gathering of its kind in the Jewish community, and this week 18,000 of the faithful — a record attendance — were in Washington for three days to meet, lobby their elected officials and hear from scores of Mideast experts on trends certain to impact the region and the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, though we were in attendance as members of the working media, we are not able to provide insights on most of the more than 100 breakout sessions that took place because the great majority of them were closed to the press.
AIPAC has long been wary of the press, and it has a reputation for being overly secretive. All its conference breakout sessions are “off the record” even though some attract many hundreds of people. In addition, each year there have been sessions closed to the press, on the assumption that otherwise panelists will be inhibited in their remarks. But this year as many as three-quarters of each time slot’s sessions were off limits to the press.
In one instance we were escorted from a roomful of some 500 people even though the session was listed in the AIPAC media kit as open to the press. We were later told that was a mistake and the session was intended to be closed. Several AIPAC officials apologized personally for the incident, but the policy remained in place.
Our concern goes beyond how we were treated. This is about an organization championing American and Israeli democracies, including freedom of the press, yet fostering an overly aggressive and perhaps paranoid closed-door policy. One AIPAC official, speaking off the record (of course), told us his group must be more cautious than other Jewish organizations because the media “sharpens the knives when it comes to us.”
Maybe that’s at least in part because of AIPAC’s arrogant attitude toward the media over the years. And in part because of a degree of media bias towards Israel. But opening the conference to the press and then banning coverage of the large majority of sessions is a formula for frustration and offense. Better to keep us out altogether.
But better yet is to open up the process, even if some sessions are “off the record.” Our community deserves to know more about the complexities of the Mideast and the work AIPAC is doing to ensure support across the aisle in Congress.