Along with The Western Wall in Jerusalem and the ice sculptures at swanky Passover hotels’ lunch buffets, the annual AIPAC conference in Washington surely must rank as one of the Seven Wonders of The Jewish World.
To be part of a four-hour dinner program Monday night at the downtown Washington Convention Center for 10,000 delegates and honored guests – including 70 U.S. Senators and 270 members of the House – is an awesome experience, and I use that adjective purposefully. AIPAC officials noted that the room we were in was longer than the Washington Monument is tall. I only half-kiddingly observed to someone at my table, several football fields away from the speakers’ podium, that we were probably seated in suburban Maryland.
The entire wall behind the podium was filled with video images of the speakers, and photos of Israel. The overall effect was of a highly sophisticated and polished presentation, not to mention the number and level of dignitaries in attendance.
I was fortunate to be at a dinner table, having been told by an AIPAC official that 575 of my journalistic colleagues were relegated to a closed off area of long tables and chairs, prohibited from mixing with the delegates, and, most importantly, on their own for dinner.
So thanks to whoever assigned me to Table 1090, along with a few other lucky scribes.
And by the way, the chicken entrée was not bad at all.
One needed the meal to fortify one’s self for the marathon of speeches to come, and especially for the famous Roll Call, when four AIPAC officials took turns rapidly belting out the names of every one of those hundreds of elected officials present, in alphabetical order, to the accompaniment of martial music. It took about a half hour.
I knew I was in for a long evening when the invocation – a rhetorical duet featuring a Conservative rabbi from New Jersey and black Baptist minister from Detroit, arms locked in unity – took at least ten minutes.
As for the speeches, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) had numerous applause lines in pledging undying support to Israel as America’s most loyal ally. Though neither man displayed a lick of charisma, the crowd ate it up.
One highlight of the evening leading up to the grand finale, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address, was a powerful video featuring two soldiers wounded in combat – an American who lost an arm in Iraq and an Israeli wounded in Gaza. Both were eloquent and humble in saying they were honored to have been wounded serving their country, and expressing solidarity with each other’s country.
As the screen went dark, the two men were introduced, and the crowd jumped to its feet in applause on seeing them in person. It was an emotional moment, which lost a bit of its impact when the former soldiers delivered additional remarks of five to ten minutes each.
My mantra, and futile complaint about Jewish public events, is "less is more." But it never works that way. And truth to tell, the AIPAC conference is not geared to pleasing the media, nor should it be. It’s aimed at its delegates and does a terrific job of educating them about the issues through a variety of speakers at breakout sessions and of firing them up to be passionate, effective lobbyists – in Washington and back home.
As for the prime minister’s remarks, I wrote about them in my column this week.
I would just add that the crowd responded very effectively when five people heckled him – one at a time and a few minutes apart. Each time someone shouted out against Israeli policy, the delegates rose to their feet in applause of the prime minister, drowning out the protester. (Note to planners of this fall’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.)
What leaves me worried, though, was the mood of anger and fear among AIPAC delegates stemming from President Obama’s State Department speech – particularly the line about the pre-1967 war boundaries being a starting point for negotiations – and revved up by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated insistence that those borders are "indefensible."
It seemed like Netanyahu purposefully responded in a confrontational way, initially and again Monday night. So it was not surprising to see some pro-Israel groups labeling Obama "the new Arafat" and putting out ads asserting that the President had called for Israel to "retreat" to the pre-`67 lines.
It’s an emotional and dangerous over-reaction that could undermine the very theme of the AIPAC conference: "Best Together" in referring to the U.S. and Israel.