A year ago we editorialized against a policy of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that bars members of the press from attending the great majority of breakout sessions that take place during the pro-Israel lobby’s annual national policy conference in Washington, D.C. (“AIPAC, Unlock Your Doors,” March 31, 2017).
We argued that by allowing the press to attend the largest and most important gathering of its kind in the Jewish community and then banning coverage of most of its sessions, AIPAC was creating a recipe for “frustration and offense,” and that it was better to keep us out altogether. Better yet, we said, was to open up the process more widely to the media, reflecting a core value that America and Israel cherish and share in common — freedom of the press.
Our views led to some thoughtful dialogue with AIPAC leadership over the ensuing months for which we are appreciative. Lobby leaders said that speakers and panelists at the conference may feel inhibited in expressing their views if members of the press were in the room. We countered that a conference with 20,000 attendees, and dozens of sessions with many hundreds of delegates, is by nature not conducive to keeping secrets, especially in the age of instant tweets and texts. If members of the press agreed to the ground rules of attending “off the record” sessions, it would allow the media to get a sense of the important give-and-take that takes place in these informative sessions without violating journalistic or AIPAC boundaries.
AIPAC has a long history of being wary of and less than friendly toward the press. Members of the press enter the AIPAC convention through a separate entrance and must be accompanied by staff to proceed to the main area where sessions are held — and even accompanied to the rest rooms at times. Such treatment doesn’t foster trust and mutual respect. AIPAC officials say the press is overly critical in its coverage of the lobby. Maybe there’s a reason that goes beyond political ideology; trying a more open approach could help.
At a time of toxic division in American politics, and within much of the Jewish community, AIPAC’s mandate of promoting bipartisan support for Israel is more vital than ever. We believe our community benefits from being well informed about the complexities of the Mideast and should learn more about what AIPAC is doing to ensure support for Israel across the aisle in Congress.
Unfortunately, the lobby has not changed its policy about keeping most of its sessions off-limits to the press. We look forward to a time when it chooses to open its doors wider rather than keeping them closed.