Monday, March 5, 2012

Reflections from AIPAC: Day One

The atmosphere in Washington, D.C. was all set. You could feel AIPAC in the air. From the thousands of delegates walking around adorned with their AIPAC Policy Conference badges, to the early morning report on CNN about President Obama's scheduled address, all the way to the subtle hints and messages sent to readers through the editorials and book reviews in the "Outlook" section of Sunday's Washington Post.

This is my third policy conference, and although I was once again given a delegate badge with a ribbon that reads "rabbi," I would have much preferred one with the more appropriate title for this year -- "parent." For the first time, we have come as a family. My wife Peni (her first conference) and I made the decision that it was the right year for our kids Shira (15) and Ilan (12) to be delegates and witness first hand the political process of lobbying for and supporting Israel in our nation's capitol. Being at AIPAC as a parent is an entirely different experience, one that made my first day special and unique in so many different ways. More on that later, as I want to save the best for last.

Back to the Washington Post. I pulled out the "Outlook" section -- which has editorials and book reviews -- and was immediately struck by the lead editorial's headline: "An Israeli Strike on Iran would backfire: Former Pentagon official Clin H. Kahl says history points to a hollow victory." Wow -- here we go! I read through the first part of the piece, and when I turned to page B4 where the piece continued, my eyes were drawn to the continuation of the piece by yet another headline: Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq is no model for dealing with Iran. I finished the op-ed piece and turned the page, to be met by the section's first book review, a book titled The Partnership:Five Cold Warriors and their Quest to Ban the Bomb." On the next page was the review of another book: When General Grant Expelled the Jews. I find it interesting that on the same day when the President of the United States is scheduled to address AIPAC, and the main agenda item on the table is contemplating all options in preventing a nuclear Iran -- including a military option -- the Washington Post chooses to run an editorial against the military option, penned by a Pentagon personality, and also chooses to review a book discussing nuclear war. It is no less interesting that in the same section, on the day when over 13,000 AIPAC delegates -- mostly Jews -- descend on Washington to impress President Obama who will open the conference, the Post runs a book review about General (later to be President) Ulysses S. Grant's order to deport Jewish citizens of America. A subtle message to all of us here reminding us that once upon a time we Jews were not so influential in the U.S.?

On to the conference. The opening plenary kicked off with a panel featuring former Deputy Secretary of State Liz Cheney, former Congresswoman Jane Harman and Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, moderated by David Horowitz (founding editor of the new Times of Israel news site). In the AIPAC spirit, bi-partisan (Cheney -- Republican, Harman -- Democrat) along with Ya'ari's Israeli point of view. All went well until Cheney changed the tone of the discussion: "No president has done more to delegitimize Israel than Obama, and I hope that at next year's AIPAC conference, we'll be celebrating a restored relationship between Israel and the U.S. with a new president." Harman, of course, responded, and just like that, the bi-partisan atmosphere of AIPAC went away. There were applause, boos, more applause and more boos -- an inappropriate atmosphere as a prelude to listening to President Peres of Israel, and then President Obama. The most interesting response for me was that of my daughter Shira: "This really seems inappropriate," she said, "especially to hear so many people applauding Liz Cheney's statements just moments before President Obama is scheduled to speak here. Not only is it disrespectful, but it just doesn't seem politically smart at an AIPAC conference. Doesn't getting on his bad side kind of defeat the purpose here?" Is it any wonder why we are so often reminded to listen to the wise and un-jaded voices of our younger generation?

The conference went back to an electric atmosphere when President Peres spoke, followed by President Obama. President Peres was welcomed beautifully by a children's choir singing "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," and as he approached the podium, he shook each of the kid's hands. His message -- coming from the man who spent many years as defense minister of Israel, and as the one mainly responsible for Israel securing nuclear weapons as a defense mechanism against a hostile Arab world -- was an inspirational message of peace and hope. Peres focused on Israel's many achievements, and encouraged the brain power of Israel to continue developing technology that helps improve the quality of life for all human beings. He said that the purpose of Israeli society -- and of Jews in general -- is "to be just, to do justice, and to never deny justice to others." He said he believes in making peace because he wants to keep Israel "Jewish, democratic and attractive," and with great passion declared "I'm proud to be Jewish, proud to be Israeli." His address was moving, one of the highlights of this conference so far.

Next up: the President of the United States. I am sure you can read the many reviews, praises and critiques of President Obama's AIPAC address, so let me just say that in keeping with my desire for the AIPAC experience remaining bi-partisan and non-political, I can only say that as a Jew with a sense of Jewish history, I was in awe of the moment. Especially in the week of Purim, when Jews read the story of the behind the scenes infiltrations of government that Mordechai and Esther had to resort to in order to save the Jewish people, it is awe inspiring to think that the most powerful man on earth stood before 13,000 pro-Israel, mostly Jewish delegates -- all in the open -- to address them about protecting and standing in friendship and partnership with the Jewish state. We've come a long way, baby!

I took a break and met up here with some of my fellow members of the Sephardic Educational Center (Ron Nessim, Marcia & Bob Weingarten, and Sarita Fields with her grandson Evan). A reporter from New York came to interview us, and asked us if there is a "Sephardic" perspective on AIPAC. We told her there is really no such thing, and that the "Classic Sephardic" perspective was always to embrace Zionism and support Israel.  We added that owning our Sephardic Educational Center campus in the Old City of Jerusalem certainly gives us an extra-added interest in everything happening in Israel.

Seeing all this through my children's eyes is especially powerful. They are certainly amongst the youngest people here, but certainly also amongst the most perceptive and curious. I took them to the book kiosk, and Ilan ended up buying a book called Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Dependence Through  Fuel Choice. I bought Israeli TV commentator-turned politician Yair Lapid's book, and Shira was excited to meet him (see photograph of us below).  Shira was deeply disturbed by the ignorance of the many protesters outside, whose posters and slogans displayed a "one-sided ignorance of the facts." Both Shira and Ilan were infuriated at the protests of the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist "Neturei Karta" sect -- "How could they call themselves Jews?" they said. I confess that as we got into a cab to go to lunch and we drove by them, I had a few expletives to express to these horrifying characters.

The climax of our first day came in the form of a film we together saw at AIPAC: Follow Me: The Jonathan Netanyahu Story. For close to 90 minutes, we sat mesmerized as we saw this touching and beautifully made tribute to the life of a great hero, the fallen leader of the famous Raid on Entebbe on July 4, 1976. The film told the story of Jonathan simultaneously from two angles -- that of the Entebbe story, and that of the philosophic, intellectual, romantic poetry-reading Jonathan. We were treated to photos and film footage of the Netanyahu boys during their upbringing, intimate and very personal interviews with Prime Minister Netanyahu (Jonathan's little brother), and interviews with some of Jonathan's comrades in arms. 

"What drove you to make this film?" Shira asked the directors during the Q &A. This was followed by Ilan's question: "What were you trying to accomplish by portraying his life both through the raid on Entebbe and his personal life? Was it to show the personal and human side of a combat soldier?" Provoking such questions from the younger generation -- curious, sensitive, inquisitive -- are the reasons why this film is so important. It brings us back to the world of Zionism that values what Israel is made of -- the humane combat soldier like Jonathan Netanyahu, who in one of his famous letters wrote: "Having killed people up close during the Yom Kippur War added a whole new ugly and haunting dimension to being a soldier." 

It brought to life our conversation at the lunch table, when I told the kids that one of the key differences between soldiers in Israel vs. elsewhere in the world is that in most other societies, people in the military have a "military mind," and when they retire from the military, usually end up writing books or becoming speakers about military matters. In Israel, you have the phenomenon of combat soldiers who become peace activists, paratroopers who write love songs, or -- like Jonathan Netanyahu -- commando soldiers who "fight terrorism in the day while reading philosophy and poetry at night." They view the army as a necessary evil that they will commit to, all the while praying that the next generation won't have to.

I guess that's why we're here at AIPAC this year -- to make sure that both America and Israel stand strong and together in their resolve to stop a nuclear Iran. Doing so will hopefully assure that Shira and Ilan, the 2,000 plus young college delegates that are here, and the younger generation in Israel, in the U.S. and around the world -- can grow up in a world where they can concentrate less on weapons that can destroy the world, and instead focus their brain power on ways to help improve the world.

Quite a first day!


Neil Sheff said...

Tell Shira that when I read of Cheney's comments this morning in the LA Times, I had the same reaction she did. "Derekh Eretz kadma la'torah"-good manners and respect should precede all and it's so valuable that she recognized that first and foremost.

I also commented this last Shabbat in my weekly announcements at Kahal Joseph that indeed the Purim story juxtaposed this week against AIPAC is quite symbolic-except in the Purim story one Jew plead the case of her People to the Persian king and here the elected leaders and officials of the U.S. come to plead their case and extol the virtues of Israel to the multitudes of Jewish leaders. The miracle of Purim and the Jewish People is stronger than ever!


Neil Sheff

Anonymous said...

As always, whether describing an AIPAC conference or a portion from the Bible, Rabbi Bouskila makes one feel as if (s)he too were there in the thick of what is happening on the ground. It is a privilege to see that another generation of thoughtful Bouskilas will be asking thoughtful questions and helping to be the conscience of a modern American-Jewish society. Leadership is both natural and learned, and with a strong and vital young Jewish generation, while we can never rest, we can rest easier.