Saturday, March 10, 2018

Some reflections after AIPAC's 2018 Pollicy Conference

Last week I had the honor of presenting a small collection of State Archives documents at AIPAC's Policy Conference 2018, in Washington DC. I also participated in a fun panel with my American counterpart, Chief Archivist David Ferriero. In spite of some differences in scale of the archives we run, his being rather larger than ours, it turns out we've got similar challenges and similar positions on them. But I'm not here to talk about archives, rather about some impressions I garnered at the conference.

1. AIPAC has awesome organizational capbilities. They had 18,000 participants in their conference; I have no idea how many people are neccesary to make it all happen but they've got to number in the multiple thousands. There are hundreds of sessions, and even more hundreds of micro-shows such as video segments or backdrops to talks. Someone had to serve 150,000 meals (I'm guessing), lay the infrastructure for dozens of different types of activities, put everything in place on Thursday and Friday, have it all running Saturday afternoon, and all dismantled and shipped out by Wednesday. They need to tend to politicians, a whole series of classes of donors, gaggles of media, and all of this is essentially just a prop to their main business. So far as I could see there were no hitches that impacted the conference for more than 2.5 minutes. If that.

I've been working (a bit) with AIPAC for almost 15 years, and I've always told its folks that I'm awfully glad they're on our side; this past week significantly reinforced this conviction.

2. It wasn't clear they had any immediate agenda. They were striving mightily to be bi-partisan, and for all I know they were succeeding, but that's ultimately a pre-requitsite, not a raison d'etre. I suppose it's great that the American-Israeli relationships currently has no major issue for AIPAC to have to address.

3. They're not all Jews, but I don't think that's new. Someone told me the delegation from Idaho was made up of a rabbi and ten non-Jews. On that point, I think probably one of the single most important things AIPAC does is to bring thousands of Americans from diverse walks of life to meet Israelis. The experience apparently make a difference in the lives of some of the visitors.

4. The greatest eye-opener for me was a development that's been in the making for quite some time, but I'd never been aware of its extent: the death of the Checkbook Zionism and its replacement with what I'll call, for lack of a better title, Israel of the shared values Zionism. Of course, AIPAC needs its members to be donating funds to itself, so preaching the sale of Israel Bonds, say, was never to be expected at their Policy Conference. But that doesn't explain the meta-narrative about Israel which was broadcast pervasively and incessantly: that Israel is a powerhouse, a fountain of diverse innovation in multiple walks of life and a country which makes the world a better place. Since these are all componants of American exceptionalism (which I mean as a positive thing), their centrality to Israel is the fundament of a bond between two sister nations - of unequal size, of course, but still.

(4.5 I think there's a parallel Israeli shift in the perspective of America. While every rational Israeli understands how crucial it is that the US is our closest friend, the centrality of this in Israel's cognition may be receding. But that's a topic for another day).

5. The lack of cynicism is, to this Israeli, frankly astounding. Yes, I expect that every single statement about Israel's achivements and those of its citizens made at the conference was probably true. Moreover, it would probably be healthy for Israelis to remind themselves from time to time how very successful they really are. But most of the time Israelis aren't into celebrating their successes, but rather bemoaning their limits and the endless obstructions they pile in front of themseves on the way. No Israeli can spend more than 32 seconds listening to these peans of admiration without rolling their eyes in exasperation and trotting out the (equally true) lists of things we're doing wrong, or where we're being idiotic, and certainly about how the other Israelis are being maliciously idiotic. One afternoon I asked a young AIPAC employee if he and his colleagues really believe all this stuff, and I fear he was offended by my very question. "What, isn't it true?' he asked, and when I confirmed that it probably was, he wanted to know why then shouldn't they be believeing it. I don't think I gave him a very good answer, and afterwards I sort of regreted being mean to him.