I just returned from Washington, having attended my first AIPAC Policy Conference. This year’s event was the largest yet, with 10,000 delegates participating. I was incredibly proud to be one of these delegates, and overwhelmed by the strength and diversity of the pro-Israel movement. Among the attendees were Jews and non-Jews, both religious and secular, African Americans and Latinos, students and professionals, all there for one reason – to support Israel and keep her safe.
The theme for this year’s conference was “U.S. and Israel: Better Together.” The lineup of speakers was impressive, including President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senator Bob Casey, Senator John Thune and former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar. Each one of them discussed how critically important the U.S.-Israel relationship is and reaffirmed our commitment to stand together and defend Israel, and her right to exist in peace and security.
I was fortunate to attend a special reception where members of Congress mingled with AIPAC delegates prior to the Gala Dinner on Monday evening. I was inspired by the outpouring of support from members of Congress. There were 67 Senators and 286 members of the House in attendance, creating the largest gathering of Congress outside of Congress.
When 10,000 people stood up, in a room so large it could hold the Washington Monument on its side, and sang Hatikvah in unison I was brought to tears by the experience. When Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the crowd, citing the common values that bind the United States and Israel, he was met with thunderous applause and numerous standing ovations. Netanyahu described Israel as “the crucible of our common values,” where Muslims enjoy full democratic rights and Christians can fully and freely practice their faith, and he proclaimed that “Israel, and only Israel can be trusted to ensure the freedom for all faiths in our eternal capital, the united city of Jerusalem.”
He urged everyone to recognize the basic truth that “Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East. Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.”
The one thing that most surprised and disturbed me about the conference were the protesters outside the convention center and on Capitol Hill, the majority of whom were Neturei Karta. Being inside the convention center at AIPAC, it is easy to be lulled into the false sense that the entire world, especially the Jewish world, is pro-Israel, but all you have to do is step right outside and be confronted with these protesters and that illusion is shattered immediately.
The presence of the protesters, who carried signs with slogans like “Recovering Zionist” and “Jews are not Zionists” was so disheartening to me – we should all work together as Jews to ensure the security of Israel and make sure that she remains strong for generations to come. We should certainly not be fighting amongst ourselves on this vital issue.
The last day of the conference was spent lobbying on Capitol Hill. Thousands of AIPAC activists from all 50 states participated in more than 500 lobbying appointments with members of Congress and their staff. These appointments directly followed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress that morning, and could not have been more perfectly timed. The three items on the lobbying agenda were encouraging our House and Senate members to support U.S. security assistance to Israel - $3.075 billion for 2012, urging Congress to pass new legislation imposing tough new sanctions on Iran and gathering support for resolutions calling for the Obama administration to lead the international effort to oppose a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.
We met with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was the first elected official in Congress to make a statement on the Gaza flotilla incident last year. She affirmed her support for Israel’s right to defend herself, saying that its defense is not merely a right but a duty as well. We met with Congressman Gary Ackerman, regarded as one of the staunchest supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the House today. He is the author of all three resolutions passed by Congress regarding Gilad Shalit. With regard to peace negotiations, he astutely commented that it’s not where you start from; it’s where you end that matters the most.
Attending AIPAC Policy Conference made me feel proud to be an American Jew supporting Israel. Despite the hurdles that still lie ahead in the peace process, I remain hopeful about the future of our homeland thanks to AIPAC and the tireless work it does to support Israel. I encourage everyone to attend the next AIPAC Policy Conference, which will be held March 4-6, 2012, in Washington, D.C., and to see for yourself how wonderful it is to be a part of America’s pro-Israel lobby.
Sandi Stanger is an account executive for The Jewish Star.