This entry appeared on my blog at The Times of Israel.
I applied to AIPAC’s Leffell Israel Rabbinic Student fellowship because I knew little about AIPAC.
Well, that's not totally accurate. I applied to this fellowship because I only knew what, to me, were negative and one-sided stories about AIPAC. I'm sure you've heard them too: AIPAC is for Republicans. AIPAC is for Orthodox Jews. AIPAC is Bibi's mouthpiece. AIPAC doesn't care about the progressive voice. AIPAC's focus is narrow, without nuance, and that stubbornness is its cornerstone.
Thus, I figured, surely there is no place for me in AIPAC, which meant that the challenge was there - I was determined to find out, in detail, if my perceptions HAD any basis, to separate the myths from the reality, to learn and absorb what might be different points of view, and to see if, in fact, AIPAC had more to offer than those attitudes I assumed were their truths.
And so, when I was accepted into the fellowship, I came in with questions: As a social progressive, could AIPAC be my narrative? As a Reform Jew, would I feel ostracized? Is AIPAC truly only supportive of singular points of view, and not open to wider interpretations of Judaism and all its many and varied policies? Could it really be that an organization so powerful, so full of intelligent and devoted followers, be uninterested in and dismissive of varying factions of Judaism?
In short, is AIPAC for me?
I did come to the conference with an open mind. I very much believe in the mandate from Pirkei Avot, the teachings of our ancestors: Give every person the benefit of the doubt. I was determined to keep my eyes, and my mind, wide open. Having seen what I saw at my first AIPAC policy conference, from our Shabbaton with the Shalom Hartman Institute, to the general sessions, to the breakout sessions, to the formal and informal conversations with clergy, lay leaders, staff, participants, and everyone in-between, I believe I have a very good picture of who and what AIPAC was, where it is now, and where it is going. I was truly inspired by what I saw, and I believe the following very deeply.
I found my place at AIPAC.
AIPAC is one of the few places in the Jewish world where people from so many demographics come together: Democrats, Republicans, Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Christians, Jews of all stripes, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Post-denominational, Non-denominational...the list goes on. This would not happen at just about any other conference in the world.
I am thrilled with how AIPAC's tent is widening to include progressive voices and allow for a more nuanced conversation of Israel policy. I saw glimmers of this in the general sessions (progress from past policy conferences, to be sure). When I met people one-on-one and in breakout sessions, I realized that dissonance is welcomed and encouraged and given the respect it deserves.
This is not to say AIPAC is perfect, without room for improvement. Women are poorly represented on panels and in general sessions. Certain topics, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and religious pluralism in Israel, were given minimal time in favor of this policy conference’s focus: preventing Iran's nuclear weapon. But hearing from people about how AIPAC has changed in the last few years, I am very impressed with AIPAC’s openness to change and optimistic for future policy conferences.
The leadership seems to get it: if AIPAC wants to be the voice of the American-Israel relationship, the tent has to be wide enough to include everyone who sincerely cares about and wants to participate in the American-Israel relationship.
The AIPAC policy conference awakened something in me. AIPAC has brought the Israel identity formed from my first year of rabbinical studies in Israel, and the educational frameworks from learning at the iCenter, together, and provided an outlet for my passion as an American who cares about Israel.
I am in my fourth year of studies in Rabbinic/Education school. Up to now, I have not yet given a sermon about Israel. I have never articulated my Israel identity on the pulpit. I have never tried to inspire a community to action for Israel.
After this policy conference, I have a hunch that will change dramatically very soon.
Day 1 (Friday)
Our AIPAC Policy Conference experience began with a Shabbaton run by the Shalom Hartman Institute. The institute is known for dynamic education, but this was my first opportunity to learn with and from their educators. Just another reason why this fellowship is so great. In addition to all of these opportunities that we know about going in, they are always trying to make it better. This Shabbaton came out of feedback from fellows last year who craved some Shabbat learning before the policy conference, as well as a desire from Hartman to connect with us. How nice to be in a group that is sought out to engage with in dialogue.
In our first discussion block, we were asked two questions: What keeps you up about Israel? What gets you up in the morning to engage with Israel? The stories people shared were really powerful. Each of us has a unique lens with which to view our Israel. We each lose proverbial sleep for a whole host of reasons, but we are also awakened with hope to create a better tomorrow.
Then, my classmate Megan and I led Kabbalat Shabbat, the series of Psalms and L'cha Dodi that welcome Shabbat in song. Knowing that we were leading a community of Reform and Conservative rabbinical students (the Orthodox rabbinical students participated in their own minyan), we wanted to bring in music that was familiar to both. We wanted to make Kabbalat Shabbat a moment of joy and celebration of our community and the incoming Shabbat. We wanted to set a positive tone of community to begin the policy conference experience. We sang with guitar and shaker and tambourine, with Hebrew and English, with modern melodies and ancient nusach. And from the feedback, we were very successful. After the services, we received praise from our classmates and cohort members, but two things will stick with me: 1) the conversation the Conservative students I walked into where they were discussing, and seriously considering, incorporating guitar into their practice and the power it can have, rather than being a Shabbat distraction; how it can elevate everyone on such a profound level. 2) an HUC student who came up to me and said, "That was the most meaningful davening I have done since I came back from Israel." That may have been the highest praise we could have received.
One big take-away from me, in terms of self-improvement, is that as much as I have learned so far, I still have a lot to learn. I am not as fluent in some of the more traditional aspects of Kabbalat Shabbat or Ma'ariv as I would like to be. The good news: I have some time to learn!
After dinner, we were treated to an amazing talk by Rabbi Donnielle Hartman, the leader of the Shalom Hartman Institute, which was named and started by his father, Rabbi David Hartman. The following are my notes from his talk. Because I was writing with pencil and paper, out of respect for my fellow cohort members who may have been offended by the use of technology in such a public manner during Shabbat, I was not able to write as copiously as I would have liked. Nevertheless, his message was quite powerful, and an incredible frame for what we were about to experience at the policy conference.
Donielle Hartman - How we talk about Israel and why talking about it is so difficult
If it was simple, we wouldn't need to be here!
We are Rabbis for Jews during a time when there are no limits on what they can do as Jews.
The new question becomes: what will the limits be to form our new group? A group is defined by its limits, so what will those limits be?
If we (Jews in Israel and US) can't talk, we don't have Peoplehood.
Here are the two old categories: galut (exile) or geulah (redemption). This is how we've looked at each.
Galut: an imperfect reality which we hope will change soon.
This implies danger, impermanence, and punishment
Geulah: no gap between what you want and what you have.
This implies there's no tomorrow. This encompasses all Messianic dreams
Two places: a place where you should be, or where you are.
A transition: when things change, but you can't see because you don't have the right lenses. You get frustrated!
Israel today: If you're outside of Israel, you're not "here." You're in galut. Aliyah literally means going up. Aliyah or die. Those are the options.
There are currently only two Israeli reporters covering diaspora Jewry. There are two big exception: when there are moments of anti-semitism, and coverage of the Pew report. The average Israeli upon reading the Pew report: "I told you they're dying!"
Israel doesn't know that you live at home here and don't feel guilty about that.
Hartman suggests doing a study: look at the mission statements and itineraries of missions and trips to Israel. His prediction: they are showing Israel as geulah-land lite!
What happens when someone doesn't think something is geulah when you do? That person is dangerous. When they talk that way, "my" Israel dies.
Trend in the last 10-15 years: American Jews are looking at Israel and saying, "I don't need saving. I'm in geulah!"
This shifts the mindset of Israel from geulah to galut. My job, by supporting Israel, is to support Jews in galut. This casts Israel as the weak country.
Our job as community leaders: Do the "Entebbe."
Problem: US isn't geulah. It's not galut, but it's not geulah. Then again, nor is Israel either galut or geulah.
It's easy to make Israel the victim and call it balanced reporting.
If you talk about Israel to galut: there is no room for nuance or humor. How DARE you make a joke about Israel!
How do we have a conversation where Israel is not galut nor geulah.
Conversations between Israel and the US and the US and Israel must be framed as: It's not where I live, but I love you.
Here's the harsh reality: no one knows what to tell you. We don't know if what we're doing is sustainable. BUT, when you create room for discussion, engagement is not a means but AN END.
How do we create a new notion of a stake in the America-Israel relationship?
No Israeli thinks as galut or geulah. Iran is #10 interest to Israelis
"Zionism in Israel is to fight for the Israel you want"
Your jobs will be experiments. And the consequences are dire.
Step count: 10930
----------------------Day 2 (Saturday)
We began the day with breakfast and t'filah led by the Conservative rabbinic students. It has been so great that we have been able to lead and be led by our colleagues. While it was not my preferred style of service, I so appreciate the opportunity to be led by my Conservative colleagues.
One big takeaway lesson came during the Torah service. One student noted that in part of our Torah reading, we read, "Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it." (Deut. 25:17-19) What's curious about this is that if we "blot out" the memory of Amalek, how will we remember the lesson it teaches us? We did not reach an answer, but it was a great thought exercise.
We then had a study session with the Hartman scholars. Here are their big points about Israel discussions:
1) Start with conversations rooted in text.
2) Talk about Israel through values language.
3) Others may not see the nuance. Our goal is to help them see the Other.
A really important point: In the Bible, kings and leaders are rebuked and punished by their people and by God. Why should we assume that our leaders today should be any different?
During lunch we heard a short d'rash that made a few great points:
We can't have a conversation about Peoplehood by only talking about either Israel or the US.
Being a rabbi is about what's in your kishkes, and at the same time, it's about sticking your neck out. (I really took this to heart with my final reflection)
We then had another text study. I have more detailed notes about the texts we studied, but I will include here some of the more general lessons I garnered:
Texts allow you to express things you cannot otherwise say.
As we studied different kinds of "peace" in the texts, we kept three questions in mind: What kind of peace is being described? What are the consequences of that peace? What do you think?
Texts are wonderful. But they're greatest strength is in their limitation: at some point, you're going to have to say something you think BECAUSE the text falls flat.
We were then treated to another talk from Donielle.
Let's have a conversation about the conflict in terms of Jewish values.
Our goal is not to resolve what cannot be resolved. We just want to engage.
What are the values that push us the most? Where do our values come into conflict?
Israel is not meant to be the biggest ghetto in the world.
Two yiddish phrases: pastnich (not appropriate) and shande (shame)
Pastnich grows out of a sense of self
Shande grows out of a sense of what they think about us.
Plays out in two ways:
1) grows from powerlessness - self-defense
2) comes from how Jews see themselves in the world
Do we have a covenant with the world that we take into account?
That's upholding the value of the world in which we live.
There's a huge difference between how Jews in Israel and the US hold this value.
How do we see God's place and our place?
Torah starts with God and the world, not God and the Jews.
Is Genesis 12 (God reaching out and choosing Abraham) God turning God's back on the rest of the world?
The command for Abraham is to detach from the rest of the world!
God left the world, and we separated from the world.
Proof text: Deut. 4:6 - "Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people."
Chosenness is aloneness and loneliness
When our relationship with the world is an end, rather than a means, we transform.
Universal ethics cannot be done in isolation, and must be done with a critic.
When we believe that we have to live in a world with universal ethics but cannot listen to a critic, we give up the right to say we support universal ethics.
Genesis 12 teaches us that we are part of an international community.
"The Jewish community that listens to critics is a better Jewish community."
We should be the antithesis of mediocracy.
Donnielle then told us a great story from a friend. He was talking to a group of Israelis about what should be changed in the country. They pushed back, saying, "Who are you to tell us what to do?" And he responded beautifully: "I'm sorry, I'm not telling you what to do. I'm telling you what I think."
Step count: 6608
Day 3 (Sunday)
Notes on General Plenary Session: Below are my notes and attempts to write down quotations. Quotations are my best attempt at replicating them. Feel free to watch the full versions on the AIPAC website and YouTube channel. I'll try to make clear which are my thoughts and which are replications of the presentations.
Entering the general plenary session makes the URJ Biennial look like child's play.
There are screens going 360 degrees around the room with images of Israel, America, and friends of AIPAC (members, members of Congress, etc.). Israeli music is pumping through the sound system. There are two press sections: one writing section and a camera section. There are 16,000 people registered, and this room looks like it can hold every one of them. My guess is that this production will also captivate them.
Let me begin by allowing for some of the very useful frames provided to us by our leadership. "At the general sessions, you're going to mostly hear one-note: The America-Israel relationship is strong. Iran is a threat. Your fellowship, our Shabbaton, and your discussions are meant to bring the nuance to the conversation. You may not hear the nuance in the general sessions - you are here to bring that nuance." That was an incredibly helpful frame.
Oh, and in a good Jewish mother touch, there's a muffin on every seat.
The first speaker was a Survivor from Bergen-Belson, who spoke about how, when she was a child, Israel did not exist - it was only a dream. Now, Israel exists, making a desert bloom. "This," she said, "Is Israel." I think we're going to hear that a lot.
The video screens around the room kicked into coordinated video packages showcasing the things Israel is: seeking peace, determination, heritage, resilience, innovation, etc.
We were then treated to the singing of the national anthems of America and Israel, sung beautifully by members of the American and Israeli defense forces, respectfully. The room felt full of energy - this is one of those quintessential moments illuminating the joy of being an "American Jew" and a "Jewish American."
Then, Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Cardin spoke together with a moderator.
"If a Republican in Congress wants to vote against a bad deal just to vote against Obama, it will look very bad on a resume." Sen. Lindsey Graham.
A good deal is one that allows for nuclear power in Iran that can never turn weaponized." Sen. Graham.
"You must make sure you have a check on Iran's nuclear program because you cannot trust Iran." Sen. Ben Cardin
(Me: The rhetoric about Iran, unsurprisingly, is painting Iran as untrustworthy, not interested in becoming a member of family of nations, and a nuclear Iran is a nightmare scenario. This sounds very similar to what we heard in the run-up to the Iraq war. Scary deja vu.)
"The circumstances of the invitation didn't go as they should have. But don't lose focus: the bad guy is Iran." Sen. Cardin. "We can never let Israel become a wedge political issue."
"To my AIPAC friends: you are going to make more of a difference in this country than any politician could." Sen. Graham.
Sen. Cardin will introduce legislation that will place harsh sanctions on countries that support BDS. (Me: YES! I am very curious how this will be handled, but I so appreciate that Congress is taking this issue up. In fact, in what was a very cool moment, Sen. Graham actually patted Sen. Cardin on the back as he was describing the bill.)
Sen. Graham: "This is like coming to church for me."
Sen. Graham: "I'm counting it!"
Sen. Graham: "I will put the UN on notice that if they continue to support anti-semitism running rampant through Europe, we will cut their money."
Sen. Graham: Equates ISIL to Nazis - "They want a Master Religion just like the Nazis wanted a Master Race." "This is a war of good people vs evil. There is only one outcome that is acceptable: they lose, we win."
Members of the IDF Outstanding Musician's program performing. Very talented musicians! I'm always blown away when Army bands play. It is such a beautiful juxtaposition of something that usually conjures up images of strength, power, and force being used for something so gentle, precise, and harmonious.
Video package about the importance of the advance-notice warning system, and how an AIPAC activist is using a similar system in Chicago urban areas. And this is where AIPAC is amazing: They put the right people in the right places to get the right thing done.
CEO of AIPAC's presentation:
On Iran: "This is not a crisis, and it is up to us to let it not become a crisis." Seriously? Have you been listening to AIPAC's own messaging? A very curious statement.
How America benefits from its relationship to Israel: Israel is a calm in a fire-storm which shares our values. It also is pro-American.
How delegates should view the Bibi speech: The way this speech came about has created some upset. We have spent active hours lobbying Congress people to attend this speech. When the leader of our greatest ally in the region comes to speak, we urge our members to hear what he has to say.
Is there a deal that Israel might like? Yes, but the only way to get it done is through dramatic economic pressure on Iran.
White House: They are concerned that Iran will leave the negotiation table. If we put too much pressure on our allies, they will stop the sanctions on Iran.
What's wrong with that analysis: We shouldn't be afraid of them walking away. But we need to be able to bring them back to the table through dramatic actions.
The most important thing over the last 20 years: Congress has been able to keep the Iran conversation on the minds of Americans, and continued pressure on Iran.
Israel and Palestinians: We can't give up on home that Israelis and Palestinians will negotiate to allow for two states for two people - a Jewish state for the Jewish people and a Palestinian state for the Palestinian. Abbas has gone to Hamas and the UN. He has declared diplomatic warfare on Israel. There is only one path for us: to sit down and negotiate with the people of Israel.
What can be done to get Abbas back to the table? Speak with one voice: There is only one option - negotiations. Second option: suspension of financial aid to Palestinians until they come to the negotiation table.
I remain optimistic because Israel has faced much darker times than what we see today. Israel is a healthy democracy that remains a beacon of light to the nations. That is a cause for optimism for all of us here. America is the lone super-power in the world, and Israel is her friend. This conference is the largest and most diverse conference we've ever had.
Israeli soldier speaking about creating the injured personnel carrier - allows a soldier to carry a wounded soldier while allowing them to keep their hands free. Now, it's being used all over the world for many different purposes, especially kinds with special needs. A very cool product.
Now we're talking about the Boston marathon bombing. The first-responders team managed the response to the attack because of the training they received during a mission to Israel with other homeland security officials.
Jewish widow who was supported by TAPS (The Assistance Program for Survivors). With other American families, they traveled to Israel to meet families with similar situations. During the visit to Mount Herzl, they were asked to place the wreath on Herzl's grave. Her son was able to connect with other Jews in Israel, igniting a spark, allowing him to move past his grief and create a community and a new family.
Cyber hacking and Israel. Cyber-security hub at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. Companies from all over the world are coming to focus on cyber security.
Middle East analyst for the Times of Israel, introducing "The Green Prince" - a Shin Bet Informant - Mosab Hassan Yousef. He grew up in a Hamas-founder's house.
"I blamed everything on Israel, but I could not see that the real enemy was Arafat and the Palestinian leadership."
"I was shocked and surprised by the truth of the Other." What started with destructive intentions became humanized by his experiences with the Israeli Shin-Bet. This was a different truth than what he had experienced with Hamas. "Israelis intentions are not to kill Palestinian civilians," and I know this because I'm in the intelligence community.
To suicide bombers, "Humanity is their target."
He, and others, were able to bring down the Hamas military wing in the West Bank.
"I wanted to share this story to inspire a generation to see things how they really are."
"Israel is values and ethics. I cannot imagine the world without Israel."
One final reflection on the first general plenary:
When I started my fellowship with the iCenter, someone told me, "It's not Jewish, it's Israel." This was the feeling I had about the plenary. This was not about a collective Jewish identity. AIPAC is about a shared belief in a strong Israel. How we envision that Israel may be different, but AIPAC is not Jewish, it's Israel.
Session on Israel's upcoming election
The session began with an explanation of Israel's Proportional Representation (PR) system. Here's the sad thing: here are people who should be the most knowledgeable about the America-Israel relationship, yet they may not understand the fundamentals of how Israeli elections work. On one hand, I appreciate the framing of the session - in fact, it's just good education! On the other hand, it shouldn't be necessary.
Nearly every PR system has a threshold, that is, the percentage of votes a party needs to receive in order to get a seat. In Israel, the threshold was recently raised so that a block needs to get 4 seats worth of votes. The Arab parties (yes, THEY EXIST!) recently created a coalition so they could have more power as a block and actually attain seats in government. In a PR system, it is very rare where one party gets a majority of the votes, which is what's necessary to form a government. Sure, a party may get a plurality of the votes, but it is rare that one party gets a majority. What this means is that parties have to form coalitions in order to garner a majority of seats and form a government. This is where it gets interesting. It's easy to focus on the plurality parties (Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, etc.). But, in looking at those big parties, one cannot forget about the other parties - because they will be necessary to create a government.
Here's the thing: this is not so unusual for PR systems. But, it's a Jewish state. So we like to think we're unique. And we are! And we have a lot of opinions. And we'd like you to know all of them.
Why am I spending so much time describing this? Admittedly, if you're unfamiliar with PR systems, it is confusing, especially for Americans who are used to one, maybe two if there is a divided Congress, party rule. This session was very useful for summarizing the current state of affairs for how the parties are shaping out, and how the election may look.
What's likely to happen if the election was held today: Bibi + ultra-orthodox camp would have a very very slim majority, but their status in the polls is shrinking. Yet, there would be a cost. Neither side would be particularly happy, so things are being shaken up. Another option is to have a national unity, but Bibi isn't in favor of it - which may mean it's possible! (that got a big laugh) This would likely bring about Israeli election reforms, amongst other things.
How the elections will affect foreign policy (re: Iran and peace negotiations with Palestinians): There is little, if any, dispute about most security related issues in Israel. Israelis are against a nuclear Iran. The question is one of competence - who do they trust to make it happen in the best way for Israel. Israelis feel similarly about the Palestinian question - everyone is in favor of creating peace, but it's a question of methods of achieving that peace. Israelis make up their mind based on what the security infrastructure is saying publicly and privately. Everyone recognizes the need for a two-state solution. The difference is who do they (Israelis) trust in making it happen in the international community. (My thought: This is why I think Bibi will win - no clear PM competitor has stepped forward in the public sphere as a reliable alternative to Bibi)
People on the Right (hawkish) tend to be acutely aware of the dangers around, yet relatively sanguine about what is happening in the West Bank. Their thought is that the West Bank is tolerable in the long-term. Left (doveish) tend to be flipped on this - they are sanguine on the dangers around, but are much more focused and aware of the dangers of maintaining the status quo in the West Bank.
What this election means in terms of foreign policy: this election will, likely, maintain the status quo. Major foreign policy changes are highly unlikely with whomever wins the election.
Don't underestimate the power of the Arab coalition. Depending on how they end up, they could seriously change the landscape of the coalitions that form to create the government.
One of the major issues for secular, main-stream Israelis is the non-mandatory conscription of the Orthodox community into the army. This is just one of the highlights of the domestic issues that Israelis are focusing on (more than, say, foreign policy issues)
My thought: Now I understand why the introduction was necessary. Someone just asked how the President of Israel is elected. Seriously. This conversation is indicative of the stereotypical AIPAC audience: Our values align, and we agree in the importance of supporting Israel, but there is a misunderstanding of the fundamental structures of how Israel works on the ground. Fortunately, it appears that this narrative and stereotype are changing. People in my fellowship, and those with whom we engage in dialogue, have a greater understanding of what things are like on the ground. I also am realizing that the point of this session is to provide a basic understanding and framework for the upcoming election. Having that frame is making the rest of my notes and reflections above make more sense.
My uncle Bob got up and asked a question: What's the possibility that the Arab coalition might join a Bibi/Herzog coalition? A: The Arab coalition has said that they will not join a government coalition until occupation ends. They would likely vote on minor governmental issues, but not on big issues like budget nor cabinet positions. There are few people who think there will be an agreement without compromise re: Jerusalem. Also, as soon as they get seats, they might break up their own coalition and go back to their own party lines. (Me: I'm very proud of my uncle. He asked a question about Arab/Israel relations that was well grounded, received a level-headed response, and acknowledged the nuance in the Israel conversation. As I've alluded to before, nuance is found in the breakout sessions. It was great to see that happen in a great way.)
John Baird - Former Foreign Minister of Canada
"Terrorism is the greatest threat to our generation. It is important for people who share the same values as Israel, such as American and Canada, to stand with Israel on the good days as well as the tough days."
It is in Canada's interest for Israel to be a beacon of liberal democracies in the Middle East.
Mostly speaking in black and white terms - Israel is democracy, Hezbollah is terrorism.
The rest of his commentary is couched much in the same black and white terms. Iran = bad. Israel = great. No nuance, no middle-ground.
The questions that followed were complex. But, unfortunately, I was disappointed with the lack of complexity in his responses. Perhaps I am not hearing it properly. But this talk is playing on our fears, which is not a method that works well for me (nor most beyond fundraising).
This is not to diminish my agreement with his politics. I agree that we must be vigilant to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. I agree that a nuclear armed Iran is a threat to Israeli and US interests. I just also happen to think that nothing relating to international politics, and especially Israel, is so plainly black-and-white.
Thomas Donilon (Former National Security Director for US) & Ya'acov Amidror (Former National Security Advisor for Israel)
Iran issue is front and center, and there are tactical differences.
Donilon: As a strategic mater, we have the same goal: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We have been distracted unnecessarily instead of focusing on the content of the conversations.
Amidror: From Jerusalem's point of view, it's a threat to the existence of Israel. From Washington, it is a big issue, but not one of existence. I try to understand what everyone's motivations. Somewhere in the middle, instead of being very precise about dismantling Iran's nuclear capabilities to how to monitor Iran's nuclear capabilities. I think it's very important to understand why the difference emerged and what changed during the negotiations.
Donilon: There will have to be restraints on what will happen to Iran if they go beyond what is in the deal.
Is Iran a long-term problem, no matter what?
Amidror: Iran is a center of instability in the Middle East. If someone doesn't understand the idea that everyone in the region agrees that "Islam is the solution" doesn't understand what's going on in the region.
Amidror: From the point of Israel, nuclear Iran is in a different league than ISIL and Al Qaeda.
A Jewish writer, Jeff Astrof, dealing with anti-semitism in his youth, found stand-up comedy as an outlet. Eventually, he landed a job on Friends. A few shows later, he made a trip to Israel. He became an AIPAC activist and found his community.
AIPAC presdent on stage giving us numbers about the conference. 16,000 attendees, the largest AIPAC policy conference ever. "A strong US-Israel relationship makes America, Israel, and the world a better and safer place."
"Thank you for standing up, for being exceptional citizens, for investing in our cause to make our Israel and America secure."
Pointing to the diversity of AIPAC: Bi-partisan support from all 50 states. 500 rabbis and religious leaders. Hundreds from African-America, Hispanic, and Christian communities. Leaders from across the pro-Israel world: ADL. 3,000 high school student leaders here.
"This has been an especially difficult year on college campuses. I want to say to the students, 'Thank you. You inspire us.'"
6,000 first-time attendees. (Me: Wow.)
"Our presence is a response to the anti-semitic, anti-Israel, anti-western sentiments. It is a response to the serious by which we say the words, 'Never again.'"
"To you (President of Jewish community in France), and our brothers and sisters in Europe, we stand as one family."
"AIPAC is a big tent, home to a diverse array of political views, races, and religions. This type of diversity makes us strong."
Video of people marching across the famous Selma bridge. Not sure we can own that image. Now they're making the argument that we should stand with those who stand with us.
"The Jews were there for us, and they never wavered." Ah! Now I get it. Three african-Americans speaking about the partnership between Israel advocates and blacks.
In the past, the lobbying agenda has had three policy points. This year, only one: preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. Congress, and you, play a pivotal role.
1) Support diplomacy by increasing pressure by passing the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015. This legislation supports negotiations, objects to further extensions, and adds pressure on Iran.
2) Insist on a good agreement with six things; dismantle centrifuges, dismantle the plutonium reactor at Arak, grant access to inspectors, come clean about past weapons programs, implement sanctions relief slowly, (one more that I didn't write down). Ask members to reject a bad deal.
3) The Congress' role in reviewing any final deal. Congress must have a say before it is implemented. Promote the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. This piece of legislation requires the administration to provide any agreement with Iran to Congress for their approval.
Steny Hoyer (Democratic Whip in House):
When it comes to the safety and security of Israel. We will stand together.
House voted unanimously last year to condemn Hamas and fund Iron Dome.
Kevin McCarthy (Majority leader in House):
There is no greater responsibility a country has to its citizens than their protection.
Reiterating desire to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.
Congressional trip to Israel will happen this summer.
A beautiful show of bi-partisanship. The content wasn't so unique, but the fact that the two of them stood together on the stage is really wonderful.
Now we're looking at different Israeli innovations. It's like Shark Tank, but we can't actually invest in any of these.
After the plenary was a great dinner for the Leffel Fellows and their rabbinic mentors. I am so lucky to have Rabbi Michael Berk of Congregation Beth Israel be my assigned mentor. While we worked together when I was a youth director at his synagogue, it is great to continue that relationship now that I am in rabbinical school. I look forward to lots of conversations with him about what it's like to discuss Israel from the pulpit and how Israel changes synagogue dynamics.
Today's step count: 7709.
Day 4 (Monday)
Morning general plenary (most written on my phone, so they are less verbose...we just couldn't bring iPads/laptops in...more about security later):
Theme of today: far less nuance. They're towing the line...Iran threat is similar to the nazi threat.
First sitting European head of state to address a PC, Czech president Miloš Zeman.
"You all know the expression 'Ich bin ein Berliner,' now we must all say, 'I am a Jew' (then he said it in Hebrew.)"
Reiterating theme of threat of holocaust: "Never again."
Video showcasing how police in America are using Israeli skills to deal with terrorism. One problem: they also discuss the RESTRAINT that the Israeli army uses. Maybe, one day, our police will be less militarized and be more restrained, especially when dealing with minorities.
PSA from AIPAC: thank you for treating our guests with respect.
Ambassador Samantha Power, representative to the UN
Stop me if you've heard this before: Israel is the answer to the holocaust.
US will not rest until attacks on Israel in the UN stop.
"We believe the US Israel relationship transcends politics, and it always will."
"The US will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Period."
Showcasing a metal artist who takes rockets that land in Israel into beautiful pieces of art. Wow. "My sculptures are my statements."
The energy when the Prime Minister of Israel walks into a room of 16000 Pro-Israel advocates -- not just people who are pro-Israel, but advocates -- was exquisite. It was electrifying. Sure, it was a little crazy that we had to go through about an hour and a half worth of security checks (yes, we went through two metal detectors). Sure, it was a little crazy that the stage was flanked by at least 20 secret service agents placed throughout the room. But that's what's necessary. Because lots of people don't like Israel. But wow, did we stand quickly when he came on stage.
He welcomed and charged us: "You're here to tell the world that reports of the demise of the U.S. Israel relationship are not just premature, they're just wrong."
That was the last really profound moment in the speech.
The speech was very vanilla. A friend of mine characterized it really well: It was cotton candy - all fluff, no substance. Don't get me wrong; it was an honor to hear the Prime Minister of Israel speak to us. But he was, understandably so, saving his punches for tomorrow's speech to Congress. I overheard a person in line on the way out say, "I got up early for this?" That was the general feeling on the way out of the speech. A little disappointing, but still an incredible honor.
Reform Clergy Meeting
Rabbi Rick Jacobs:
140 Reform clergy at AIPAC. This is a huge difference from a few years ago, when there were only 10.
No other movement had as many young people in Israel last summer than the Reform Movement. We did not cancel a single trip, nor did we bring a single trip back. Bibi thanked Rabbi Jacobs for sending young people who can come back as ambassadors of the Jewish state.
With the Jewish Agency, we are piloting a new way to think about shlichim. We have a partnership to put shlichim in congregations in a way that relates to camp, NFTY, and Israel.
Story about how the President of Israel started calling him Rabbi, HaRav, Jacobs (mostly my retelling the story): You see, to many ultra-orthodox Jews, Reform Rabbis are not considered "real" Rabbis. We're inauthentic, yadda yadda yadda. This has been especially true in Israel. The orthodox in Israel refuse to acknowledge Reform smicha (ordination), let alone our marriages or conversions. They also don't acknowledge Conservative marriages or conversions, but at least they call those Rabbis by their proper title. When the new President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin was elected, Rabbi Rick Jacobs approached him and asked that he be called by his title. Oh, by the way, this was right before they were going to the funeral of the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and slain last summer. President Rivlin didn't say no, but said he needed to think about it. Not a great answer, but progress. Flash forward a few weeks. Rabbi Jacobs is on a train and he gets a call from an Israeli number. He picks up, of course. "Rabbi Jacobs," a voice says with an Israeli accent. "Wow," Rabbi Jacobs thought, "this is finally happening!" "Slichah (Excuse me)," the voice says. "Oh no," Rabbi Jacobs thinks, "all this effort for 25 years of proper recognition and it was just a slip?" "HaRav (The Rabbi) Jacobs, it's good to speak to you." When we heard that story, we all breathed a little easier, knowing that progress is attainable.
It's not only Iran that poses a threat to how we relate to the State of Israel. It's how we handle religious pluralism, settlements, and many other topics.
The issue today is not him speaking in Congress. It's that we cannot let the fabric of our relationship between America & Israel to be torn.
A bad deal for us is one that the State of Israel is diametrically opposed to.
Our lesson for us: follow the command God gave Moses - lech reid - get down from that high place. Our goal is to ensure our relationship with Israel is not harmed by advocating for a deal that the State of Israel can get behind.
Rabbi Rick Block:
We sometimes forget that Israel is much more than the sum of its conflicts.
Lots of q & a, but for the sake of my current and future colleagues, I'm going to keep those conversations in that room.
Frank Luntz - Communicating Israel's side of the story
This is the first session I've been to which was over-sold, as it were. I had to show my registration for this talk to the security guard at the door. Why? Because Frank Luntz is one of the most powerful communicators in American politics.
Well, this is interesting: room is full, but something has gotten him so flustered that he said that this will be his last AIPAC talk. I think it's because he's giving the talk twice and doesn't want repeat customers. He wants more first-timers to hear this. And that's a very valid argument.
He's showing video about anti-Israel activity on college campuses. The thing is: he's right. The anti-Israel sentiments on campus are scary. What happened at Davis is the tip of the iceberg.
20% of Jewish kids don't feel comfortable on their campuses because of rampant anti-Israel and anti-semitism.
The video ends with: "Never again." and fades into "Never again?"
"We have to get it right."
If it begins with "I want you to know," it's not a question.
I'm going to give you the words to open and the words to close. What happens in between is up to you.
I have no patience for anti-Obama language. We are Jews first before we are democrats or republicans.
We've lost among women. We've lost among democrats. We've lost among the young.
Don't begin with a divisive statement. It immediately puts your audience on the defensive. Every opening statement has to be something that 80% of the people will agree with.
Every time you bring Israel into the conversation, it undermines the case for America. America is a stronger case than Israel. And the global case is stronger than that. Republicans respond to American security. Democrats respond to global security. I'm going to use the Democrats approach.
"I want peace because I want to create a better future for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people." Who can disagree with that? Our goal is not to educate but to convince. They will pay attention to empathy.
Enumerate your points: Make your points in 3s. One fact is random. Two facts are a trend. Three facts are trust and credibility. This makes them easier to remember.
Don't argue with questioners. Don't fight the people who hate us. Ignore them. They will not change.
The most important group are the ones who support Israel but are silent about it.
College kids want non-Jews to stand up for Israel on campus. You have to go to non-Jewish audiences. We cannot do it in this room, we have to do it outside.
Ten Essentials lessons of 2014:
1) Back to basics: Israel is democratic/civilized/western/like us)
2) End the violence. Period. No child deserves to live like this.
3) The Hamas Charter / culture of hatred (don't use the word "Zionist" - to our generation, it's a much more caustic word)
4) The 11 Hamas rejected/violated failed cease fire attempts (all were from Egypt and Arab League cease-fires)
5) Imagine what could have been (Gaza/West Bank - what could have been if Palestinians had used the money from the UN to build houses instead of bullets and bombs?)
6) Stay away from all religious arguments - unless you're south of the mason/dixon line, you're going to turn people off. People aren't religious.
7) Beyond the conflict/Israel's global cooperation
8) Every Palestinian victim matters / Every Israeli victim matters (say Palestinians first)
9) Universal appeals ("Everyone deserves")
10) "One step at a time"
Use the word "Fact" instead of "Evidence." There is "evidence" for the defense and prosecution. There is no arguing facts.
Use B's, P's, and T's in alliteration. (E.g., Bullets and Bombs)
When we are quiet (instead of shouting), we are strongest. (speaking about vocal quality)
When you make a statement, they stop listening to you.
21 words for the 21st century:
Imagine what it's like...
Diplomacy & discussion
Conversation and cooperation
Here are the facts... (the problem with them: they tend to lie. We cannot.)
Our Palestinian neighbors
Moving forward/making progress
A culture of hatred (remind people what's taught in Israeli schools vs what's taught in Palestinian schools. No matter what we do in this room, if this teaching of hate doesn't change, our kids will have to deal with this as well)
War isn't good for anyone
Invest in peace
Freedom from fear
Genuine, enduring peace
The simple truth
Build schools, not terror tunnels
Cycle of violence and despair
War isn't good for anyone
Building a better future
BDS - a pressure group
Renew, revitalize, rejuvenate, restore, rekindle, reinvent
13 phrases for 2015
With peace and security, everyone benefits.
Israel is eager to negotiate
Diplomacy is preferable to destruction
All lives matter...Palestinian lives...Israeli lives...every life matters.
Our rockets protect our children. Their children protect their rockets
Living together, working together, side by side as neighbors
Peace is paved with diplomacy and discussion, not isolation
A future defined by peace rather than devastated by conflict
Pushing the conversation forward towards peace
Only in Israel are the rights of all peoples and all religions protected
**Boycotting Israel will do nothing to help the Palestinians
Solutions come from engagement, not silence
We're not at war with the Palestinian people. Hamas is at war with us.
The best response: Hamas leadership preaches violence. For far too long, Palestinians have been trapped in a cycle of violence. I do not blame the people of Gaza for feelings of grief, anger, and desperation. I blame the Hamas leadership who sow the seeds of hate and tell innocent civilians to live as human shields while hiding in tunnels paid for by the international community. Build schools, not tunnels.
Another response: I recognize your right to exist. Do you recognize Israel's?
Everything can be solved with peace. Everything can be solved with security. Everything can be solved with respect.
"If you want the policies of the right, you need the language of the left."
On agreement with Iran use language of: Accountable, verifiable, enforcement.
Visualize: Props work.
His charge to us: we should not pull ourselves apart in these debates. There is only one Jewish flag. Let's live up to our common sense and our ideals.
Evening plenary session
A welcome from the mayor of DC. That's nice!
Susan Rice, national security advisor
She begins by acknowledging the deaths of the three boys killed last summer: "Those boys were our boys, and we continue to mourn their loss."
My first memories of Israel remain etched in my soul. The relationship between the U.S. and Israel is one between two intimate souls that bind us.
It is American leadership who has ensured am Yisrael chai - the people of Israel lives!
She has used four Hebrew quotes so far. Kol hakavod!
Strengthening the security of Israel is in the national interest of America.
Not surprised: Iran talk got bigger applause than achieving a two-state solution.
Let me be clear: a bad deal is worse than no deal. And if that is the choice, there will be no deal.
Iran is further away from a nuclear weapon than it was a year ago. (Me: so, trust her or Bibi?)
She is speaking about the economic victories the US and sanctions have achieved. A very different tone than all other speakers we've heard this weekend.
"A good deal is one that cuts off every single pathway for a single nuclear weapon."
Sound bites won't stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Strong diplomacy can.
The bottom line is simple: we have israel's back, come hell or high water.
Now she's standing up to anti-semitism. Good for her.
God calls us to do more than sit (in brotherhood), we have to act. Let our legs utter songs, and our hands reach out together.
Families of the three slain boys came on stage and received the longest applause of this conference. Wow.
Senator Robert Menendez finished the evening off by giving the people what they want: a simple, rally-cry speech about making sure the Iran nuclear weapon process goes the way they want, emphasizing the importance of the relationship with Israel, and the important role AIPAC members play in that process. While I may not have agreed with everything he said, it was quite an energizing speech, and the perfect way to end the day before lobbying day.
The last event of the night was the leadership reception. As members of this fellowship, we get access to this reception. Here are the people in attendance: top donors, top rabbis, 3/4 of Congress, and us. Yup. It was incredible. I met the Congressman from Hawaii (Mark Takai) and Las Vegas (Dina Titus), thanked them for their support of Israel, and star-watched many government officials. It was kinda like the oscars, but it was AIPAC. Then I took a selfie with some classmates, Rabbi Rick Jacobs (President of the URJ) and Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein (former director of the Religious Action Committee). All in all, a pretty great night.
Step count: 11330
Day 5 (Tuesday)
Leffell fellows breakfast
This breakfast (jokingly called a "brunch" even though it was at 7 AM) was an opportunity for us, as fellows, to give feedback to the leadership of the fellowship, as well as the funders, the Leffell family. I am noticing a trend in well-run organizations: they take feedback seriously and respond based on feedback. This policy conference looks different than it did 5 years ago, 3 years ago, and even last year, because of the feedback they received. They listen to their constituents and make changes. They don't brush the feedback off and say, "well, we're the experts. What do they know?" What an amazing model for us all to follow.
One story that came out of this breakfast was the story of how the fellowship came about. In 2011, right around the time that I was starting my studies at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, Rabbi Daniel Gordis published an article which claimed that the students who come to Israel for a year of their studies in progressive rabbinical schools (namely Reform and Conservative) came home with less of an Israel identity, and even sometimes an anti-Israel mentality. (as an aside, this was not the case in my experience. Everyone who came back from Israel had a much stronger Israel identity.) Michael Leffell read this story and asked, "What can I, as a leader in AIPAC, do about this?" He sat with five rabbinical students at the next AIPAC policy conference and they created the framework that would become the Leffell Israel Fellowship - a program for Rabbinical students to engage with Israel through AIPAC, building relationships and skills that will strengthen our connection with and our ability to advocate for Israel in our communities when we eventually have rabbinates. I am so lucky to be a part of this fellowship.
Morning General Session
Story of Israel helping the citizens of West Virginia when they had water issues. "It's great when you go to Israel. It's that much more powerful when Israel comes to you."
Starting American football in Israel. Really. Because we don't have enough head issues. But, it is a great example of Israelis from all backgrounds coming together. Because, really, that's what Israel is about.
Republicans and democrats, a southern pastor and a left-coast liberal, standing on stage in support of Israel and AIPAC. "Thank God for iron done. Thank God for the US congress. Thank God for AIPAC."
A conversation with Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. Mostly, he's giving the same talking points we've been hearing. "There will be a small minority of democrats who won't go (to Bibi's speech). I suspect they'll be watching from their office."
Progressive rabbis presentation discussing the first progressive rabbis mission to Israel this past summer. One of the rabbis on stage was my mentor, Rabbi Denise Eger. She spoke about what it meant to be a progressive rabbi who supports Israel. I am so proud of her and each of the rabbi's leadership in the community.
We were then treated to a "fire and brimstone" preacher. He spoke about David and Golaith, and then giants...and not to call a giant a smurf. No, that's not a typo. It was a little...off. We didn't really understand his logic, but wow, what a compelling speaker!
That concluded the final general session, and we were all off to what is usually the most powerful and meaningful part of the policy conference: lobbying on the Hill. Some went straight to the Hill, and others had break-out sessions with Senators, or at least representatives from the Senator's offices. It turns out most Senators were a little pre-occupied with another big speech happening around the same time: Bibi's speech to a joint session of Congress.
Because of this, instead of Senators Boxer and Feinstein, we were treated to deputies from their offices. Unfortunately, this was the most lack-luster part of the policy conference. Nearly the entire Californian delegation was in the room, but the deputies did not add a thing to the conversation. They read statements from the Senators, took a few questions (which were opportunities for them to reiterate their talking points from their statements), and were done. What a missed opportunity.
Alternatively, my friend who lives in New Jersey was thrilled with how Senator Cory Booker (who attended this session and not Bibi's speech). Apparently, he was introduced by someone who used the phrase "Hineini - Here I am." Senator Booker then taught some Torah. Seriously. He started by putting his notes aside and acknowledging that he was going to go off-script. He connected the phrase to its roots in Genesis - God calls to Abraham and Abraham responds, "Hineini - Here I am." Moses, he contrasted, was also called by God but was reluctant. "Why me?" Moses asks, "What about my brother Aaron?" Senator Booker then articulated those two models as two kinds of leaders. We need to be like Abraham, he argued. When we are called to holy work, whatever that work may be, we cannot hide and say, "not now, not me." We must be able to say, "Hineini - Here I am!"
Most then went on to the Hill to lobby their representatives. Since my district was well "staffed," and the Congresswoman wasn't going to be there due to the special election in Los Angeles to support her protege, I, along with a few friends, made our way back to the hotel to watch Bibi's speech to Congress in a slightly quieter room.
And that was it. We walked out of the Walter Washington Convention Center and began reflecting on our experience (because writing this clearly wasn't enough!).