At the entrance to the enormous hall at the Washington Convention Center, where some 14,000 chairs were lined up for AIPAC’s conference participants, stood a television reporter holding a microphone, seeking interviewees.
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"How’s it going?" I asked. “Not so good,” he replied. “I was sent to do a story on what AIPAC members have to say about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and nobody is willing to talk about it. All they want to talk about is Iran.”
He was right. Hard-line statements on Iran elicited long standing ovations, time after time, while hopeful comments on the possibility of peace were all but ignored. It got so bad that two prominent Israelis – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and legendary Israeli high-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi – had to urge the armada of pro-Israel lobbyists to applaud comments they made about peace. And when Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director of eighteen years, addressed the crowd with a speech that typically sets the policy agenda for the conference, all he spoke about was Iran.
So, you ask yourself, what’s up with these people? Can’t they bring themselves to show support for a future of peace for Israel? Can’t they rally around a message of hope with the same fervor that they muster to address the Iranian threat?
The answer is that it’s not so much about “these people” as it is about the milieu, the atmosphere in which the pro-Israel conversation takes place in America. AIPAC’s supporters, most of them, are not extremists. Yes, there is a small, hard core of mostly national-religious hardline zealots, but most of AIPAC’s power-base is made up of reasonable people who want to see Israel living in security and peace with its neighbors, enjoying world recognition and support, and living up to the liberal ideals and values that they share.
AIPAC’s annual conference is a reflection, albeit extreme, of the dynamics of pro-Israel discourse among the organized Jewish community.
All too often, the conversation on Israel here is poorly-informed, rests solely on simplistic Israeli “hasbara” talking points, and lacks critical thinking. The result is dogma, a set of intellectually crude truisms, which portray Israel as always right, always under existential threat, and her relations with her neighbors as a zero-sum game.
It’s a conversation that takes place behind a wall that allows very little room for self-criticism or doubt. And when that kind of conversation occurs in one place, over the course of three days, among 14,000 people who are gearing up to flood Capitol Hill to make it even more pro-Israeli than it already is, it often becomes an exercise in nuance-blind hyperbole, in doctrinaire over-simplification.
I see it all the time, not only at gatherings like this week’s AIPAC conference, but in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and other Jewish community forums.
Some free-thinkers, many of them young, have opened cracks in this wall in recent years. On campuses, the dynamic is very different. But within the so-called “organized” Jewish community, inside the establishment, the discourse on Israel is still characterized by point-scoring propaganda and takes place in an echo chamber coated by a thick armor of self-righteous axioms.
Add to this dynamic the tendency of American Jews, particularly older ones, to view world politics – and Israel – through the prism of the traumatic experience of the Holocaust, and you have an obsolescent darkroom that resists rays of hope.
The Israeli zeitgeist has proven in the past to be extremely nimble and adaptable. Israelis turn on a dime to accommodate real prospects for peace once their leaders endorse such opportunities.
Their friends in the U.S. have always found it hard to follow suit.
This may be the right time for Israeli leaders – and for leaders in the organizational Jewish community – to think about where they want the hearts and minds of American Jews to be once there is real progress toward peace, and once the price of a peace agreement becomes clear. Israeli leaders, once they choose the right side of history, will want America’s organized Jewish community to stand with them. For their own future maneuverability, it’s time to let some sunshine in.
Ori Nir, formerly the Washington bureau chief of Haaretz and the Forward, is the spokesperson of the Washington-based Americans for Peace Now, the sister-organization of Israel's Peace Now movement.
Follow him on Twitter: @OriNir_APN