WASHINGTON – The irony was impossible to ignore.
At the AIPAC Policy Conference on Sunday, attendees filed into a room to hear a panel discussion billed as discussing “Free Speech and Freedom of the Press in Israel.” But right over the session sign hung another, informing people that “this session is off the record and closed to the press.”
This meant the three Israeli journalists participating in the panel (this reporter included) could not technically be in the room and, even if they were, would be barred from quoting their fellow journalists – or even themselves.
The session was far from the only one this week where such a rule was in place, and it was nothing new at AIPAC. Identical signs hung at the entrances to every other AIPAC “breakout session,” barring the press from entering.
It’s a policy that has been in place for years: Closing off sessions that did not take place on the main public stages to the press.
At the conference, each subgroup – speakers, students, staff and various levels of donors – was distinguished by the color of the lanyard with their AIPAC entrance credential. If someone was wearing the bright pink “Press” lanyard (“Did it have to be pink?” grumbled one male journalist), they were turned away from any of the small group sessions.
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It’s a policy that has long gotten under the skin of reporters covering the conference, particularly American-Jewish and Israeli reporters who view the conference as an important opportunity to take the temperature of the community. Privately, some younger AIPAC staff members acknowledge the absurdity of trying to make the sessions secret in an age where there is a smartphone with a recording device and camera in every pocket – and in which numerous breakout sessions featured journalists themselves as speakers, as in the “Free Speech” panel.
But despite this, and repeated and loud protests from journalists, the policy has remained in place.
The issue came to a head this year with two major Jewish publications choosing to boycott the conference.
In an editorial published in both the New York Jewish Week and its sister publication the New Jersey Jewish News last week, headlined “Why We Won’t Be at the AIPAC Conference,” the newspapers wrote that “a conference with 20,000 attendees, and dozens of sessions with many hundreds of delegates, is by nature not conducive to keeping secrets, especially in the age of instant tweets and texts. If members of the press agreed to the ground rules of attending ‘off the record’ sessions, it would allow the media to get a sense of the important give-and-take that occurs in these informative sessions without violating journalistic or AIPAC boundaries.
“AIPAC has a long history of being wary of, and less than friendly toward, the press,” the editorials continued. “Members of the media enter the AIPAC convention through a separate entrance and must be accompanied by staff to proceed to the main area where sessions are held – and, at times, even accompanied to the rest rooms. Such treatment doesn’t foster trust and mutual respect. AIPAC officials say the press is overly critical in its coverage of the lobby; maybe there’s a reason that goes beyond political ideology. Trying a more open approach could help.”
A year ago, the same newspapers attempted to force change in another editorial, where they complained that “this is about an organization championing American and Israeli democracies, including freedom of the press, yet fostering an overly aggressive and perhaps paranoid closed-door policy. One AIPAC official, speaking off the record (of course), told us his group must be more cautious than other Jewish organizations because the media ‘sharpens the knives when it comes to us.’
“Maybe that’s at least in part because of AIPAC’s arrogant attitude toward the media over the years. And in part because of a degree of media bias towards Israel. But opening the conference to the press and then banning coverage of the large majority of sessions is a formula for frustration and offense. Better to keep us out altogether.”