If you did not attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference last week, you might, understandably, think that it was primarily a three day binge on American electoral politics, with a few Middle Eastern side dishes thrown in for spice and variety.
For all the op-eds that this event generated, both before and after, it’s easy to see why you might think that Policy Conference was the migraine you were fortunate to avoid. You would be mistaken.
It is a shame when a twenty minute speech by any candidate overshadows three days of excellence. Our strange, disturbing election cycle can absorb our focus 24/7 if we let it.
Let’s not. So here are a few of the stories that you may have missed.
Last week, Daniel Barel, CEO of the Israeli company SoftWheel, stood before thousands gathered at Policy Conference and explained how his company literally reinvented the wheel. With him was Dror Cohen, product specialist at SoftWheel, who has been in a wheelchair for over twenty years. Cohen dazzled the audience by rolling his SoftWheel all-terrain wheelchair quickly, safely and effortlessly down the podium stairs. The innovation? The first-ever, in-wheel suspension, which others had tried and failed to engineer.
Shrugged Barel, “We don’t believe in impossible.”
While the official theme of Policy Conference was “Come Together”, Barel’s words became the theme for me, throughout three days of speeches, presentations, and interactions with AIPAC’s diverse attendees.
Here are a few more “we don’t believe in impossible” things that I witnessed:
Over eighteen thousand people attended. Jews from across the religious and political spectrum. Non-Jews. Old, middle-age, and young people–LOTS of young people Over four thousand high school and college students. Blacks, Latinos, gays, active and veteran US military. People who have been to Israel and people who can’t wait to visit for the first time.
All of these people took time off of work or school to be in Washington D.C. because Israel matters to them that much. A convention so big that the largest sessions had to be held in the Verizon arena. Who could have imagined such diverse and heartfelt support fifty years ago? Or even twenty?
Israel is an innovator, not only in solving technological problems, but in crafting solutions to vexing human challenges. Can autistic Israeli young adults make a meaningful contribution to their country through military service? Turns out that they can, through a special unit in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). How do you bring Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli kids together to build friendship and understanding? One way is through America’s pastime, playing baseball.
“We don’t believe in impossible” underscores Israel’s humanitarian contributions. Through IsraAID, Israel’s largest non-governmental, humanitarian, volunteer organization, Israel provides lifesaving aid to Syrian refugees and others fleeing war in the Middle East. Through MASHAV, Israel provides technical support and know-how to the developing world. Despite all of the many difficulties Israel faces every day, she still strives to be a “light unto the nations”. Those of us who love Israel and advocate for her need that inspiring reminder.
As Americans we need another reminder– that bipartisan politics is our heritage, our blessing, and that we still have leaders who embody it. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, both steadfast supporters of Israel, showed us how it is done. And on the final day of the conference, we became participants ourselves, fanning out across Capital Hill, to lobby Congress.
There is no shortage of bad news. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, the BDS movement is gaining momentum on college campuses, and the consequences of the Iran Deal (JCPOA) are chilling, to say the least.
It would be easy to give in to despair.
The stories I heard at AIPAC enable me to maintain equilibrium and even a little optimism.
A final story, which was the emotional peak of Policy Conference for me, and I suspect, for many others. Crissal is an Israeli girl from a troubled background. She was born blind, but gifted with extraordinary singing talent. Sulamot (“Ladders”), a program that provides musical education for Israeli children from at-risk circumstances, helped Crissal develop her astonishing voice. We saw Crissal singing in this video, then suddenly the lights came on. There she was, onstage, singing “A Place for Us” from West Side Story.
Eighteen-thousand people leaped to their feet; their cheers and applause shook the building.
A country that “doesn’t believe in impossible” transformed this girl’s life.
That is the ethos that drives me to do what I can on behalf of our beloved Israel. That is the ethos that keeps me connected, inspired, motivated. And it is an ethos that I pray will outlast the strange, political moment in which we find ourselves.