Along with some 19,000 other Zionists of various stripes and persuasions, I made the Haj to Washington, DC this week for AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference. It has long been true for me that the greatest pleasure of the PC is spending a few days with thousands of people to whom you don’t have to explain why you love Israel. They, like you, are, for the most part, unapologetic Zionists. In and of itself, that would be reason enough to spend a few days there. But that happy truth aside, the theme of Policy Conference this year, “many voices, one mission,” was a tacit admission of the increasingly awkward and difficult task of navigating the waters of political Zionism in America.
At the risk of utilizing too broad a brushstroke, I think it is fair to say that, for AIPAC, the Trump presidency offers a cleaner and easier path for traditional pro-Israel advocacy than the Obama presidency did. The frosty relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu made AIPAC’s work delicate and difficult. Particularly in the aftermath of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in December of 2016, when America abstained rather than veto what was widely regarded as a diplomatic slap in the face to Israel, large numbers of the socially and religiously conservative (small “c”) members of the American Jewish community eagerly looked to the Republican party to be more steadfast in its support of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu all but set that course in 2015, when he accepted an invitation from then Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on the subject of the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal). His assumption was that a Republican administration would be more favorably and consistently disposed to support Israel. At least at the outset of the Trump administration, that indeed appears to be the case.
While the leading indicators regarding the Trump administration’s posture towards Israel are indeed positive, the situation is not unlike the “curse of the Goldberg diamond… it comes with Goldberg.” It’s all well and good that relations with Israel are likely to be freer from acrimony with this new administration, and that the two countries involved are far more likely to see eye to eye on significant policy issues. But the diamond comes with Goldberg; the warmer connection to Israel comes with Trump and his baggage.
For those passionate lovers and defenders of Israel who find themselves in the more progressive or liberal camp on issues other than the America-Israel relationship, the Trump presidency has so far presented as a nightmare. The proposed (though thus far frustrated) destruction of Obamacare, the evisceration of funding for the arts and for the environment, the staffing of the major cabinet departments like Education with people notoriously unfit to lead them… a total horror.
But then I go to AIPAC, and the same people whose stances on major social issues I abhor are saying all the right things about Israel. The most conservative and socially reactionary Republicans are greeted like the conquering heroes, while the Democrats are constrained to explain what seems like the steady ascendancy of the party’s left wing, which is not at all as committed to Israel and her security as the Republicans are.
All in all, it was a serious exercise in cognitive dissonance. I love your stance on Israel, but can’t tolerate your stance on anything else. To be a loyal Zionist can’t mean to be a disloyal American. I love America too.
And then along came Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who is our new Ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Haley didn’t deliver a formal address; she was questioned by Dan Senor in a less formal setting. But her answers set the Verizon Arena on fire.
Greeted with tumultuous applause at the outset, the Ambassador proceeded to describe her utter dismay at the cesspool of anti-Israel bashing that she encountered at the UN, and her total, inviolable commitment to bringing it to an end. No stranger to this fight, she was the first governor to sign a law prohibiting her state from doing business with companies participating in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement. Others followed her; she led. In the brief time she has been at the UN, Ambassador Haley has effectively forced the UN to back off the report that termed Israel an apartheid state, and has made it completely clear to all who would listen that never again would America do to Israel at the UN what the Obama administration did with its abstention on UNSC Resolution 2334. Petite in stature, Ambassador Haley was fiery, passionate, and larger than life in her message. “I wear heels,” she said, “but not for a fashion statement. It’s to kick them.” America will have its allies’ backs, but it also expects its allies to have its back.
With every sentence that she said, the interrupting applause grew louder and more insistent, culminating in what was surely the loudest and most sustained applause of any speaker to the conference. The arena was rocking, and you couldn’t help but have the sense that you were watching a star be born in front of your eyes. And even a skeptic like me stood to applaud.
It was a meta-party moment. It wasn’t about Republicans and Democrats, liberals or conservatives. It was about truth, and having the courage to speak truth to power from someplace deep and authentic. It was a great AIPAC moment.