A Reflection on my First AIPAC Policy Conference

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.

About the Author
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA. He produced the film, "Hatikvah: A Documentary About One Aspect of Israel," and has released 3 albums of original Jewish music.
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