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AIPAC, the center of Jewish gravity

What other Jewish organization could gather 500 rabbis of all denominations in one room?

Over the millennia, many have opined much about the Jews. One of the most famous and oft repeated observations is usually attributed to Heinrich Heine, among the last of the great Romantic poets.

Heine’s career spanned much of the 19th century, and his life reflected the ever changing status of the Jews, even in emancipated Western Europe. At 28, Heine converted to Christianity –thanks to the Prussian government’s resurrection of anti-Semitic legislation barring Jews from a host of professions. In taking the plunge to Protestantism, he claimed his move was, “the ticket of admission into European culture”. What may have been true for others wasn’t so for Heine, who never found the home in Europe he sought. Forced by conditions to spend the last 25 years of his life on the outs, an ex-pat in Paris, he famously lamented, “The Jews are like everyone else, only more so.” Heine was reminding us that Jews have existed as both insider and outsider wherever we have lived.

I couldn’t help but think about Heine’s words this week while attending this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington DC. AIPAC is as powerful a symbol of our inside/outside status as one could imagine. AIPAC’s very existence reminds Jews and others that any outsider can also be an insider.

Permit a bit of autobiography here, as in some sense I’m the ultimate insider/ outsider. Born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, I left America for schooling in Israel for nearly 8 years. and, for the last 21 years I’ve been a congregational rabbi in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Having now lived outside of America for 28 years, I might be able to see some things that other can’t. Including something about Heinrich Heine’s observation.

I attended AIPAC this week because I wanted to bring my congregation to the world’s premier Israel advocacy program. But as I arrived, saw the thousands of attendees, heard the messages delivered — I had, if not a kind of epiphany, than at least an unexpected realization. The AIPAC conference wasn’t only about the State of Israel, but was also about the state of the people of Israel. What took place at AIPAC wasn’t only Israel advocacy, but was a much broader Jewish conversation — about us and our place in the world.

Jews of all kinds — from Orthodox Jews to the unaffiliated, rabbis and lay people, educators and students — were everywhere to be seen, mixing together, talking to one another, all together making up some 15,000 people, a small sized city of the Jews (along with an impressive group of non-Jewish attendees). It was all the more astonishing when you consider that people arrived not only from America’s 50 states, but from literally all over the world. My conclusion? Contrary to reports this week that AIPAC is headed downward (i.e., the recent well-publicized lobbying failures), AIPAC’s importance is growing in ways that might surprise its founders.

What do I mean? What has contributed to AIPAC’s ascendancy?

North American Jewish life in the past century has been comprised of two great institutional elements. On one hand there were the North American Jewish Federations that looked to create and organize Jewish secular communal life. For instance, the various campuses of Jewish Community Centers throughout Toronto and Vaughan are the creations of these groups; their annual conventions have attracted thousands of Jews from across the spectrum if Jewish life to participate in planning the Jewish future in America and Canada.

On the other hand, also present in D.C. this week were the three arms of Jewish religious denominational life — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — of North America. Their rabbinical and cantorial seminaries, their libraries, synagogues and Jewish day schools, likewise bear the handprint of their work and vision. The annual conventions of these movements attract synagogue leaders to plan their future expansions, ones almost entirely apart from Jewish Federation endeavours.

But, in 2014, especially in the wake of the recent Pew Survey on Jewish life in the U.S., we are all too aware that as the federations shrink in numbers and reach, it’s doubly true for membership in Jewish denominational life. But who now is the center of gravity in the Jewish North American life? Who and what dominates the conversation about the future of both Israel and the Jews? While we’re at it, ask yourself this: what other Jewish organization could gather 500 rabbis of all denominations in one room? AIPAC did it this past Monday. The great argument AIPAC was making about Israel is that Israel is akin to a Hebrew speaking North America. A kind of 51st state, if you will, where the values shared by Americans and Canadians flourish even in a world worried over terrorism, religious tribalism, and totalitarianism. No matter how true that argument may be, but AIPAC appears to be dealing effectively with strengthening the duel — not dueling — identities of North American Jewry.

It goes back to Heinrich Heine: we can be citizens of the countries we inhabit, but also be different. That we embrace the deep values of North American civilization, while retaining values and ways that are different, The convention speeches given by AIPAC leaders, Christian evangelists, American and Canadian politicians all reminded us that what makes America great are the ideas it is built upon, the ideas given birth by Judaism. We are different from the others – and we are the same. Heine understood this in the deepest of ways, but couldn’t live it. But we can.

I left Washington on Tuesday asking myself one last question, one inspired by another great Jewish poet Asher Ginsberg (also known as Ahad HaAm, “One of the People”): Perhaps Israel doesn’t need AIPAC quite nearly as much as we need AIPAC. I loved the experience of being part of this large experience of both the State of Israel as well as the state of the Jews, and I will be sure to return again next year.

About the Author
Aaron Flanzraich is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, Canada and the author of “The Small, Still Voice” an argument against Jewish fundamentalism.