AIPAC: The power and discomfort of unity

Unity is such a powerful force.  While often tricky to achieve, when it does occur, great things can follow. I witnessed unity firsthand at this year’s AIPAC policy conference. Democrats and Republicans, Jews of all religious streams and many non-Jews gathered together in support of the State of Israel. But amid all the cheers and excitement, there were a number of potentially uncomfortable moments at this conference. I listened to speeches by progressive Jews who espouse a religiously pluralistic agenda for the State of Israel with which I don’t identify. I listened to speeches by Democratic leaders who issued strong remarks against anti-Zionism and anti-semitism in front of a pro-Israel audience but failed to do so in Congress or in front of a general audience after Congresswoman Omar’s anti-Semitic tweets. I also listened to speeches by Republican leaders which contained partisan attacks against a number of Democratic presidential candidates for boycotting this conference when, in fact, it seems that AIPAC only invites presidential candidates to the conference during an election year. A question during a Rabbinic lunch about whether AIPAC can influence Prime Minister Netanyahu to be more sensitive to non-orthodox movements reflected a lack of comfort by many non-orthodox Rabbis about supporting a Jewish state that, according to them, seems to disenfranchise their constituency. We were unified in that 18,000 pro-Israel advocates came together in support of the State of Israel; however, judging by our diverse reactions to the various speakers, I wondered just how united we really were.

But then I realized that there were some basic values that we all shared. Singling out the State of Israel for criticism is anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is anti-semitism. Israel needs continued robust financial support for its security. The BDS movement is, at its core, a movement that aims to question the moral legitimacy of the State of Israel and is an anti-Zionist movement. Iran must be stopped from developing a nuclear weapon and sanctions, as opposed to appeasement, is the method to achieve this goal.

Once I realize that we all share these basic values, I find myself in the camp of Rav Soloveitchik who defended the continuing participation of orthodox Rabbis in such bodies as the Synagogue Council of America. In a Yiddish newspaper interview, Rav Soloveitchik said, “When representation of Jews and Jewish interest “klapei chutz” (vis-a-vis the non-Jewish world) are involved, all groups and movements must be united. There can be no divisiveness in this area for any division in the Jewish camp can endanger its entirety…. In the crematoria, the ashes of Hasidim and Anshei Maaseh (pious Jews) were mixed with the ashes of radicals and freethinkers and we must fight against the enemy who does not recognize the difference between one who worships and one who does not.” However, in internal relationships such as education, synagogue and rabbinical organizations, “when the unity must be manifested in a spiritual-ideological meaning as a Torah community, it seems to me that Orthodox cannot and should not join with such groups that deny the foundations of our Weltanschaung.”

Clearly, the security of the state of Israel, BDS and Iran are all “klapei chutz” issues in which we may participate with others with whom we disagree. And we are stronger and thus more effective if we unite despite our disagreements. As Howard Kohr, CEO of AIPAC, told a group of Rabbis, AIPAC holds itself accountable for what its staff members state. It invites all different types of politicians to speak at the conference, knowing that these politicians may say things that make us feel uncomfortable. We can stand up and applaud if we agree and we can refrain from applauding if we disagree, but we should listen and listen with respect. So, yes, unity is very tricky, but if we are okay with feeling a little uncomfortable at times, then it can be a powerful force. This week in Washington DC, it was a powerful force of 18,000 strong.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.