Doing It The AIPAC Way

There is nothing quite like an AIPAC Policy Conference.

On the most simple, purely factual level, this is surely true. I know of no other organized gathering in the Jewish world outside of Israel that brings together fourteen thousand Zionists united in their love of and commitment to Israel. It is an indescribably wonderful feeling to spend three days surrounded by people with whom it's totally safe to be an "unapologetic Zionist." We have seen in recent weeks that the Haredi community in Israel can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in opposition to the idea of a Jewish state and its authority, and a few of them were actually demonstrating outside of the Convention Center in DC where the AIPAC event was held. But inside that convention center was as close to “safe space” for unabashed Zionists as there is in the world today, outside of Israel itself… probably even safer.

That said, it is also undoubtedly true that, among those fourteen thousand people, there were more than a few for whom nuance, texture and the ability to hear other narratives are necessary components of today's Zionism. Were that not to be the case, I think that I would have found it difficult to absorb three full days of speeches that were, shall we say, exhortative in their tone, and more than a little strident in their message.

The week before the AIPAC gathering, much more by accident of calendar than any intent to juxtapose one with the other, the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, Jodi Rudoren, spoke at my synagogue. When the inevitable question was raised (actually, I myself raised it) about the love/hate relationship that so many Jews have with the Times, seeing its editorial policy and some of its reporting as significantly slanted against Israel and her policies, Ms. Rudoren responded by noting that her parents had come down from Boston to hear her speak.

Her mother, she said, is completely convinced that she is the best reporter and bureau chief to ever work for the Times, and that every piece that she writes is worthy of a Pulitzer (a loose paraphrase). There’s only one problem with that. Her mother, Ms. Rudoren noted with a loving grin, is a completely biased party, and therefore incapable of evaluating the true nature of her work with any degree of accuracy or legitimacy.

So it is, she said, with passionate Zionists who critique the Times’ editorial policy and reporting. If you come to an article or editorial completely convinced that you own the truth and that those who might differ with you are simply not yet sufficiently enlightened to know that truth, then you cannot really evaluate whether the Times is being even-handed or biased. You become, as the ancient rabbis might have phrased it, pasul l’edut – disqualified from being a witness.

I readily admit that there have been more than a few instances when, like so many other Jewish New Yorkers, I was a second or two away from cancelling my subscription to the Times. I had become utterly frustrated with its editorial policies, as well as with not-so-occasional op-eds that I found hopelessly tilted in a direction not to my liking. But I must also admit that Ms. Rudoren’s comments made me think. Whose truth is true?

As a veteran reporter who is clearly on top of her game and not, in any way that I could discern, predisposed to be gratuitously critical of Israel, she defines her job as being “all about the truth.” She tells the truth as objectively as she can, and that is what she is always trying to do. When I read her writing, I, along with all those who love Israel passionately, want to read in her words my understanding of what the truth is, and that, as she herself said, is my absolute right. It is my right as a lover of Israel to be biased in Israel’s favor. But the Times — and all newspapers other than organs of the Zionist Jewish community — have not the right, but the obligation to tell what they see as the truth, no matter how vociferously I might disagree with what they say.

Now that’s all good in theory. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. The newspapers report the news objectively, whatever that means, and we, who are prejudiced towards a certain side, either like the reporting or don’t based on where we’re coming from. My problem is that, as I just wrote, I’m not all that sure of what “objective truth” means, other than to say that charcoal is black and snow is white. Even given Ms. Rudoren’s well-articulated defense of the Times, I would still maintain that the editorial page -– which is, by definition, not objective -– is consistently anti-Israel, and that too often, that bias spills over into its reporting. But I am inclined to be more careful in my criticism, having heard Ms. Rudoren’s presentation.

The Shabbat morning before I left for AIPAC, with the Rudoren appearance still fresh in my mind, I delivered a sermon about being able to hear other voices in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict besides our own. Like I said, she had made me think, and along with a number of presentations I had heard from government officials the week before In Israel, I was increasingly beginning to feel that, unless and until both the Israelis and the Palestinians can see their conflict through each other’s eyes, there is not even the slimmest reason to be hopeful.

And then I went to AIPAC.

It was pretty much the case that speaker after speaker, each one more powerfully than the one before him/her, articulated a cogent case for why Israel has every right in the world to be skeptical of third-party promises of protection, and sermonettes offered by the “more noble and moral” countries of the world on how one must conduct oneself when existentially threatened.

President Obama, who only a few days before in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View was bluntly critical of Israel, stayed away, and so did Vice-President Biden. Secretary Kerry, who is very much in the (metaphorical) crosshairs of the pro-Israel right these days, did, to his credit, come to the Policy Conference, and received what I would call a polite reception. There were very few standing ovations for him, as opposed to those speakers who lashed out at America’s effort to “impose” a settlement on Israel.

The last speaker, of course, was Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, for whom the AIPAC Policy Conference must have felt like a warm bath after what undoubtedly had been difficult meetings at the White House. He delivered what I would call the standard Bibi speech, highlighting the dangers that Israel confronts, particularly as regards Iran, and decrying the BDS movement as immoral and nothing less than anti-Semitism, urging Diaspora Judaism to stand by Israel in this struggle.

And then, for whatever reason given all the presentations I’d been hearing over the past three weeks from politicians and military experts commenting on Israel’s future, the Prime Minister said the following words that penetrated deeply– not a direct quote, but very close: “I will never gamble with the security of the State of Israel, nor accept any deal that does not guarantee that Israel will be safer as a result of it.” He very clearly articulated this as his responsibility as the Prime Minister.

His job is to keep Israel safe, just like Jodi Rudoren’s job is to “tell the truth.”

As I sat there, I realized that he’s right. That is, indeed, his job, and why Israelis keep electing him. They want to be safe, and they see him as the best person to take on that responsibility. But I also realized more clearly than ever before why peace with the Palestinians seems so far away. How will there ever be a deal with the Palestinians that can adequately guarantee Israel’s security?

Somewhere, sometime, if it decides that a peace agreement is what it wants, some Israeli government is going to have to take a giant leap of faith on a deal that cannot provide ironclad guarantees of anything, given the volatility of the region. One could say almost exactly the same thing for the Palestinians, who also want certainty on any agreement they sign on. They, if anything, have done much less to prepare their people for sacrificing for peace than Israel has done. Who knows how a “peace agreement” will play in such a fragmented Palestinian world? If guaranteeing your people’s security is your primary responsibility, does that necessarily exclude “taking a chance” to get there? I’m not asking the question to provide an answer. It might well be no. But then again…

It’s been all about Israel these past few weeks. I think it’s time to think about Adar and joy for a while. But Purim surely has a dark side too. That is the challenge of living Jewishly, even in this most liberated of times for Jews. We can’t escape our history, and its lessons. Actually, I guess we could — but we’d have to pay the price. And who would be willing to do that?

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.