Two weeks ago the AIPAC National Policy Conference received a lot of attention, both for its invitation to Donald Trump to speak, and for the fact that the audience rose to their feet and cheered for Trump, particularly his ad hominem attacks on the President. While I believe that AIPAC was compelled to invite Trump and could not, ahead of time, denounce his positions (if we can call them that), the sight of the APIAC audience, 18,000 strong, cheering for Trump was troubling. Although AIPAC issued an apology the next day, many on the left remained uncomfortable, wondering if AIPAC is truly the big tent it purports to be and if its leftist supporters are still welcome there.
Why did people applaud when the audience, a mixed Republican and Democratic audience, does not primarily support or agree with Trump? Because, I think, Trump did what he is very good at. Despite the initial tepid response, he warmed the crowd up, hitting many of the talking points all the candidates hit. But he also did what he does best. Denouncing the President and denouncing the Iran deal, he tapped into the deep hurt of AIPAC’s bruising loss in that fight last year, and he tapped deeper into the vulnerability and isolation Israel’s supporters feel at a time when Israel is often vilified in the press, when Palestinian terror attacks are ignored or excused, and when American campuses and to some extent the political left in America writ large, have become breeding grounds for a thinly disguised anti-Zionism which is really anti-Semitism. And he tapped even deeper. Because, despite our success in America, the Holocaust is not a distant memory. Most Jews have deep veins of fear, anxiety and insecurity about our place in the world. In the same way that Trump, more than any other candidate, has succeeded in speaking to the anger and hurt of white, blue-collar Americans who feel left behind, he spoke to our deep anxieties. And they cheered.
For me, this does not mean that AIPAC has jumped the shark and that Democrats are no longer welcome there. Instead it raises two other important questions: Are we truly powerless and vulnerable as Jews and in what way is AIPAC Jewish; that is, is AIPAC supposed to be the Jewish lobby?
To the first question, I would answer a resounding no. Jews are an American success story and we all know it. No one today is denied a job, a home, political office or a bank loan in America because they are Jewish. AIPAC is successful – and it is hugely successful – precisely because Israel’s supporters wield power and money and use it to support Israel, as they should. Even Israel, constantly under attack and threatened by dangerous neighbors on all sides, is not powerless and vulnerable. Israel’s army is second to none, Israel’s economy is the envy of the world, with more companies on the NASDAQ than any other country outside the US, Israel holds more patents than any other Western country, leading the world in medical and technical innovation, and Israel today, despite its difficulties, is a bustling, thriving democracy. In fact, I would go a step further. To the extent that Israel continues to view itself through the lens of the Holocaust, as a powerless victim, Israel harms itself, at times exercising power unjustly and at times failing to use its strength to press more forcefully for peace.
Israel is powerful and American Jews, despite well-founded fears of anti-Semitism, especially on our campuses and in Europe, are also powerful and privileged. This is not something we should be afraid of saying. This is something we should celebrate. I believe, by the way, that American Jews, in no small measure, owe their power and prestige to a thriving state of Israel, that we walk tall and stand proud as Jews because there is an Israel.
My second question concerns the nature of AIPAC’s Jewishness. The AIPAC National Policy Conference is not the Central Conference of American Jews. It is not our Beit Hamikdash and it is not the ingathering of our people. AIPAC is a single-issue policy lobby, with a laser focus on a strong Israel-American relationship. In the wake of last week’s conference, there are those who have said that recent events prove the folly of single-issue lobbies. I don’t think that is fair either – for better or worse, that is how American politics operate and lobbies succeed because they focus on their issues. I for one want there always to be a strong voice for Israel in Washington and a rock solid relationship between our countries.
The problem is not AIPAC. The problem, as Pogo would say, is us. The problem is that there is no event of comparable size at which American Jews gather and celebrate and learn and argue about what it means to be Jewish. The problem is that one facet of Jewish identity, albeit an important one, has become a stand in for all of Jewish identity. As one rabbi put it, Israel (and, to some extent, the Shoah) are the religious content for many American Jews, and AIPAC is their ritual. Fear seems to be stronger than simcha. This is a problem on so many levels. For one, it forces AIPAC to labor under a weight it cannot possibly sustain – AIPAC is a lobby doing its job and doing it well. Of course we want it to operate with Jewish values, and I believe it does, but it cannot carry the weight and complexity of Jewish identity and Jewish life on its shoulders.
More generally, I believe that it is extremely dangerous as well as sad if a majority of American Jews ground their identities in the Holocaust and Israel. The Holocaust is then; Israel is there. Religion is and always must be in the first person present tense. Judaism, or however you say it, is a multifaceted identity that embraces theology, history, archaeology, the study of Torah, prayer, mysticism, poetry, literature, philosophy, art, music and much more. It is culture in all the fullness of that word and, let’s face it, it is one of the great cultures of all time. We are children of the king. We are heirs to the palace and the biggest tragedy of all is that we don’t know it – we’ve lost the keys and we don’t even know there is a palace – at best, we think maybe we have a hut — and we don’t celebrate it. That is not AIPAC’s mission; it is ours and we, and I count myself in we, are not doing so well at it.
I also do not think that we ultimately do ourselves a service when we regard Israel as our American Jewish playground, Disneyland where we can send young Jews to forge a Jewish identity. It is wonderful to be in Israel, the Jewish state is worth celebrating – it is the single greatest thing that has happened to us probably since we left Egypt. But an American Jewish identity is about what happens here and now to us in our homes, in our synagogues, in our lives. And Israel is a real country with real problems and real challenges and real people living real lives there– not a sanitized DisneyWorld whose image must remain untarnished so we can feel good.
Perhaps fear and victimization have become attractive stances in America today. But I do not believe that they will serve anyone well in the long run, and I do not believe that a Jewish identity grounded in fear and vulnerability will serve us well either. I believe that young Jews are turned off when they are told that they must be Jewish because of the Holocaust or when they are given to believe, in the face of prosperity and success, that anti-Semitism and Israel’s vulnerability, are our dominant narratives. Jewish identity needs to be rich and deep and multifaceted; it needs to be celebratory and intelligent and proud.
In the long run, I think AIPAC needs that too. If Jews light Shabbos candles, they are more likely to support Israel. If they stop lighting Shabbos candles, Israel’s support will wane. In the end, we cannot expect a single-issue lobby who does its job exceedingly well, to be the crux of American identity. We can work for a reinvigorated Jewish identity in which Israel is an important but not the only facet of a Judaism that is rich, varied, complex, deep and invigorating. We can let our people know the great secret – ours is the conversation of millennia and you are an essential link in the great chain. Maybe, it can stop being a secret.
In a few weeks we will sit down at seder. We will celebrate the exodus from Egypt, the seminal event of our people. We will not do it in a stadium or a convention hall; we will not even do it in our synagogue. Rather, we will each do it in the comfort of our homes, in the bosom of our families. We will each do it differently because our tradition trusts each of us to be priests at our own tables, our altars – some will tell a long story steeped in rabbinic texts, some will sing songs they learned from their parents who came from Morocco or Poland; some will eat brisket and some will eat rice and beans; some will link our story to today’s refugees and some will stick to Maxwell House. Some will tell it short – perhaps a few blessings and some wine and matzah and some will tell it long with a groaning table and many haggadot. But when you sit at your seder table, whatever variety it is, I want you to think about all the Jews sitting at seder tables around the world. It is much more than 18,000. By my estimate, over 10 million Jews will celebrate seder this year. That’s a mighty army.
Here is a story I will tell at my seder table this year as I do every year. David Ben Gurion spoke these words to the UN Commission on the Partition of Palestine in 1947, on the eve of Jewish statehood: “Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on the voyage? What quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left – the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.”
This story always reminds me of the deep intertwining of our narratives as Jews, as Americans, and as lovers of Israel. It is a Hut Hameshulash, a threefold cord which cannot be broken. As Frank Sinatra might say, “You can’t have one without the other.” Let us ensure that our Jewish lives continue to be rich, deep, meaningful and challenging, so that we can continue to ensure a strong and secure state of Israel. And let us ensure that there is a strong and secure state of Israel, so that we will always walk tall, proud, and free as American Jews.