My AIPAC Problem — and Ours

It was friends and colleagues who convinced me to go.

I was always somewhat skeptical. There were times when, it seemed, this powerful lobby advocated only for positions of right-wing Israeli governments, and was slow to support centrist or left-leaning coalitions.  There are ways, still, where its message may be fine but its methods seem heavy-handed and, well, distasteful.  Members of Congress have even complained, privately, about those tactics.  And there are numerous occasions, such as the role it played last year, when, despite its claim to the contrary, AIPAC just doesn’t represent me.

And yet, and yet. Colleagues who attend every year, whom I admire and respect, were passionate about the overall importance of the mission.  And, like it or not, they said, it is, simply, the place to be.  Almost every presidential candidate agreed. (It would have been every single one – if AIPAC itself had been consistent with its own past practice and allowed a video address by the one candidate who was not physically present.)  The first time I attended AIPAC’s Annual Policy Conference, a few years ago, at the Monday evening gala the MC announced that “we have 67 Senators and 260 members of the House of Representatives with us tonight.”  For good or bad, plainly put, that’s…raw power.

And even when I have not fully embraced the stated legislative agenda – and therefore not participated in the vaunted lobbying efforts on the Tuesday afternoons of the Policy Conference, the Conference itself is simply… amazing.  More smoothly run even than our Reform movement biennials, larger by a factor of four or five, the AIPAC Policy Conference draws the most engaged, most interesting, top-notch thinkers and presenters I have ever encountered.  Almost anything run by or organized by the AIPAC team has been truly excellent.

But then there is the crowd.

In any gathering, it is true, there is no easy way to control who asks questions – although I think, in retrospect, submitting questions in cards and having someone screen them wouldn’t be a bad idea.  But there is this, from the very first session at the very first AIPAC event I attended: following a presentation on defending Israel against delegitimization and inappropriate accusations of war crimes (and yes, they did tackle cases where such charges might, in fact, have been appropriate!), a man rose to the microphone with the following question/observation: “They all hate us anyway.  Why shouldn’t we just kill them all now?”
Imagine my relief when most of the room gasped.  Imagine my distress, however, as other questions, in other sessions through the years, have shown evidence of Islamophobia, racism, and opposition to anything but a one-state solution.
And then there was this past Monday night.

I know it’s a big tent.  I know we come together in common cause, and that brings under one umbrella people of vastly different perspectives on other issues.

And I do, actually, think there is a legitimate case to be made for staying and listening to someone you disagree with very, very deeply.  Twice in my life, as I recall, I chose to do so in the midst of great controversy.   This is a tale of Meir and the mayors.  Once, I crossed paths with the late unlamented Meir Kahana, founder of the Jewish Defense League and the racist Kach party in Israel, as he screamed at me that I was a Nazi, when I went into the Social Hall at Temple Sinai of Washington D.C., in the mid-1980’s, to hear two Palestinian West Bank mayors, one of whose legs had been blown off by Jewish terrorists, speaking about their views on Palestine, and Israel.  I was turned off by what they said, then, in the early 80’s – positions in favor of a two-state solution which, by the way, today, are not identical to, but not too distant from the stated position of even the current Israeli government!  And then, later that same year, I crossed paths with Palestinian protestors, screaming at me that I was a Nazi, as I went to hear, in person, Meir Kahana.  And I was turned off by what he said, positions which the test of time has made no more palatable, but which are apparently shared by close to 40% of the Jewish population in Israel.

I was repulsed by both encounters – and I was glad I heard them in person.  And, actually, I crossed paths with protestors outside the hall this past week, and they, too, were screaming things at those who went by.  So yes, even though I left the room, even though I was one of a shockingly small number of mostly Reform colleagues who left during the address by Donald Trump, I can understand those who chose to stay.

But let me be clear here.  I believe that giving a standing ovation to a bigot… enables bigotry, even if you happen to agree with the words on a different topic that he is saying at that particular moment.

In some ways this comes down to an important question in the nature of coalitions.  It is the Venn Diagram versus the Big Picture.  It is the question of how narrowly you define making common cause, versus really noticing the people you surround yourself with.

I vividly recall the incident, sometime around a decade ago, at a Reform movement Consultation on Conscience, on Capitol Hill, when then Senator Sam Brownback came to speak about human trafficking and sex slavery.  When he came forward, he was loudly booed, mostly, it emerged shortly, because of his position on stem cell research.
The director of the Religious Action Center, Rabbi David Saperstein, who currently serves our country as Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, had to emerge, and address the assembly.  “Friends,” he said (paraphrasing from memory) “we know we disagree with Senator Brownback on many issues.  But we are here today, at this session, to address this topic.  And you should know on the topic of human trafficking he is a giant, a hero of social justice.”  What an important reminder that to get things done, you have to focus on the overlap of your interests, and not on the gap with other issues.

But this lesson only takes us so far.  Because there can be a gap that is too big, a bridge too far.  The other rule of coalition building, besides the Venn Diagram, is the first rule of making friends.  If you want people to be there for you, about what is important to you… you have to know what is important to them!

Last Sunday night, at AIPAC, were tributes to the Hispanic and African-American partners of the organization, present and supportive because of the outreach efforts of the progressive caucus of AIPAC – and before you laugh, yes, such a thing exists, it is growing, and it is run by the daughter of a member of my congregation.  She, and they, are doing a good job, and they are part… part…of how AIPAC’s attendance has expanded, from 12,000 a few years ago, to 18,000 now.
But really, what… what must they have thought, these minorities who have come to relate to the Jewish story as well.. what must they have thought, as the Evangelicals, and the right-wing crowd, in sufficient numbers to seem widespread, lept to their feet in applause, for a racist and a bigot.  Who cares, I think, if at that very moment – in contrast to what he had said before, in contradiction to remarks he made earlier that same afternoon, and, indeed, in ways which contradicted themselves even within the same speech, who cares if at that very moment he said something many in the crowd wanted to hear?  I was saddened, and stunned, and am still processing what I could clearly hear, when I stepped outside the hall.

And then something very strange happened on Tuesday morning.
Well, in many ways I would say that it was the bookends of the Policy Conference that were the two most interesting moments to me.  First, on Sunday afternoon, Reform rabbis and cantors came together to share thoughts on how to respond to the presence of a bigot, how to properly protest, without becoming a prop in a madman’s circus, or to detract from the original purpose of our coming together for this conference.  One colleague found that discussion unhelpful.  I understand his reasons.  I thought, though, that it was one of the most interesting, most heartfelt, and most mutually respectful dialogues I have seen in our midst.  I found the time valuable, even without a single agreed upon plan of action that emerged.

That was the “beginning” of the Policy Conference.  Then there was the end, the apology and chastisement, from the entire AIPAC leadership.
For those who have not read the remarks, seen the clip, or heard the gist of what happened, on Tuesday morning, just before the video address by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the volunteer and professional leadership of AIPAC emerged on the main stage, looked at the assembly, and admitted that they were ashamed of what happened.  They challenged the comment made the night before about the President of the United States, demanded respect for the office and person of the president, indicated that they neither condoned nor agreed with the comment – and then said they were “disappointed” (I think they meant something even stronger than that) with the fact that such a disparaging remark was met with applause.

What to make of such a scene?  For one, it means that I will not automatically walk away from AIPAC altogether, as I had been thinking of doing.  But those comments were, I think, a little more complicated than they appear.

Because, let’s be honest.  I think (and yes, I would have to check, but I am fairly certain) that this is not the first time the President of the United States has been attacked at AIPAC, and people applauded.  In fact, I read that every single Republican candidate in the previous presidential election did just that.  Maybe not quite as sharply, and maybe not as crudely and personally, but, still, it happened (I think).

If so, then something else was going on that morning.  And here is what I think it is. AIPAC was caught in a trap of its own making.  It has grown so fast that it cannot control its own message, and its own assembly.  It has grown so strong that candidates will use them, instead of just being used by them for its own stated goals.  And: the leadership could not stand by… the embrace of a bigot.  Whoever did it, whatever percentage it was, narrowly defined on the issues at hand as it may seem to have been, on this occasion the messenger overwhelms the message.  The issue here is not political or electoral.  It is moral.  A man who is more than mean, but who has manifested hatred and racism, received a standing ovation.  And, more than for the content of what he said or did not say, that could not be left unchallenged.  Not in a place where we embrace the value that “to bigotry no sanction.”

Always, it seems, it is a tough time for Israel.  It is, now, a particularly perilous time… for American civil society as well.  What we stand for is shown in part, in who we stand for.  And somehow AIPAC should remember that there are many letters in its name.  The first one, the very first letter, whose values need to be part of its own approach, the first letter… is A.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.