At big conferences candor is rarely on the main stage. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is no different. If you mill around, you see a crowd of mixed of ages, races (African American attendance seems bigger than in past years), ethnicities and religious observance. And you also see some of AIPAC’s challenges.
Given the decline in support for Israel among Democrats, some Jewish leaders are aiming for leaders of the future. But it will be a long wait until such leaders reach political maturity.
I talked to a group of college student-body presidents, one from Maryland and three from Big Ten schools. AIPAC invited more than 240 of them, trying to spot the future generation of political leaders and begin their exposure to Israel and Middle East issues early. But challenges abound. None of them had a clear idea what if anything they would do after returning to campus. What kind of pro-Israel message would resonate with their fellow students? Michigan State’s student president candidly replied, “How do you pitch anything to 18-to-20-year-olds? We have a hard time just selling them on our own student government.”
That said, AIPAC is earning good will from these students. And it is accomplishing the most basic aim of public education. Iowa’s student president says, “There are a lot of interesting sessions. I came to expand my world view.”
Among some adults there is a sense that Jewish organizations have lost their way. A man in his 60s from Boston has been to about five AIPAC conferences. He says that he won’t talk about AIPAC specifically, but he shares his worries about the larger Jewish community. He is scathing. “There is a huge failure in Jewish leadership. The threat pattern has shifted from neo-Nazis to a radical left-radical Muslim agenda. Jewish leaders haven’t shifted, and they are afraid of it.” He points to Jewish leaders who don’t take on Islamic studies programs that teach anti-Semitism and Wahhabi-funded mosques preaching hatred of Jews.
He mentions the leader of a prominent pro-Israel group. “If you gave him a glass of Scotch, he’d say the biggest threat is Islamic anti-Semitism. But he won’t say that in public. A fraction of what [the leader's organization] puts out is on this.” He rolls his eyes in reference to the appointment of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. He says in a disparaging tone, “Brennan thinks jihadism is self-cleansing.” (Brennan has said, “Describing terrorists in this way — using a legitimate term, `jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal — risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.”) He argues, “The left wing of the Democratic Party is being lost to the pro-Israel movement. It is a big strain on Jewish leaders. They don’t know what to do about it.”
In the wake of Hagel’s appointment, what is the National Jewish Democratic Committee doing? It supported his nomination and has never uttered any significant criticism of the Obama administration. Its members are sporting buttons, sort of the equivalent of Gerald Ford’s WIN buttons. Rather than soothing their own self-esteem and blocking and tackling for the administration, maybe they should spend some effort to stop the hemorrhaging of support for Israel in its own party.
AIPAC is in a bind because it must deal with an administration reflexively at odds with Israel during a time the Jewish state is facing rising instability in the region and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. A future generation of Democrats may be more supportive of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but what does AIPAC do for the next 10 years? And why aren’t it and other Jewish organizations focused on what the Massachusetts attendee calls the “mind-boggling alliance between pro-Islamists and progressives”? We will see if we find any attendees with good ideas.