The AIPAC annual policy conference is underway, the most significant such gathering in years since it comes at a time of unprecedented animosity between the United States and Israel. If you are a conference delegate, you face a dilemma. You love Israel and think the U.S.-Israel relationship is essential for both sides; otherwise you would not spend time and money to attend. You’re worried presumably that Iran is on the precipice of getting nuclear weapons capability (if you were blissful, you’d be at a J Street conference). The Obama administration is in a diplomatic and rhetorical war with the Jewish state’s elected government, a war that began long before the prime minister’s speech on Wednesday to Congress was scheduled. The administration calls our ally’s prime minister “destructive” and is rushing forward on a deal it will not allow Congress to consider (despite previous assurances), one that will, if reports are correct, leave Iran with 6,500 centrifuges. And to speak to you — concerned about all that — the administration sends the woman who publicly trashed the prime minister, national security adviser Susan Rice.
This is an insult to Israel, to AIPAC (designed to make conference organizers smile and host a toxic figure who intentionally worsened the atmosphere for the prime minister’s visit) and mostly to you — a friend of Israel, maybe a Democratic supporter of the president who gave him two terms. Moreover, Rice’s words mean virtually nothing; today her attack was contradicted by the secretary of state. So why not send someone who speaks with actual authority? Sending her is the act of a bully: Here’s your speaker. You will attend, smile and applaud. Or will you?
Walking out before or during Rice’s speech would be wrong and ineffective. That is not a tactic designed to win friends, and it casts those walking out as ones giving the insult rather than those on the receiving end of an obvious affront. Neither, though, is it appropriate to greet Rice with applause. She personally has heightened tensions between the two countries and worked in ways inimical to the cause that brought the attendees to AIPAC in the first place.
That leaves the option of not attending. AIPAC, I suspect, anticipated this. Its printed agenda does not list the speaking times for Rice or Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations. I have it on good authority, however, that Rice is scheduled to speak Monday afternoon. (If she does not speak in the morning that day, this will confirm her appearance later in the day.) No one has to go to every AIPAC session, and delegates can, as a silent but powerful protest, simply not show up for that part of the program.
This might seem like a small matter, but it is emblematic of a big problem. The president believes the Jewish community does not matter. He believes Israel will have no choice but to accept a rotten deal with Iran. In his eyes it has no choice. It is powerless. But is this not the inspiration for modern Zionism? Jews have power, a state of their own, with which to advocate and, if need be, use force to defend their point of view and their historic homeland. Jews in the United States have power by being selective about which candidates and causes they support. AIPAC delegates have the power to speak for themselves and, in doing so, deliver a message to the White House. We matter. Israel matters. Deal with it.