A Vision of Vilification: A Progressive’s View of the AIPAC Policy Conference

By: Molly Meisels  |  April 18, 2019

by Molly Meisels, Junior News Editor

At Yeshiva University, supporting AIPAC is seen as a given. As a university which constantly prides itself on its Zionist ideologies, students are expected to toe the line when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When discussing these issues with fellow students, I hardly find diversity in thought. Pro-Israel attitudes on campus tend to verge towards militancy. If you do not like Bibi Netanyahu, Likud, hawkish IDF practices, and laws prohibiting LGBTQ+ marriage in Israel, you are written off as anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and a self-hating Jew.

The Israel conversation on campus is restrictive, not allowing for open dialogue or progressive outlooks on the value-based battles in the Middle East. However, this issue is not unique to Yeshiva University. The conversation surrounding Israel, especially amongst American Modern Orthodox Jews, is fraught with intolerance. Many on the conservative end of the spectrum believe themselves to be the sole spokespeople of pro-Israel policy. People like me, who believe in the two-state solution, in pragmatic, yet peaceful negotiations with Palestinian organizations, and in an integrated state where those of all faiths can live side-by-side, are told that we are wrong. We are told that our views are not pro-Israel.

This became abundantly clear to me at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. I have always been wary of AIPAC, and I attended the conference to broaden my perspective of the organization. Before attending the conference, I knew that I did not fit the AIPAC mold. AIPAC’s strategies, policies, and conferences are too vilifying of the Palestinian people for my tastes. However, I wanted to give AIPAC a chance. At times, AIPAC is portrayed negatively in the media, and I did not want to publicize my grievances before being immersed in the AIPAC experience. I was hoping that public perception of the organization was wrong. I was hoping that AIPAC was truly bipartisan, pro-two-state solution, and accepting of Palestinian peoples. As a pro-Israel individual, I was hoping that AIPAC would be a space for me to share my perspectives and my hopes for a more unified, peaceful Middle East. Unfortunately, I was left sorrowfully disappointed. I did not feel comfortable at AIPAC. As a progressive, I felt unheard. The organization itself, though it claims to be bipartisan, pandered immensely to the conservatives in the room, while using minority left-leaning individuals to propagate their messages.

AIPAC messages were thoroughly nationalistic. This nationalism has the ability to verge on supremacy. I support Israel, but I do not support the dangerous nationalism which can result from Zionist perspectives. I believe that Israel has the right to exist and has the right to self-determination. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I understand the importance of a state where Jews can seek safety and comfort. However, AIPAC and supporters of Israel generally, need to begin sharing patriotic, as opposed to nationalistic, pro-Israel sentiments. Nationalism says that one country is superior to another. Nationalism says that one does not have to progress, as much as one needs to. Nationalist movements tend to promote an “us versus them” mentality, which isn’t conducive for peace. Patriotism is about love and security, nationalism is about hate and antagonism. What the Jewish people need is safety, not supremacy.

I might be pro-Israel, but I am also pro-Palestine. In my mind, a two-state solution is the only solution which involves minimal death and maximum satisfaction for both parties. Both parties deserve self-determination. Both parties deserve economic prosperity, security, and social justice. Both parties deserve happiness and freedom. I am fiercely proud to be a Jew. In my Jewish lexicon, to include and promote the progression of the Palestinian people, along with the progression of the Jewish people, is inherently Biblical. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Though a vast distance separates the infinity of God from the finitude of man, something unites us, the moral enterprise of perfecting the world, in respect of which we are ‘partners of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the work of creation.’” In this quote, I recognize our Jewish obligation to work with the Palestinians to encourage peace, not vilify them with bigoted and exclusionary rhetoric at every turn. No longer can we treat them like strangers. It is their home too. We need to be partners on the path to peace, not enemies on the road to war.

At AIPAC, my progressive values were thoroughly degraded by those speaking during the general sessions. Not only were they degraded, they were manipulated and tokenized. While a few breakout sessions allowed me to voice my opinions, the general sessions did the opposite. The agenda was one-sided, leaving no room for left-leaning pro-Israel individuals to find their space. It included stories of slaughtered Israelis, who were used to paint Palestinians as a murderous people. It included the constant glorification of Trump’s Golan Heights move and the move of worldwide embassies from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Not once did anyone mention the pitfalls to these issues. It also included speeches by individuals like Vice President Mike Pence, a known homophobic politician who has fought against LGBTQ+ rights at every turn. AIPAC claims to be progressive and accepting of all sexual orientations. How can they be accepting of the LGBTQ+ individuals in the room while also honoring and hosting an individual who has attempted to take away those people’s rights?

On the general stages, the two-state solution was hardly ever mentioned. The word “occupation” was never uttered. The word “Palestine” forbidden for AIPAC staff to say. AIPAC’s goals were made clear. Through their passivity and active pro-Bibi claims, they promoted themselves as the torchbearers of an argumentative Israel conversation — a conversation which decries all those who disagree with the US embassy move to Jerusalem, the Trump Golan Heights announcement, and the settlements. Through claiming that all those who disagree with these actions are opposed to Israel’s existence, they shut down the conversation before it even began.

The progressive voice was hidden away in breakout rooms, in small receptions, and in private spaces, while the true agenda of AIPAC was loud and clear on the general session stages.  The values AIPAC must stand for, but doesn’t, was hidden away in a small breakout session I attended. The session was titled “Advancing Israeli-Palestinian Coexistence” and it focused on people– a humanitarian lens on the conflict. The panelists included Mohammed Illa*, a Palestinian economist and negotiator, Yardin Kaufmann, an Israeli venture capitalist who invests in Palestinian tech companies and internships for Palestinian young adults, and Joel Braunold, an activist for Middle East Peace.

The conversation between these three men was frank, authentic, and inclusive. Illa discussed his journey to peace, Yadin discussed his push for Palestinian economic opportunities in a world where the Gross Domestic Product ratio between the West Bank and Israel is 1:10, and Braunold discussed how “coexistence is not nice, but necessary.” These speakers were inspiring, but they existed in a self-selecting vacuum. There were 50 people in the room – 50 out of 18,000. What was said in the room would have never been said on the AIPAC broadcasts aired to the world. The world was not told about Palestinians being humiliated by IDF soldiers at border checkpoints, about Bibi’s wishes to appoint a white nationalist Minister of Education, or about the people on both sides who want peace. The only visions broadcasted involved a vision of belligerency.

I wish all AIPAC attendees were in the room to hear how the Palestinian negotiator saw his schoolteacher’s daughter shot before his eyes, and how he utilizes that frustration to pursue peace. I wish everyone was in the room as Yadin discussed assisting all young adults in the Middle East, especially the underrepresented in Palestine. I wish everyone was in the room to hear Braunold discuss the broken Israeli education system, which is wrought with prejudicial teaching practices.

These men gave me some hope for the resolution of the conflict, but they did not give me much hope for AIPAC. As I left D.C, I was discouraged, knowing full-well AIPAC was not pushing for a two-state solution. I hope something can change in the future. Until then, at least we have JStreet.