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Three Days Undercover At Israel Lobby’s Biggest Policy Conference

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Neither American Zionism nor K Street venality can fully explain the cult-like nature of AIPAC.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a cult, and like most cults, its followers would probably object to the characterization.

To AIPAC’s 100,000 members and to the 18,000 delegates who attended its annual convention last week in DC, the organization serves a heroic purpose by securing the protection of Israel, and by extension, the Jewish people. To its detractors, it is a manifestation of the most toxic elements of Zionism and a symptom of the corruption that allows lobbying groups to further their agendas by buying politicians (though not a PAC itself, Israel lobbies politicians through a series of small affiliated PACs).

But neither American Zionism nor K Street venality can fully explain the cult-like nature of AIPAC. Though there’s a lot of talk about “Jewish values” and protecting “the Jewish people,” little about the organization qualifies as Jewish in a traditional religious sense. (In fact, the Torah explicitly forbids the state-sanctioned bribery that lobbying groups like AIPAC practice: “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent”—Exod. 23.8.)

AIPAC is far more of a political organization than a religious one, but its politics are based on a deliberate misreading of history that erases the Palestinian people and whitewashes Israeli crimes. What makes AIPAC a cult is that it demands unquestioning allegiance from its members—not to a charismatic leader, but to the state of Israel. Just as nothing could convince the Moonies that their beloved Reverend wasn’t the messiah, it is impossible for AIPAC’s acolytes to acknowledge even the most obvious truths about Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid policies. And even as lobbyists subvert the democratic process by paying off politicians, AIPAC’s members insist that they are the front lines of the noble fight to preserve the Middle East’s lone democracy.

Blending In

I attended last week’s conference at the Washington Convention Center. Knowing that AIPAC had denied press credentials to a number of my fellow leftist reporters, I decided to show up looking neat and clean-shaven in a navy blue suit and tie to avoid looking like a potential troublemaker.

Though Zionists are quick to shout “Jew hater!” at anyone who even mentions the possibility of “dual loyalty” among American Jews, the conference’s organizers seemed to intentionally promote this notion by handing out complimentary pins with the American and Israeli flags intertwined. I dutifully affixed the pin to my lapel, draped my laminated pass around my neck, and steeled myself for a three-day onslaught of propaganda.

When I arrived early Sunday afternoon, pro-Palestinian protesters (along with a pitifully small contingent of counter-protesters) had amassed outside the convention center after marching from the White House. Several activists unfurled a large Palestinian flag as chants of “Free Palestine” rang out. As the protest reached a fever pitch, I spoke briefly to three older Palestinian women standing quietly near the back of the protest who asked that their names not be used. One of the women told me she had immigrated to the states in 1970 and would like to go back once Palestinians are given equal rights. “As long as Americans support [Israel], it’s hard,” she said. “We have to change the American minds…they think we’re terrorists. We’re not terrorists! We just want our land.”

As I made my way through the metal detector and looked around, I couldn’t help but think that anti-Semites who imagine secretive cabals of powerful Jews would be immensely disappointed with what I saw. The building consisted of big open spaces filled with sunlight streaming through glass walls, more like an airport than a smoky back room. One was left with same drab, predictable atmosphere of any other business conference, but on a massive scale. Like your typical conference, the event featured fold-out tables displaying an array of pamphlets and flyers. Unlike your typical conference, the reading material covered subjects like Israel’s thrilling innovations in military technology and carrier screening for Jewish genetic diseases.

Many attendees had arrived thanks to some special initiative. A room near the entrance marked “African American Leadership Luncheon” was filled with black executives looking to network with influential pro-Israel activists. White AIPAC members seemed to avoid this area altogether. Close-knit groups of high school and college students on sponsored trips wandered the halls while yarmulke-clad old men clutched $5 water bottles. Floor after floor teemed with a pulsing mix of straight-laced lobbyists, fast-talking shmoozers, nutty zealots, and kvelling nerds. Everyone had “Come Together,” to quote the official motto of this year’s conference, united not by religion (a sizable portion were not Jewish) but in an unquestioning belief in the righteousness of Zionism and the infallibility of the Jewish state.

Who’s Afraid of BDS?

Down several sets of escalators was an enormous space that had been fashioned into a loose collection of booths and pavilions called AIPAC Village. A panel on “Defeating BDS on Campus: Partner Perspectives” featured several rabidly anti-BDS speakers including Rabbi Evan Goodman (executive director of Hillel at UC Santa Barbara) and Roz Rothstein (co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs). I started taking video of the panel on my phone, but moderator Adam Teitelbaum spotted me and directed an usher to stop my recording.

Teitelbaum, a sharply dressed young man with a carefully manicured beard, serves as deputy leadership development director at AIPAC. Goodman, who recently came under fire for trying to censor the writer David Harris-Gershon for his support for BDS (the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement), said the mission of Hillel “is to build Jewish identity and to build up the Jewish people and to have us be able to enact our values and to share our values out into the world.” Without saying what these values were, he proceeded to describe how his chapter of Hillel was taking five Jews and 20 non-Jews on a 10-day “fact-finding mission” to Israel: “This is a behind-the-scenes community-building trip for campus influentials…in order to build up the connection to Israel for a variety of people – not under the auspices of BDS, but instead from a positive dimension.”

Putting aside the absurdity of the phrase “campus influentials,” his description of the trip made clear that his use of the phrase “Jewish identity” had nothing to do with observing the Sabbath or learning a lesson from the story of Job; it simply means strengthening Americans’ blind faith in the Israeli state. Part of this mission involves assuring that these Americans, Jews and gentiles alike, won’t be bothered by any pesky notions of self-determination or universal human rights.

Jewish identity, in this formulation, means something not just immoral but profoundly un-Jewish. The Talmudic tradition has always valued critique and self-examination, values the Israel lobby seeks to replace with a pathological projection of Israel’s crimes onto a dangerous Other. This backward logic extends to the BDS movement, which the AIPAC cult maligns as an anti-Semitic menace despite its high-minded goals and non-violent tactics. Ten days of hasbara, or pro-Israel propagandizing, in Goodman’s estimation, will be enough to convert new recruits, refreshing their impressionable young minds like a tall glass of Kool-Aid.

The most disturbing part of the panel came in response to a question from a 60-something audience member named Bud from Dallas, who asked, “Did you establish a relationship with the ex-student associations or the alumni associations of the colleges? The alumni are the ones who are making money and they can put pressure on the administration by refusing to make contributions to the university.”

Rothstein immediately stepped in with an intentionally vague answer that amounted to a direct attack on academic free speech:

“We are about to partner with this very thing—an alumni association group builder—we’ve already built groups at Oberlin and Vassar, and hundreds of alumni in just those two universities…they’re already beginning to cultivate three other universities and they’re being very successful to build up numbers so that when there is an issue…they can come in and engage and mentor students, and come in and speak with the administration, and be part of the solution. So you’re absolutely right—we have our eye on that ball, and as a matter of fact we have just signed that partnership relationship.”

Without being totally forthright, Rothstein was praising the idea of alumni threatening to withhold donations as a means of suppressing campus activism. Steven Salaita found himself the target of a similar campaign last year, and anti-Palestinian censorship continues to be a major free-speech issue on campuses nationwide.

Pandering and Politicking

The Jewish members of AIPAC represent only a privileged sliver of the Jewish population; in Occupy terms, they are the one percent. Accusations of a powerful Jewish lobby controlling American foreign policy are almost always met with reflexive counter-accusations of anti-Semitism, but they fail to alter the disturbing dynamic of pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC leveraging money from wealthy Jews to dictate America’s policies in the Middle East. When Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer published their landmark book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy in 2007, Zionists alleged an anti-Jewish bias. Yet the book’s conclusion that AIPAC has a “stranglehold” on U.S. policy is indisputable. And though the facts speak for themselves—AIPAC dropped nearly $3.4 millionon lobbying campaigns in 2015, $1.67 million of which it spent in the first half of the year alone to lobby Congress against the Iran deal—accusations of anti-Semitism dog Walt and Mearsheimer to this day.

In Edward Said’s prophetic essay, “America’s Last Taboo,” published in New Left Review in 2000, just months after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, he described AIPAC as “the most powerful single lobby in Washington.” Said trained his ire on Hillary Clinton, then a New York Senate candidate:

“No-one exemplifies the sway of AIPAC better than Hillary Clinton, outdoing even the most right-wing Zionists in fervour for Israel in her avid clawing for power in New York, where she went so far as to call for the transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the grant of leniency for Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy serving a life sentence in the US.”

Despite her reputation for inconsistency, Hillary Clinton proved that not much had changed in the last 16 years when she addressed an audience of thousands at the Verizon Center on Monday morning. Clinton vilified the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and accused it of using the very tactics its proponents have often found themselves the victims of: “Don’t let anyone silence you, bully you or try to shut down debate.”

In a mindboggling critique of Trump, Clinton took aim at her Republican opponent for supporting the exact kind of racist policies Israel has embraced for years:

“In a democracy we’re going to have differences, but what Americans are hearing on the campaign trail this year is something else entirely: encouraging violence, playing coy with white supremacists, calling for 12 million immigrants to be rounded up and deported, demanding we turn away refugees because of their religion and proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.”

Hillary knows that Israel’s Law of Return privileges Jews over Palestinian refugees. She knows that the Israeli government fills detention centers in the Negev with Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing genocide in their native countries. She’s not so ignorant that she can’t see the similarities between Trump’s fantasy and Israel’s reality; she just wants to score political points by trying to sound progressive. Judging by the ecstatic reaction to Trump that night, however, she may have misread her audience.

Gladiators at the Coliseum

Early that evening, I walked several blocks from the Convention Center to the Verizon Center to hear Trump speak (Kasich, Cruz and Paul Ryan spoke too, but Trump was clearly the man of the hour). I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple from New Jersey who told me they support Trump because, despite his outrageous persona, “people who know him” had assured them of his Zionist bona fides. It took every bit of self-control in my possession to stop myself from shouting, “Do you hear yourselves?” Instead I smiled, nodded and forged ahead.

The slow-moving line to get in the stadium snaked around the block. While I was waiting I met a couple from Rancho Palos Verdes who agreed that Trump was “dangerous,” but after listening to them defend Hillary along roughly the same lines as the previous couple defended Trump, my patience wore thin. Did anyone here care about things not directly related to Israel? Did they have any valid criterion for electing a president apart from, “most likely to bomb Gaza into submission?” Without exception, every single attendee I spoke with said Israel was the most important issue in the upcoming election. Considering the dismal state of American politics, this attitude is pretty extraordinary. Many people cannot afford health care or college and are facing insurmountable debt. Wall Street fleeces the middle class with impunity while nearly 50 million Americans live below the poverty line. Our prison system incarcerates more people than any nation on earth and the U.S. military budget exceeds that of the next seven countries combined.

Yet to AIPAC’s faithful acolytes, nothing matters as much as supplying Israel with billions of dollars to enforce a 50-year-old military occupation that has turned what’s left of Palestine into hell on earth. Since all the major presidential candidates (with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders) have made it clear they will do anything to appease Israeli interests regardless of the human toll, all AIPAC’s cult members can do is cheer on the candidate who appears to value Palestinian lives the least.

The Republicans who spoke Monday night turned Verizon Center into a modern-day Colosseum, playing gladiator to the Muslim boogeyman they summoned with every warning of global jihadism. Trump gave an unhinged but surprisingly lucid speech, promising to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Decrying an evil Palestinian society in which “the heroes are those who murder Jews,” Trump repeated Netanyahu’s lie that “Israel does not name public squares after terrorists.” He wrapped things up by exploiting his daughter, whose Jewish husband, New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner, helped write his speech: “My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby!” The crowd, already worked into a frenzy by Trump’s Islamophobia, raucously cheered the Jewish baby as one of its own. The night had officially gone off the rails.

Not to be outdone, Ted Cruz began his speech with the story of Purim, using the villainous Haman as a stand-in for “radical Islamic terrorism.” Cruz took the cake for bloodlust, chastising Clinton for not doing enough to justify Israel’s war crimes during Operation Protective Edge:

“Hamas would place rockets in elementary schools. They placed their headquarters in the basement of a hospital, and I would note that Hillary Clinton, in 2014, explained this as follows, ‘Hamas puts its missiles, its rockets in civilian areas, part of it is because Gaza is pretty small and it’s densely populated.’ Well, Madam Secretary, with all respect, the reason the missiles are in schools is not because Gaza is small, the reason the missiles are in schools is because Hamas are terrorist monsters using children as human shields.”

The United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict concluded that Israel, not Hamas, used human shields, while the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza conflict described Protective Edge as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” But to Ted Cruz and his base, the massacre is only significant insofar as it presents yet another opportunity to suck up to the Israel lobby.

Freedom Beats Tyranny

On Tuesday the conference concluded with a Skyped-in Netanyahu address and a fire-and-brimstone speech by Bob Menendez, the ethically challenged New Jersey senator who is the fourth highest recipient of donations from pro-Israel interests in Congress. Netanyahu couldn’t appear in person because he had awkwardly backed out of a visit to DC, almost certainly to avoid another acrimonious meeting with Obama.

“I’m confident that over time, the trend of embracing Israel will overcome the trend of maligning Israel,” Bibi proclaimed, “because ultimately, freedom beats tyranny.” I sidled up to a young man standing alone and asked him, “Are Palestinians under occupation free?” The man was caught completely off guard, hesitating and stammering before finally blurting out, “Ask your local AIPAC representative.” Watching hardline Zionists squirm when asked to acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian people, much less the occupation, is akin to watching a robot short circuit after having a bucket of water dumped on its head.

Menendez adhered closely to the saber-rattling tone of the conference, warning that, “Iran will never change. The devil you see now is the devil you’ve always known.” In a not-so-subtle shot at Trump’s alleged neutrality, Menendez boasted that “unlike some presidential candidates, I do not believe the United States can be neutral if Israel is to survive.” Menendez, along with fellow senators Mark Kirk and Chuck Schumer, gained attention a few years back for introducing a strict sanctions bill backed by AIPAC called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. Last year, the Justice Department charged Menendez with 14 counts of corruption, including eight counts of bribery. During his trial, Menendez relied entirely on pro-Israel oligarchs to cover his legal defense.

The last person I spoke to before leaving the Convention Center was a soft-spoken white-haired Californian named Walter who was standing around with his wife as the crowds started to file out after the Tuesday morning session. Playing up the danger of Iran, he asked, “How would you feel if you were to wake up tomorrow and find out there is no more Israel?”

“I don’t see it happening,” I responded, “I think Iran knows if they attack Israel, the U.S. would obliterate them the next day.”

Walter considered this for a moment. “I’m very cynical about the loyalty the United States has with Israel, because I think a lot of it is the way that organizations like AIPAC focus on it, right in that one area.” Like most of the people I talked to, Walter shared AIPAC’s single-minded focus and implacable paranoia. “They don’t get involved with anything else. They’re lobbying Congress on behalf of Israel and the bottom line is that if AIPAC wasn’t here, do you really think that Congress would really give a damn? If something did happen to Israel, everyone would go, Oh my God, what a terrible, horrible thing, and then they’d move on.”

When I mentioned that Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank lack the right to vote, Walter replied, “That’s where our son has a problem with Israel. He thinks they should back off, but the West Bank is Samaria and that is the original part of Israel. That’s where the Jews really came from.” His son “got involved in BDS for a while and stuff like that…he can’t stand things like the settlements because he thinks that’s so antagonistic it’s unbelievable, and if they stopped doing the settlements it would go a long way towards making peace.”

After listening to another digression about the rightful Jewish claim to ancient Samaria and how “it’s a pretty mixed bag of people living there,” I asked Walter and his wife Judy about their lanyards, which were a different color than mine. They explained that they were dues-paying members. I said that as a broke millennial I could barely afford the ticket. Hearing the word “millennial,” Walter struggled for the right words to describe my generation. “One thing is certain” he began, “the future is in your hands.” It was a trite but endearing sentiment and I smiled despite myself, bidding Walter and Judy goodbye before leaving the conference for good.

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