This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference had all the pomp of a coronation and uncritical love of a bar mitzvah as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bathed in the adoring partisan embrace of 16,000 pro-Israel supporters on Monday.
The timing was neither coincidental nor apolitical. Every moment was staged in anticipation of Netanyahu’s showdown on Capitol Hill today where he will address both houses of Congress and make his case for a uranium-rein Iran.
Given the unusual nature of Bibi’s visit—just weeks before the Israeli elections, with an American president seething over his counterpart’s so-called break with diplomatic protocol, and some Democrats deciding whether to even attend the speech—the AIPAC conference radiated even more solidarity than usual. It was a pep rally for a Jewish world leader prepping for his Lincoln-esque moment.
Never before has AIPAC served in such an odd capacity, providing the stage and abundant well-wishers to assist Bibi in getting his game on.
Of course, AIPAC has always been a lobbying juggernaut in unapologetic support for all things Israel. When Samantha Powers, America’s Ambassador to the United States, mentioned expanded West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace, for example, there was only scattered applause.
When compared with the hipper, younger New Israel Fund and jaywalking J-Streeters, each with their professed love for Israel but with qualification, AIPAC continues to attract the old-moneyed and the somewhat older, those more conventional in their thinking and Holocaust-centric in their worldview. (A party thrown during the conference by Josh Block and The Israel Project, however, did host a more dashing crowd.) Iran remains fixedly on their brains as they lie awake with old-school fears of nuclear Armageddon.
Given the global events as of late, who can blame them for registering doubt? And they are not altogether wrong.
These were the troops who Netanyahu energized (as if they needed any encouragement). He reminded them of Iran’s state-sponsorship of terrorism on five continents. And he summed up the difference between the United States and Israel when it came to foreign policy: America worries about its security; Israel fears for its survival.
The breadth of AIPAC’s extravaganza was especially impressive this year. All 50 states were represented in seamless bipartisan fashion, among whom were 500 rabbis, 100 African American, Hispanic, and Christian religious leaders, and 3,000 students. There were local and foreign dignitaries such as three African American elected officials from Georgia and South Carolina, a Latina evangelical preacher from Nevada, several police chiefs who modeled their counterterrorist units on what they learned from Israel, the leader of France’s Jewish community, the former prime minister of Spain, the prior foreign minister from Canada, and the current president of the Czech Republic—all in attendance, all pledging their unwavering support for Israel.
The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, captivated the audience by adapting John F. Kennedy’s famous words from Berlin and proclaiming: “I am a Jew.” The morning may have belonged to Bibi, but many of the speakers were treated to repeated and sustained standing ovations.
With all this pluralistic muscle and diverse solidarity, one could momentarily forget that Jews are only a small minority in America and Israel is largely reviled around the world.
There were breakout sessions on topics such as Islamic radicalism and the financing of terror, Israel’s green technology and beer industry, even a performance by Matisyahu. The delegates fanned out into conference rooms like an excitable ant colony with Israel as the hill they were charged to protect.
The conference even featured start-up engineers taking the stage and dazzling the crowd with high-tech wonders springing from Israel’s scientific oasis in the Middle East. All that wizardry was difficult to grasp. Many AIPAC members, after all, are of the age where identifying the icons and apps on their cell phones is still a challenge.
It all had the air of a Springsteen concert—the worshipful adulation, the lyrics recited on cue, the sense of shared history. They might as well have been chanting “Bruce!” when Netanyahu entered the hall. For sure in that room, and among that crowd, Bibi was most certainly the Boss.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist, and law professor, is the author of the forthcoming How Sweet It Is!, among other works of fiction and nonfiction. His essays appear widely in various media outlets. He is a senior fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.