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Welcome to AIPAC, the Greatest Show on Earth

The first day brings sound and fury, but signifying what?

Yair Rosenberg
March 03, 2014
Image from the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference In Washington, DC. ( KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Image from the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference In Washington, DC. ( KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

American Jews have long been renowned for their talents in show business, and last night, they put on a clinic, complete with a rousing climactic musical number that brought down the house. No, I’m not talking about the Oscars, I’m talking about the opening plenaries of the AIPAC Policy Conference.

The annual three-day gathering of the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby is political theater at its finest—sleek, sensational and scripted. With TED talk-style keynote speakers, wall-to-wall jumbotrons, slick testimonial videos, and even musical acts, AIPAC’s Policy Conference is a spectacle to rival the national political conventions. And as at those conventions, the message is so tightly controlled, and the speeches so carefully choreographed, that news is rarely made on stage. Yesterday’s opening events were no exception.

The assembled 14,000 delegates heard from Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, who as the highest-ranking Orthodox Jew in the history of American government is often dispatched by the administration to reassure the pro-Israel and Jewish communities. True to form, Lew reiterated the party line: no new Iran sanctions while talks are ongoing, but that all options remain on the table if they fail.

Lew was followed by Rep. Eliot Engel, who introduced his constituent, Bob Cohen, the new president of AIPAC. A real estate mogul, Cohen is also a major Democratic donor. In his remarks, he rallied the AIPAC faithful to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, saying that AIPAC would “fight exclusion with inclusion.” The emphasis on BDS suggests that AIPAC may be shifting its focus to issues where it can score some easy wins. Unlike President Obama’s fiercely-defended Iran policies, the anti-Israel movement has few fans among the American people or its elected government, making it a tempting target.

Other highlights included a joint presentation by AIPAC board member Mort Fridman and California Rep. Ed Royce–whose father liberated Fridman’s father at Dachau. Royce concluded with the lesson he took from the experience: “Had there been an Israel at the time, Jews would not have had to wait for someone else to save them.” The two men were followed by Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was interviewed on stage by Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz.

But the more remarkable moment was saved for last, when Pastor Chris Harris of the Bright Star Baptist Church spoke of his efforts to bring the Israeli trauma treatment techniques of Sderot to Chicago’s south side. Treating the conference participants as though they were parishioners in the pews, Harris told his story through call-and-response. “I just want to church you like we’d church you at the Bright Star in Bronzeville,” he said before calling the entire assembly to its feet and leading them in song with a local gospel choir. “Never thought my first church experience would be at #AIPAC14,” tweeted one attendee.

The day closed much as it had begun, with participants learning little more than they knew walking in, but enjoying the spectacle. That may change today, when Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the conference, though not necessarily for the reasons one might think. While Kerry has been expected to discuss the peace process he has brokered between Israelis and Palestinians, AIPAC may become the unlikely address for his latest pronouncements on the crisis in Ukraine, where he will be flying immediately after his speech.

Be sure to stay tuned to The Scroll throughout the day for the latest updates.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.