Last week, a group of Jewish community activists led by BICOM and the JLC returned from the biggest event in the pro-Israel community’s calendar; the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. For those of us who had been before, AIPAC’s vastness is notorious. But even by AIPAC standards, this year was what can only be described as AIPAC squared. With over 13,000 participants from across America (and indeed beyond), even the largest conference space in the USA was dwarfed by this crowd.
Walking around the Convention Centre, AIPAC’s success was palpable. AIPAC works tirelessly to ensure the continuation of the deep alliance between the US and Israel on solid bipartisan grounds. We on the British delegation reflected upon the alliance between the UK and Israel.
There are various reasons for the differences. The UK has a different political system to the US and what may work there doesn’t here and vice versa. In the US, individual Congressman and Senators have lots of power because the legislative and executive functions are split. In the UK, the sharing of the executive and legislative functions in the House of Commons makes it difficult for individual members to have the same degree of influence.
In contrast to the US, the media is a more powerful pressure group than parliament when it comes to foreign policy. This is why the British Jewish community invests significantly in media organisations like BICOM.
But the biggest difference is that in the US, the general public is extremely supportive of Israel. True, there are specific parts of the American public that are devoted to Israel – the Jewish community and the more numerous Evangelical Christians – but even outside those groups, there is immense ingrained warmth towards Israel among average Americans. This positivity is one reason why Israel has traditionally been treated as a bipartisan issue in America, with Democrats and Republicans happy to work together on pro-Israel activities.
In the UK, political parties are stronger and more centralised than America, with a more powerful whip. This is one reason why in Britain, the pro-Israel political groups are inside the political parties – the Conservative, Labour and LibDem Friends of Israel – rather than a central body standing outside them like AIPAC.
Technical differences aside, it is uncontroversial to say that Brits are generally less effusive than Americans in almost every way – think film industry, think advertising, think politics. The lavishness and glamour of AIPAC, while appropriate for the razzmatazz of the US market, would - rightly or wrongly - make Brits uneasy.
AIPAC is phenomenally successful at developing committed pro-Israel activists at a local level. This is one area where we have tried to learn, and with both We Believe in Israel and Steven Jaffe’s grassroots project, operating from the Board of Deputies with JLC support, we’ve started to put this into practice.
Despite the uniqueness of the challenges faced by different communities, international collaboration in order to share best practice always pays dividends. For example, the Fair Play Campaign Group (FPCG) which was established by the JLC and Board of Deputies to coordinate activity against boycotts of Israel and counter other anti-Zionist activity has been a successful model and has been emulated elsewhere, most recently with the establishment of FairPlay South Africa.
Unfortunately, London has proven to be a testing ground for nefarious activities with respect to Israel and organisations around the world have always benefited from our experience. Our interactions with global partners at AIPAC clearly showed that our community is seen as an important source of expertise in these matters. There is clearly plenty of scope to deepen global collaboration on these issues, which are after all a global set of problems. This will come into sharper focus with the upcoming 2012 London Olympic Games, which have already sparked talk of efforts to boycott Israeli teams.
The AIPAC experience invigorated the UK attendees. This group was coordinated by the JLC, who arranged a number of specific meetings and briefings with key officials, analysts and commentators for the group to attend. We also met with the UK Ambassador and his senior team. There was certainly value in being able to attend these meetings as a community, rather than as individuals from various organisations. In doing so, we were able to give a fuller picture of some of the issues we face here in the UK, and to show that although the battle is the same, the most effective tactics often differ.
Claudia Mendoza is Head of Policy & Research for The Jewish Leadership Council