It is impossible to attend an American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference without having preconceptions of how the experience will play out. Heralded by its political contemporaries, and maligned in equal measure by those who oppose it, AIPAC’s reputation precedes its considerable activity. With the Prime Minister of Israel as the keynote speaker, this was not a tepid affair of mindless communal discussion, but a conference seeking policy wins at the highest level of American government. Plenty has been written about the politics of the conference, so I wish to reflect on the production of AIPAC and the atmosphere amongst its delegates, which one really has to be there to appreciate.
This year saw a record attendance, with 16,000 delegates from across the United States and beyond flocking to the nation’s Capital to pledge allegiance to the two flags they hold dear. Whilst the majority of attendees are Jewish, the conference marks a huge gathering for the Christian Evangelical community, who are pivotal to the hearing AIPAC enjoys within Congress. Hispanic and African-American delegates number in the hundreds and both major political parties are represented in droves. Whilst there is no dominant age group at AIPAC, the energy and buzz is provided by the thousands of college students.
Distinguished by their white lanyards, the students bounce around breakout sessions with an urgency that exceeds the excitement of joining thousands of contemporaries for a weekend in D.C. The momentum of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement on American campuses in the past 18 months has been significant, and the vigour with which students chose to ovate certain speakers pointed to a political belonging that is increasingly absent on their campuses. Their vibrancy does not diminish as each conference morning passes, which may point to a markedly different drinking culture to their comrades in the UK, but more likely reflects their will to effect political change.
The grandees also attend en masse. Adorned with more ribbons than army veterans, AIPAC’s administrative team makes sure its donors and high profile guests are recognised accordingly. Such guests are entitled to access more ‘clubs’ at AIPAC than they would be in Ibiza. There’s the Congressional Club, the Capitol Club, the Speakers Clubs, not to mention the many ‘breakfast clubs’ that will take place off-schedule. Their role contrasts to that of the younger activists, but as the innumerable donation opportunities attest, they are vital to areas of AIPAC’s work that the grassroots could not achieve alone. The main auditorium serves as the perfect testament to this joint endeavour, with enthralled delegates encircled by animated screens that put the IMAX to shame.
These two vital constituencies of the AIPAC are inextricably bound by the confidence they share in advocating for their pro-Israel principles. The commitment to staying on-message and the unanimity of purpose is epitomised by the collective march up Capitol Hill on the conference’s final day.
This year’s hot pursuit was to persuade Congress to support the Kirk-Menendez Bill, which advocated for a firmer defence against sanctions relief, should Iran compromise in nuclear negotiations. Having seen first-hand ‘lobbying days’ at the UK Parliament, it can be said with confidence that there is no campaign in the UK that carries such bipartisan gravitas. It is hard to see this ever changing.
So what was the Jewish Leadership Council of the United Kingdom doing at such a conference?
Firstly, Chief Executive Simon Johnson was an active participant, speaking to a packed audience on the growth of European antisemitism. The room was eager to hear of the reality on the ground, particularly on the future of Israel advocacy across the Continent. Simon shared a panel with representatives from the French and Spanish Jewish communities and views were divergent, reflecting the situation each leader found within their own countries.
Secondly, the conference provides an annual opportunity to liaise and share best practice with our American counterparts. The JLC convened meetings with the heads of the major communal bodies, including: Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, William Daroff of The Jewish Federations of North America and Jason Isaacson of the AJC. We also had the chance to meet with British Embassy Officials, including the Deputy Head of Mission, Patrick Davies, to discuss how perceptions of Britain may have changed following 2014’s rise in antisemitism.
AIPAC is a unique experience, both in terms of its ability to achieve broad consensus on policy issues and the event’s scale of production. It combines focussed breakout sessions with grandstanding headliners to decisive effect, leaving delegates and their many ribbons determined and well equipped to take their advocacy beyond the three day extravaganza.