Simon Johnson: AIPAC, Israel and Jewish Youth Movements

Many of my colleagues from the 20 strong UK delegations to AIPAC have written glowingly of their experience in Washington D.C, so I do not want to repeat them in describing the scale and depth of the support for Israel that we witnessed at AIPAC.

There was something very special which struck me whilst I was there. Amongst the 15,000 delegates, were scores of student and youth groups from Jewish communities all over the U.S.A. They had come as part of delegations of hundreds from each organisation to participate in the discussions, to meet other leaders, share experiences and to learn from the thousands of other delegates who are passionate and vocal in their support of Israel and their rejection of the delegitimizers and boycott leaders.

It was poignant for me as someone whose Jewish involvement was forged in BBYO; AIPAC brought my involvement full circle. In 1983, I had been part of an 8 person delegation from the UK to BBYO’s International Leadership Training Course at a residential camp in the Pennsylvania hills. I made some deep friendships with Jewish teens whilst there. One of my friends was a girl called Estee. We kept in touch on and off over the 30 years, but had reconnected through business recently. She is now Estee Portnoy, the Chair of BBYO’s International Board of Directors. I had the pleasure of spending Shabbat at the home of her and her husband Elliot immediately before AIPAC.

It was fascinating for us to think of how we are now both involved in Jewish communal roles, thirty years after ILTC and BBYO introduced us to Jewish friends and leadership. We never had anything like the opportunities available to the youth who attended AIPAC. When I attended the BBYO alumni reception at AIPAC and met the nearly 100 delegates, I wondered how much more involved they could be than we were because the opportunities to campaign, support and interact through organisations like AIPAC, are now so much greater.

On my return, I was delighted to confirm the kind agreement of Lord Kestenbaum, to chair the Implementation Group of the Commission into Informal Provision for Young People in the UK Jewish Community. One of the many challenges that the group will have will be to deepen the engagement and involvement of young Jewish people in the UK. AIPAC allowed hundreds of young Jewish people to experience Israel advocacy with a programme tailored towards them. How many of those people that I met will still be involved in 30 years time?

I have a feeling that the percentage chance will be higher because of the AIPAC experience and it falls to us, working with Lord Kestenbaum’s group, to try and recreate the same levels of engagement here in the UK.