Some years ago, I was invited to attend the Annual Policy Conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. At that time, attendance was in the hundreds and the agenda narrowly focused.
This year I returned to AIPAC, as an invited speaker on the subject “Israel and Asia – New Frontiers?” – in recognition of AIJAC’s work in this region.
Estimates of total attendance at the conference ranged from 14,000 to as many as 17,000 people, with significant and substantial representations from most segments of American society.
There were visible, vocal Christian leaders, from a number of denominations, and I also met with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, who were there because they believe a strong US/Israel relationship is in the interests of all humanity.
There were Hispanic, Afro-American, Asian and other ethno/national minorities represented. More than 2,000 students added energy, enthusiasm and inspired, creative thinking. I was told 75% of the US Congress were in attendance, along with parliamentarians from Canada, Europe, South America and Israel.
The general sessions, which book-ended each day, were brilliantly choreographed to ensure engaging, informative mixes of political figures such as Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli innovators, Americans whose ability to contribute to US society had been enhanced through visits to Israel and working with Israelis, left and right wing pundits and inspiring religious personalities.
A black South African student addressed us on her anger at seeing Israel defamed as practising Apartheid, which she saw as deeply offensive to Apartheid victims as well as to Israel.
Israeli and Palestinian teenagers spoke about AIPAC-backed programmes which allowed them to meet and become friends.
Two people who radiated intelligence, strength of character and wisdom, Congress Member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Deputy Knesset Speaker Pnina Tamano-Shaha, spoke in parallel of their lives as refugees from Cuba and Ethiopia respectively and how they have achieved great heights.
Tears were shed for the people of Syria, but were also shed when we heard, first hand, from Israeli doctors, Jewish and Arab, of their commitment to helping victims of that conflict.
Orthodox Jews joined Christians, and other AIPAC attendees, in clapping and singing along with an inspiring pastor from the south side of Chicago.
The breakout sessions were equally impressive, with the most authoritative journalists, academics, policy analysts and politicians sharing perspectives on challenges such as Iran and the peace process, developments with Russia and Turkey, and on Israel’s contributions to improving the world through technology.
There was tremendous interest in sessions on China, India and the wider Asian and Asia/Pacific arenas.
Prior to the Policy Conference, I had the opportunity to spend time with my session moderator, the very impressive Eliav Benjamin of Israel’s Embassy in Washington, as well as the polished, professional and inspirational Craig Kennedy, the President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and was rightfully confident it would be a valuable discussion.
The session attracted an engaged, enthusiastic full house, who peppered the panel with questions on perceptions of Israel in China and Japan, on South Korean trade, on the differences between Indonesian and Malaysian views of Jews and Israel, the likely policies of the new Australian government, and how Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore and New Zealand would develop in the future. Our session was positive and upbeat, which was consistent with the general feel of AIPAC.
There was no hostility towards Palestinians or Muslims, although there was definitely scepticism at the willingness or ability of Palestinians and Arab leaders to bring peace to the people they lead.
As a number of speakers emphasised, AIPAC personified the very best of democracy – citizens of a free society becoming informed and keeping those they elect informed on matters dear to them.
I encourage all who can to attend AIPAC in the future – you won’t regret making the effort.