In search of common ground: Snapshots from the AIPAC conference

IfNotNow protesters demonstrating at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., March 26, 2017. (Ron Kampeas)

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) – This year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference drew some 18,000 pro-Israel activists for three days of speeches, workshops and lobbying visits to Capitol Hill.

Of the dozens of speeches and countless workshops, side meetings and schmooze opportunities, no message was broadcast louder than the need for bipartisan support for Israel.

And no two figures better embodied that spirit perhaps than Marvin McMoore, the national president of the College Democrats of America, who happens to be African-American, and Alex Smith, national chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee, who happens not to be.

“If we want to protect the Israel relationship long term, Democrats need Republicans and Republicans need Democrats,” Lillian Pinkus, AIPAC’s president, says during the Sunday morning plenary at the Verizon Center here as the arena camera picks out McMoore and Smith seated next to one another, holding hands, crowns touching, grinning, locked in a platonic AIPAC embrace.

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“I can assure you they don’t agree on everything,” Pinkus says of McMoore and Smith, who at this particular moment appear to be agreeing on everything. “But through AIPAC, they found common ground on Israel.”


Two other groups who may not agree on anything found each other at the conference — or at least encountered one another through a pane of glass.

On L Street, outside the two-story windows of the convention center, 200 to 300 protesters from the left-wing IfNotNow, demanding an end to the occupation, walk and dance in a circle while banging buckets. Some have brought babies in strollers. Their chants are muffled by the glass; a banner reads “Reject AIPAC, resist occupation.”

Inside, between breakout sessions, AIPAC activists, clad in muted suits and dresses, break their determined, coffee-clutching, conference-goer stride and slow down, cocking their heads toward the windows.

There are no expressions of anger. Instead, there is the universal 21st century gesture signifying curiosity: They raise their smartphones to snap a picture.

A young protester in a black woolen cap looks up and sees activists on an escalator. She lifts her placard decrying Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and grins — a smile stripped of guile, as if to say, just look at this.


New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake is shouting for quiet at a bar packed mostly with Jews, and some blacks. He wants to talk about justice, about the disproportionate number of young black men in prisons.

“If we want to be serious about criminal justice, be serious at the front end!” he says, his voice rising, his pacing increasingly agitated.

The Israel Project, run by former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, is having a party at the Rosa Mexicano bar neighboring the Verizon Center. There are black activists not just from the United States but from South Africa and Israel, too. No one mentions Black Lives Matter.

Block, like many in the pro-Israel mainstream, is seeking progressive partners who pretty much leave Israel alone. But such partners are few and far between. Black Lives Matter isn’t one, having created a platform last year that describes Israel as an “apartheid state” perpetrating “genocide” against the Palestinian people.

But 20/20 Leaders of America, a bipartisan group of black legislators, mayors and other officials seeking criminal justice reform, may be such a partner, or something like it. Close enough.

“You can love justice and Israel,” Block says and introduces the speakers. Some of them seem to agree wholeheartedly – Zenobia Ravji from South Africa is a standout — but occasionally their support appears to be merely transactional.

Tashni-Ann Dubroy, the president of Shaw University, a historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina, says awkwardly that Jewish professors on her campus contribute a lot. She asks for donations.

Blake, the vice chairman at large of the Democratic National Committee, is compelling – if you’re listening. Most of the AIPAC activists are munching tortilla chips and engrossed in one another.

“Go back home and change some laws!” he exhorts before giving up.


Squeezed between the major speakers at the Verizon Center are small but moving moments of family and friendship, splashed large on the big screens.

Amy Friedkin, AIPAC’s president from 2002 to 2004 and the first woman to hold the post, introduces her latest convert to the lobby’s work – her grandson, Brian Sternberg.

Sternberg stares at his notes and Friedkin, an old hand at politicking, mouths some of his text as he delivers his remarks. He ends by promising to sign up for next year’s conference.

“Brian,” Friedkin says, slightly embarrassed, “I’ve already registered you.”

Bud Hockenberg and Dick Levitt call out to the 4,000 college students in attendance and note that they, too, had a college connection – they met at the University of Iowa in the 1950s.

“In college, Richard got me involved in several Jewish organizations which led me to AIPAC,” Hockenberg recalls.

Levitt rejoins, “Believe it or not, this is my first AIPAC policy conference, but this is Bud’s 50th consecutive policy conference.”

The two old friends offer info on how to register and make a promise that earns cheers.

“We’ll both see you again next year,” Levitt says.


Another break between sessions. I’m on the convention center’s second level. A chant, muddied at first and then clear as the chatter dies down, comes from a balustrade overlooking the first level: “If I am only for myself, who am I?” It is repeated.

The conference-goers break stride, look up. Two banners drop from either side of the balustrade: “IfNotNow rejects AIPAC and the occupation.”

There’s a silent moment, a poetic pause at a convention where security picks through purses and briefcases to keep out, among other things, protesters like these.

And then the booing begins. It rises and fills the halls, and security strips away the banners and escorts the protesters out of the building.

The next day Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, remembers the moment at a meeting of leaders of American Jewish religious movements and Israeli Knesset members. It’s a session on how to preserve American Judaism.

“Some of my colleagues may be shreying their kopf” — screaming their heads off — Wernick says, recalling the moment. “But at least [the protesters are] engaged and they’re willing to put their feet where their minds are.”

Wernick, who has been attending AIPAC conferences for decades, says not with a little pride that he bets a lot of those protesters came out of his movement.

Rabbi Ryan Bauer, a Reform rabbi from San Francisco, says at a separate conference session on how to engage young people, “I’m very happy with the protesters out there – because they care.”