Hundreds of people -- politicians and rabbis, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Israelis, young and old -- squeezed past dozens of tables to find their assigned seats for dinner.
Just two weeks after CBS News broke the story that the FBI has been investigating an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) staffer for alleged espionage, the pro-Israel lobby hosted its largest event ever in the San Fernando Valley.
For several weeks, various news outlets implied that the U.S.-Israeli relationship had become too close for comfort and may have even influenced U.S. policy toward the Iraq War. There were fears that one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington was wounded.
However, 800 people at the Marriott in Woodland Hills on Sept. 12 proved the loyalty of the organization's Southern California members, as they doubled the attendance of the previous year's event.
"Los Angeles as a city has always been a very active part of AIPAC," Deputy Director Diana Stein said about Los Angeles, which ranks No. 2 behind New York City in terms of membership and donations.
Although AIPAC members in the San Fernando Valley have always existed as part of Los Angeles, it's only in the past five years that they have taken on an identity of their own, Stein said. Since the Valley has been hosting its own AIPAC events, members there have doubled in attendance each year.
Elliot Brandt, AIPAC Western states director, vehemently denied all the espionage allegations before the Valley crowd, firing up the audience with indignation that AIPAC has been subject to "innuendo, slurs and leaks" surrounding the story, and that the only judge in the case so far has been the media.
"Investigators should talk to AIPAC, not the press," Brandt bellowed, saying that AIPAC would cooperate fully.
AIPAC's specific positions on the investigation were made clear by all the speakers.
Although the investigation has been known to President Bush for two years, it has led to no action against AIPAC. On the contrary, the lobby maintains a list of quotes (written after the CBS story broke) from 16 members of Congress lauding AIPAC and its mission.
"Many Jewish organizations realize this [accusation] was a shot across the bow of Jewish political influence and involvement in U.S. government," Brandt said.
"I've known the two staffers for 20 years. They are as honorable, honest and hard working as anybody," Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) told The Journal before addressing the audience. "AIPAC is caught in the crossfire between administration factions warring over Iran and U.S. foreign policy."
The speakers all emphasized that the leak to CBS refers to an investigation that is two years old and is actually "intended to be a public relations smear" against U.S.-Israeli cooperation.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) suggested that some factions in the government were hoping to make AIPAC and the U.S.-Israel relationship in general "a scapegoat for what's happening in the world."
It was clear from the AIPAC event -- and another one held at the Museum of Tolerance Sept. 9, hosting Omri Sharon, the Israeli prime minister's son, and Labor Knesset member Isaac Herzog -- that AIPAC members strongly support the organization, especially in times of trouble. Despite the rallying cries here, no one is quite certain of how the allegations will impact in the long-term the organization -- and relations between Israel and the United States.
"The plain fact is, the scandal will affect Jewish and pro-Israel interests in myriad ways -- even if the federal investigation fizzles and no charges are brought," James Besser wrote in The Journal when the scandal broke.
But that's precisely what AIPAC officials and speakers were trying to stem.
"Some hope that AIPAC will become confused or stand on the sidelines, or that legislators will distance themselves [from us], but AIPAC is on the march," Brandt said.
"[These accusations] run the risk of hurting the organization, but we cannot afford to be sidetracked" from supporting Israel, Sen. Norm Coleman's (R-Minn.) said.
Despite the evening's message of total unity against the allegations, Coleman's speech veered toward the partisan, proving that AIPAC is not completely immune to unpredictable election-year politics.
Coleman's comments began with a nonpartisan appeal for unity on Israel. Soon, though, the senator began openly endorsing Bush's re-election, surprising many in the audience, including the nonpartisan AIPAC leaders, who said they had no idea Coleman's speech would careen in that direction.
Coleman said he saw a difference in how the two presidential candidates would treat the U.S.-Israeli relationship. While Sen. John Kerry may appeal to diplomacy to seek peace in the Middle East, Coleman said that he himself agrees with Bush that the U.S. must "establish free and just societies" around the world, and that Bush would never be "nuanced" on U.S.-Israeli relations.
Though his speech was occasionally punctuated by shouts from opposing tables alternately supporting Kerry or Bush, Coleman and the rest of the speakers all returned to AIPAC's main message: The future of the Jews is dependent on the State of Israel; Israel in turn is dependent on its relationship with the United States, and AIPAC actively strengthens that relationship as a nonpartisan lobby.
Berkley reminded the audience that in the darkest days of the Holocaust, when American Jews appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to consult with them, they were not able to obtain a meeting.
Donna Bender, AIPAC dinner chair, summed up that sentiment: "[U.S.] support for Israel is not guaranteed. It is up to us."
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