On the morning of May 22, at the opening plenary of the 2011 AIPAC Policy Conference, the grand ballroom of the convention center here felt like a grand courtroom. The case: the organized pro-Israel Jewish community versus President Barack Obama’s May 19 speech.
Among the 10,000 attendees were more than 1,000 Los Angeles delegates representing Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations, including Democrats, Republicans and independents. And while the mood at the conference is famously nonpartisan, Los Angeles delegates, like all other attendees, lay in wait for Obama’s address, which most expected to be a statement, or restatement, of what seemed to many to be a shift in American policy.
As the head of Los Angeles’ largest delegation, with 200 members present, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple observed that the meaning and timing of Obama’s earlier remarks at the State Department, just days before, warranted clarification.
“I think the administration’s view was that it wasn’t a radical departure,” he told The Jewish Journal minutes ahead of Obama’s speech. “At the same time, you’re in such a charged atmosphere that the differences in nuance to people become huge differences of substance.”
All eyes were on Obama as he began to speak, and the crowd’s reception would measure the president’s success. “I want to see good feedback that no one stands up for him when he speaks,” said Yakov Abergel, a member of Marina Shul Beit Menachem in Marina del Rey. He recalled rambunctious standing ovations for President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton in previous years. “I think what he did last week was he really gave a passport for the Palestinians to open a different course against Israel.”
Afterward, the general verdict was that Obama had addressed the crowd’s concerns.
“I think he took the right approach in his speech yesterday,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles, who led a delegation of 100 members. “He explained the comments in the speech that were controversial. It was amazing that he came here to show his support of the America-Israeli relationship and that he felt the need to come here and explain himself, which was interesting.”
“He did a good job in clarifying what he said and what he meant by what he said,” said Rabbi Spike Anderson of Stephen S. Wise Temple, which had a delegation of 180.
Before the speech, Anderson had worried that some delegates would behave disrespectfully, but he was pleased by the etiquette. “There was applause and people stood, and people disagreed, but at least it was polite and respectful.”
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, came with about 100 members. Feinstein said he was relieved that only one person booed, but he was hesitant to make any premature judgments on Obama’s words. “In the end, what he said is not going to be nearly as important as what he does,” Feinstein said.
But not all fears were allayed. “The speech didn’t calm me down. I think he’s straddling the fence,” said Yoni Peleg, a Milken Community High School and USC graduate bound for Columbia University Medical School this fall. He was among some 100 university students from Los Angeles. “I don’t believe he’s as aligned with Israel as past presidents.”
Other conference speakers from Capitol Hill (including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) took light jabs at Obama’s 1967 remark, to surefire applause. Overall, the atmosphere of the convention center, which spans four city blocks, was alternately a pro-Israel pep rally; an adult Zionist summer camp (especially in the complaints about the food and humidity); a mass Jewish reunion with nonborder-related Jewish geography a favorite topic; a singles scene for the students and young leadership crowd; and a graduate seminar on Israeli and American foreign policy. While last year’s sessions focused on stopping Iran, this year a slew of other Middle East game-changers were introduced: the unrest throughout the Middle East, the Fatah-Hamas pact and the possibility of Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood in September.
The Arab spring formed the crux of the panel sessions, with skeptics arguing that the Arab uprisings are a series of military coups while optimists see in them the seeds of true democracy.
“Nobody knows — and that’s why it’s so interesting,” Feinstein said.
But the AIPAC policy conference isn’t about making predictions or asserting this or that position. The conference is first and foremost about the America-Israel relationship, with activists rallying around this year’s slogan, “Better Together.” In lobbying-training sessions, delegates were provided with guidance on effective lobbying on Capitol Hill. A memo with talking points instructed delegates on how to make an effective case for U.S. foreign aid to Israel, for stopping Iran, rejecting Hamas and opposing a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations .
“We just come to be counted,” said Lewis Rudzki, a member of Temple Emanuel. He and his wife, Judy, scheduled appointments with congressmen from Rhode Island and Vermont, states with much smaller Jewish populations than California. They didn’t get hung up on the speech. “I think there was a misunderstanding, honestly, and that was exacerbated by the media,” Rudzki said.
On the night of May 23, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stand to provide the closing remarks, delegates wondered how he would balance respect for Obama with his own position.
The ballroom was overtaken by security and men in dark suits waiting to pounce on hecklers, who interrupted Netanyahu throughout the first half of the speech, while the second half of the 30-minute address was uninterrupted, except for standing ovations.
“It was stirring,” Wolpe e-mailed minutes after the speech. “He clearly staked out Israel’s position, its fears and its promise. And his security guy looked fearsome.”
And while much of the conference was overshadowed by the Obama drama, for Feinstein the symbolic significance of the conference is what is most important.
“If you know Jewish history and you know the history of Israel [and] Zionism, and you realize the first Zionist Congress in 1897 had 204 delegates — there are 10,000 people here today. And you know during the second world war how difficult it was for American Jewish leaders to get the attention of the American government to rescue Jews — this was a miracle.”