June 12, 2008
Big AIPAC turnout signals newfound voice for Angelenos
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The conference focuses primarily on two things: education and lobbying.
"The ability to go on the hill and sit with a member of Congress and either thank them for what they do with support for American-Israel relations or, more importantly, meet someone who's uninformed and help educate them on the issues -- that's a very powerful thing, and to be able to do that as an ordinary citizen is very special," said Irv Weintraub, chief operating officer of the William Morris Agency.
While attending the Wexner Heritage Leadership program, Weintraub, now 54, was looking to get involved with a Jewish organization that had a national or international platform. As a leader in Hollywood, Weintraub also wanted to set an example -- not just with his checkbook, but also with his feet -- for colleagues in his industry.
"It's not about writing a check, because that's easy," Weintraub said. "It's very important that I be here, because it tells the community in which I live that it is important to be here. When you have leaders who step up and make those statements, people follow."
Weintraub added that there is a growing activism in the entertainment industry related to Jewish causes and Israel, but that Israel as a whole is sometimes too broad a category to justify supporting. Hollywood wants something specific to get behind.
Some say that is precisely the strength of AIPAC.
"AIPAC is a means of focusing American Jewry," said Sinai's Wolpe, who since January has been promoting attendance at the conference. "Politicians have a lot of stuff thrown at them, and they need something concrete and specific, and they can point to AIPAC to see how American Jews support Israel -- without that focus, it would be hard to pin down American Jewish support."
On the final day of the conference, 5,000 people went to the U.S. Capitol to lobby their congressional representatives regarding U.S. aid to Israel, halting Iranian nuclear proliferation and advocating Israel's right to defend itself against its enemies.
Concern over which presidential candidate will be best for Israel dominated discussions, with closest attention paid to Obama, whose allegiance to Israel has been a source of debate in recent months and whose limited track record on Israel renders him the most mysterious candidate.
But at AIPAC, bipartisanship is a central tenet of advocacy and is apparent throughout the conference.
"AIPAC brings together people who are highly partisan, bipartisan and partisan on the other side of the aisle, who all have one thing in common -- their love for Israel," said Howard Welinsky, 58, senior vice president for Warner Bros. Pictures Distributing.
The self-declared "die-hard Democrat" has been to Israel 11 times, and at every policy conference since 1992.
"I approach my pro-Israel activity in a very workman-like, business fashion," Welinsky said, avoiding sentimentalism to focus on his lobby appointments. "I feel like tomorrow, I have a job to do."
In 1989, while on a Federation-sponsored trip to Israel and Poland, where he visited Auschwitz and Germany, Welinsky had an epiphany.
"I just came to the conclusion that my life was too easy and too good, and I needed to invest more time in helping Israel."
His political activism began in California's Democratic Party in the mid-'70s, before he helped found Democrats for Israel Los Angeles, where he served as chair for several years. Most recently, he was appointed to the Democratic National Platform Committee, where he will support Obama's presidential bid.
AIPAC is the only place where Welinsky will cheer for Republicans.
"I'm as partisan as you can get, but how many times did I stand up for John McCain yesterday; and how many times in the past have I stood up for Newt Gingrich?"
For other West Coast liberals, there is reluctance to express bipartisan political support for legislators who have conflicting value systems, which poses a fundamental challenge to the Israel lobby.
Even though L.A. activism is on the rise, as representative of one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, Los Angeles still has a long way to go.
For starters, there is frustration that, in the absence of an L.A.-based political director (a position vacated when Marilyn Rosenthal was promoted to deputy national political director late last year), there will be difficulty moving forward, since the position is a strategic resource for both legislators and AIPAC members.
"I think we still have a lot more work to do," Kurtin-Steinberg said, after attending a leadership luncheon one afternoon. "This is an incredible beginning, but I hope it's not just a once-a-year event. Everybody in Los Angeles has to understand they have to build relationships with legislators and continue this process on a regular basis."
Others say that Angelenos are spoiled.
Between Reps. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Jane Harman (D-Venice) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) among others, the region enjoys unequalled pro-Israel political support from its congressional representatives. But with 50 or 60 potential new legislators entering Congress in the next election, the challenge will be to reach out to new legislators -- especially those from districts with small or nonexistent Jewish communities who might lack knowledge about Israel.
Some people in the L.A. community cite grievances with the way AIPAC portrays itself.
"There is a degree of self-congratulation and self-righteousness and moral obtuseness that goes on at this conference -- an insensitivity to mistakes Israel makes," VBS's Feinstein said. "There's this perception that first we'll get Israel safe, then we'll make Israel good. That's not the way Jews do things."
"There's an image of AIPAC among some Jews that it toes the line of the Israeli government and never expresses any criticism," Herscher said, which he believes is one reason some Jews are reluctant to engage with the pro-Israel political process.