I've been working as teacher's assistant at my temple's religious school for the past four years. I love teaching my second-graders their first Hebrew letters. I love watching my sixth-graders find Israel on a map. But what I love most is the connection my job gives me to Judaism and to Israel, where I hope to travel during college. That is why I jumped at my grandfather's invitation to attend the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington D.C., where I could join more than 1,000 students and 4,000 adults in discussing the future of Israel. I returned from the conference, however, feeling manipulated, disturbed and disgusted with a great deal of what I witnessed there.
The first thing I noticed about the conference, besides the sheer volume of participants, was the carefully manufactured atmosphere of fear and urgency. The cavernous hall that hosted all our meals and plenary sessions was always filled with dramatic classical music, red lighting and gigantic signs reading "Now Is The Time." That, combined with the montages of terrorism footage projected onto six giant screens, whipped the audience into a "Save Israel" fervor that most found inspiring. By the time we finished our meal, the audience seemed eager to agree to anything that would protect Israel -- even war.
The conservative slant of the conference became obvious as I chose "Policy Perspectives: How the Democrats and Republicans View Foreign Affairs" for my first breakout session. The Republican speaker, John Podhoretz of The New York Post, got to have the first word and the last word on almost every question. Podhoretz insulted the Democratic Party, calling it "schizophrenic" and "weak" because of its division on certain issues, and calling Democratic protests about the Iraq war "inappropriate and dangerous."
Democratic speaker Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democratic Network, responded: "Debate, besides being a sign of health in a party, is important to any democracy." He addressed the "mishandling" of the Iraq war: "The Republican Party only cares about winning the war militarily, which isn't enough. We need to win culturally as well. We need to win the war and win the peace. The Republicans have won the war, but lost the peace."
Podhoretz interrupted, saying that the Democrats should have been "loyal and responsible" by supporting the war, instead of "hostile."
The mealtime plenary sessions taught me the most about the mindset of our country and about the art of rhetoric. Each speaker played upon the audience's deepest fears and greatest hopes. Even after four days, it never ceased to amaze me how easy it was to get a standing ovation out of the crowd. Even platitudes such as "I believe in democracy" or, even better, "I believe in Israel" had the crowds on their feet. How much political integrity and courage does it take to say "I will defend Israel" to thousands of pro-Israel activists? Flattery seemed to work as well, which acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proved by saying, "Thank God we have AIPAC."
Overall, I felt the conference made every issue black and white. You're either for Israel or against it. You're either pro-Democracy or pro-evil regimes, as Israeli candidate for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it, "The world is split between those who oppose terror and those who appease it."
The speakers and "informational" videos left no grey area, no place for dialogue or debate, and certainly no place for dissent. I especially squirmed at the parallels AIPAC drew between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hitler. To the tune of more dramatic classical music, the six enormous screens flashed back and forth between Hitler giving anti-Jew speeches and Ahmadinejad giving anti-Israel speeches. The famous post-Holocaust mantra "Never Again" popped up several times. Everything was geared toward persuading the audience that another Holocaust is evident ... unless we get them first. Now, I don't dispute that Iran's leader is a Holocaust denier or even that he could attack Israel, but I mind very much being forced to think he's pure evil through clever sound bites and colorful images.
The screens faded to black and the speeches began, and I recognized, beneath the rhetoric, a battle cry. As U.N. Ambassador John Bolton promised "painful and tangible consequences for Iran," and as Vice President Dick Cheney said, "The terrorists have declared war on the civilized world, but we'll declare victory," I noted the scariest division of all: You're either pro-war or pro-Holocaust.
Despite all this madness, I did enjoy some aspects of the conference. First of all, picture the hilarity of thousands of Jews staying in the same hotel. Phrases like "Could you shlep this bag up to my room, please?" or "I'm shvitzing like a pig" were common in the lobby. I also loved meeting students from around the country, regardless of whether I agreed with them politically. The chance to hear all three candidates for Israeli prime minister via satellite was also priceless. But in reflection, after returning from the belly of the conservative beast, I support Israel with all my heart, but I do not support AIPAC.
Alice Ollstein is a senior at Santa Monica High School.