April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The 2014 AIPAC Policy Conference took place at the Washington DC Convention Center from Sunday, March 2 to Tuesday, March 4, with the largest-ever crowd of 14,000 in attendance.   A Monday morning snowstorm shut down the Federal Government and DC public transportation, but it did not seem to dampen enthusiasm or put a dent in the AIPAC conference program.  (As Christian political activist, Ralph Reed, said during a panel session in the plenary, “I took a train from Atlanta when I found out we might not be able to fly, that’s how much I want to be here.”)   Jews, Christians, African Americans and Latinos attended from all 50 states, including more than 250 synagogue delegations and more than 2,000 students from 500 campuses.   Rosh Chodesh minyanim were attended by hundreds of people, as Orthodox Jews have been a significant and visible part of AIPAC conferences.   Several acres of kosher food are served in the Convention Center eating area.

Naturally, this year’s dominant topic continued to be the Iranian nuclear threat.  Secretary of State John Kerry, just before he left for the Ukraine, addressed the Conference in a direct and effective manner, speaking forcefully that the current negotiations with Iran are a last-chance effort for diplomacy to work before more coercive measures are employed, specifically naming strong sanctions, implicitly referring to military action.  The 70-year old Secretary Kerry is as knowledgeable about Israel as anyone, anywhere.  He was the 7th most senior member of the Senate, and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he became Secretary. His father was a career foreign service office.  Secretary Kerry had a perfect Senate voting record on Israel (as did fellow Massachusetts Catholic Senator Kennedy).  He has been to Israel countless times and knows it well.  In his speech, the Secretary invoked the famous words of Puritan minister John Withrop (his ancestor on his Mother’s side) who spoke of building a “city upon a hill” in America setting an example of righteousness to the world.  The Secretary compared it to Isaiah’s “light unto the nations” as a part of who Americans are, serving a common purpose and friendship between the two countries, a shared standard of dignity and freedom.

It is apparent from the Secretary’s interaction on the podium with AIPAC leadership that he enjoys strong, deep personal relationships with AIPAC and players in the Arab-Israel conflict.  He voted to authorize the Iraq War in 2002.  All well known.  What is not so well known is that the Secretary’s paternal grandparents, Fritz and Ida were Jewish, having changed their name from Cohn to Kerry.  Grandfather Fritz was from a family of Austrian brewers and shoemakers, Grandmother Ida was a Jewish musician from Budapest who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and is said to be descended from the Maharal of Prague.  The Secretary’s brother, a prominent lawyer in Boston, converted to Judaism and is married to a Jewish woman.

Secretary Kerry’s remarks matched the remarks of Prime Minister Netanyahu given the following day at AIPAC, which is not surprising since they spent much of Monday together.  Many regard this not as a mere coordination of message, but as true agreement on most issues.  Kerry addressed the Palestinian Arab peace process, in identical terms as Prime Minister Netanayu did the following day, asserting that peace must be aggressively pursued because the reward of peace is life and prosperity and tolerance, and the cost of war is death and impoverishment and hate.  He stressed that any peace agreement must guarantee Israel’s identity and recognition by Arabs as a Jewish homeland.

Many at the conference wondered privately if the Secretary’s talents, legislative experience and deep knowledge of the region will translate into his being an effective executer of international geopolitical/diplomatic process, experience which he does not have.  And if he will be given free rein by the President.

Senator Bob Menendez spoke to standing ovations, saying radical Islam is a great threat, and that America’s willingness to use military power is a force for positive change.  The Senator declared that he often works against people in his own party because he believes “continuous, punishing international sanctions” must be kept in place during all negotiations to give them a chance to be effective.  Senator Menendez emphasized Jewish history is attached to Israel for all time, Israel is not merely a refugee haven post-Holocaust.  “When it comes to Iran, I have stood with you and have stood against so many in my own party,” Menendez—chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and coauthor of the Menendez-Kirk Iran Sanctions Bill (S. 1881)—told delegates at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.

Menendez said, “Only intense punishing economic pressure influences Iranian leaders,” and the heat should be turned up until they can verify their concessions. “If negotiations fail, or if Iran breaks the deal, we may not have time to pass new sanctions,” he said. “New sanctions are not a spigot that can be turned on and off, as suggested. He also said that Iran’s strategy “is to use these negotiations to mothball its nuclear infrastructure program just long enough to undo the international sanctions regime.”

Olga Miranda, President of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees Union, termed the conference the “Jewish Superbowl.” In a spectacular and moving address (available on YouTube) Ms. Miranda identified herself as an Hispanic woman from a large family raised by a single mother who sympathized with the Palestinian Arab cause because she always identified and sympathized with the “underdog”.  Until she learned about Israel.   She declared her relationship with AIPAC has changed her life, admits she was wrong about Israel and feels an obligation to build bridges between Latinos and Jews.   Ms. Miranda stressed Israel is a model of immigration, teaching government how to  be humane and dignified in the treating immigrants, and teaching immigrants how to join and be part of society.   She is active working with students to counter misinformation about Israel presented by the media.  She declared Israel has made her more aware of American core values, which Israel shares.  “Thank you, AIPAC for extending your hand to my community….you have changed my opinion….I stand with Israel….I am AIPAC.”

A Teaneck resident (who declined to be identified) said he was attending his first AIPAC conference.  “It’s fantastic, the breakout sessions are so informative – information you cannot get anywhere else.  I definitely want to attend next year.”   Several new Israeli technologies were highlighted in the plenary and in the exhibit hall as indicative of the innovative spirit of the Israel economy.  Speakers from Colorado, Louisiana, Philippines and other places testified how great and inspiring the contributions Israelis made to disaster relief were.  A man from Colorado said “We didn’t even invite them; they just showed up on tourist visas to help and work hard.”  Prime Minister Netanyau stressed this theme in his address, saying many of the 1,000 Syrian injured being treated by Israel are changing their perceptions: “Assad told us Iran was our friend and Israel is our enemy, but Iran is killing us and Israel is saving us.”

By Shelly Freedman

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