Thursday, March 30, 2017

Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference, 2017

My wife and I attended our third annual American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 25th - 28th.  AIPAC is an American lobby group that promotes the U.S./Israeli alliance.  Last year's conference featured presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (see post below on the 2016 conference).  This year, not facing an election, neither spoke, though a number of government notables did.

Conference organizers were more concerned about terrorism this time, after a year of rising tensions in the Middle East and just about everywhere. Security was thorough at the two conference venues, the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, at least near the doors. The lines were long when high officials were scheduled, for instance the two hour line around the Verizon Center to see Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Police cars with flashing lights surrounded much of the perimeter, though not all, and people in line were vulnerable on those stretches since it would have been easy to launch an assault on portions of the streets without police. At one point a long, quiet line of protesters carrying Palestinian flags walked down the sidewalk between our line and the building.  I was a foot or so from them, my putative enemies. They walked silently, looking down and avoiding eye contact.  It seemed a predetermined strategy.

Sunday's general session opened with AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus' remarks.  She harkened back to last year's conference when tensions rose between younger members who cheered Clinton when she attacked Trump, and older members who cheered Trump when he attacked Clinton. Pinkus made a heroic attempt to maintain neutrality last year, but was perceived by some as leaning towards Clinton.  In her formulation this year she decried "people who want to divide pro-Israeli Americans," leaving wiggle room for interpretation.

There was a beautiful and intense presentation about the work of Amnon Weinstein, who salvaged discarded violins that Jewish prisoners in the Nazi camps were forced to play as people filed into gas chambers.  Weinstein restored the violins and gave them new meaning.  The presentation included a performance on one of Weinstein's violins by musician Hagai Shaham of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah ("The Hope") that shook the soul.

The first test of the attempted neutrality came that evening when Vice President Mike Pence said that America's bond with Israel is strong because of (loudly shouting) "Donald J. Trump!"  People throughout the auditorium stood and cheered wildly.  I did an unscientific survey of nearby sections and found that in each row about half the people were cheering and the other half were silent.  The woman sitting next to my wife stood suddenly and said, "I can't take this anymore" and left (she came back later with a giant bag of popcorn).

Jews are starkly divided on Trump, especially since the Obama administration abstained in December on U.N. resolution 2334, which stated that Israeli settlements in "Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem," have no legal validity, a point of heated contention.  Many Jews, both Trump and Obama/Clinton supporters, were alarmed by the resolution because it took sides prior to negotiation. Trump played his card by opposing the resolution, unifying Jewish Trump supporters behind him and severely disorienting Jews who support Clinton. 

It was refreshing to veer away from politics for a while in the breakout sessions.   I attended one titled, "Women and the Struggle for Human Rights in the Middle East," partly as a follow-up to our visit the previous day to Washington's outstanding National Museum of Women in the Arts, which displays brilliant female artists sidelined in the art world by a bias towards males.  [An aside: The gift shop sold Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf dolls. I wondered how comforting they would be.  The exhibit included a Judy Chicago ceramic piece, in Chicago's signature vulvar shape, called "Virginia Woolf."  Does that make sense?  If I become a famous writer, should I be represented by a ceramic penis?]

The AIPAC women's rights session featured a panel of female speakers from State Department and university groups which addressed familiar aspects of female oppression such as genital mutilation, restrictions from education and politics, honor killings and more.  One woman from a university group said that empowering women in the workplace would add $28 trillion to the region's economy.  The woman from the State Department talked about the banning of Afghan women from the Loya jirga, a traditionally all-male Pashtun governing body.  She said that during the Afghan war her group lobbied successfully for a U.S. requirement that women be represented on the Loya jirga. At this point I felt some doubt. How fully were women represented on the Loya jirga?  Without the U.S. presence, are they represented now?

It seemed an important point.  The panel did not address the male Loya jirga members' reactions to and comprehension of the mandated female members, nor the efficacy of the American policy's attempt to change their culture.  My guess is that the policy had zero efficacy, and may even have been counterproductive, driving men into a smoldering resentment and encouraging them to bide their time until they could find violent release. Like most forums on women's issues, the panel did not appear to consider understanding of men's issues to be critical for achieving their goals.  90% of the panel audience were women, and I wondered how the presentation would be different if it had included men, on the panel and in the audience. One of the impediments to changing the world so that women have equality of power with men is that no one talks about the ways in which men are swimming against the tide. Do women understand in clear detail what it is like to be a man?  We joke about how hard it is for men to understand women.  Could the reverse be true as well? 

One question I would like explored in a more inclusive dialogue is, "Has the transition from hunter-gathering societies to agricultural and urban confinement frustrated male desires in ways that differ from females' reactions to those changes?"  A follow-up question might be, "Do male difficulties in adjusting to urban confinement matter as much as female difficulties?" Unless men are about to become obsolete through genetic engineering, the answer would appear to be yes, but that's just this reporter's opinion.  

The sense of incompleteness in the women's discussion extended to the political speakers.  Most of them said nothing beyond the obvious speaking points, so you can summarize the positions of Pence, Ryan, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, commentator Alan Dershowitz, Israeli politicians Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennet, America's UN ambassador Nikki Haley and others as follows:

1. Israel is among the foremost technological innovators in the world and is helping mankind in a number of ways.

2. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east, and as such gives more rights to Palestinians than they get in any Arab country.

3. Obama's Iran Deal endangers America and Israel.

4. Israel is America's most loyal ally in the region.

Position #1 can be accepted without debate, but 2-4 are ideas subject to differing perspectives, useful for agreeing to disagree.  One person's democracy is another's deep state tyranny.  One person's ally is another's threat.  If the public knows nothing about the Iran deal, then flipping a coin makes as much sense as trying to figure it out. Positions like these are like the positions for and against abortion, producing no resolution, only endless debate.  How many times, for instance, do we need to hear an argument about whether a fetus has a soul, or whether God promised Abraham the West Bank, or the meaning of Muhammad's dream that he flew through the night to Jerusalem?   The positions have in common that none of them can be conclusively proven. That makes them useless for any purpose other than continued disagreement.

Reactions to the 2014 Gaza/Israeli war offer a good example of fruitless argumentation.  The asymmetry of casualties in that war- sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven Israeli civilians killed versus 2,110 Gazans- troubled many Jews, including me. The usual course of argument for the Israeli side involves the allegation that Hamas, which rules Gaza, had built a system of tunnels deep into Israeli territory, under inhabited towns, from which it planned to detonate explosions on the Jewish High Holy Days, when families gather, that would have produced casualties comparable to 9/11, and that this necessitated a strong military response from Israel. Hamas denies the tunnel accusation, and people have been left with no criteria for choosing which side to support other than choosing the side they associate with.  

A more productive line of defense for both Israel and the Gazan people would be to question the strategic point and morality of the rockets Hamas routinely fired into Israel leading up to the 2014 war.  These were unsophisticated rockets which, though they produced sporadic physical harm, had no policy impact on Israel other than to rationalize its response. It would be fair to say that Hamas, in launching the rockets, betrayed the people of Gaza by giving Israel a rationale for an asymmetrical attack while not producing any tactical advantages for the Palestinian cause in Gaza. Why then should people who care about human rights not demonize Hamas along with Israel?  A discussion that paints one side as monopolizing evil will obviously reach no resolution. Of course, resolution may not be the goal.

There were many brilliant people at the AIPAC Policy Conference.  It was masterfully organized and engaging. Unfortunately, society's discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as with its discussions of gender rights, is incomplete.  Good intentions abound, but public discussion goes nowhere.