May 27, 2005

Frontline: Now I remember you


For a community struggling to find ways to generate interest among American Jews in Jewish communal life, there was a hint this week in Washington of something that actually does the trick: Israel.

This week's collection of some 5,000 Jews at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington represented the largest Jewish conference of the year. Similarly, next month's Salute to Israel Parade in New York, on June 5, will mark the largest annual Jewish event in America. Tens of thousands of marchers and hundreds of thousands of spectators are expected.

It wasn't always like this for the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. As recently as five years ago, the annual AIPAC conference only drew about 1,500 people, which was far less than the other major annual conference of American Jews, the autumnal General Assembly of North American Jewish federations.

Four years of intifada changed that, however, as AIPAC conferences grew and GAs struggled.

Last fall, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled his plans to attend the GA in Cleveland, and even Shimon Peres backed out at the last minute. In the end, about 2,800 Jews attended, which was significantly less than each of the previous three years.

This week, AIPAC drew not only Sharon, but US Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice, senior members of the Senate and House of Representatives, a host of Knesset members, more than half the members of the US Congress, and plenty of Jewish movers and shakers.

On the whole, the crowd at AIPAC was younger, wealthier and more energized than the crowd at the GA.

Part of it has to do with the nature of the gatherings. Supporting Israel and meeting with members of Congress to urge them to strengthen the US-Israel alliance is more exciting than talking about strategies to raise money for Jewish federations. Furthermore, the assemblage at AIPAC wasn't exactly representative of American Jewry: Those who came were already quite connected to Israel and tended to be relatively wealthy (in typical AIPAC fashion, members' badges identified their level of financial support for the organization-hardly the classless Jewish society Israel's socialist founders envisioned).

But the conference also drew nearly 1,000 students, Jews of all ages and even some non-Jews. Representatives of Jewish organizations across the political spectrum came to AIPAC, while the GA failed to lure even some of the largest US Jewish groups. And while the organizers of the federation conference in November made little effort to provide attendees in Cleveland either with kosher food or with minyans in a place where neither could be had with ease, AIPAC went out of its way to list minyans on its public schedule and provide more than 26,000 kosher meals-both of which helped draw a sizeable Orthodox crowd.

The significance of the impressive showing at the AIPAC parley was not so much that it was a sign of the organization's strength, but that it underscored the importance of Israel to American Jews, particularly those for whom other aspects of Jewish communal activity-such as funding Jewish education, encouraging in-marriage or going to synagogue-might not seem so urgent, important or interesting.

Many people skipped work and spent a lot of money to come to AIPAC. They came because they wanted to show their support for Israel, to get the chance to meet US politicians and Israeli officials, to bolster AIPAC at a time of potential trouble for the organization due to the FBI probe of two ex-employees over possible espionage charges, or simply to hang out with fellow Jews.

Indeed, for the younger set, the AIPAC conference seemed as much an opportunity for meeting Jews of the opposite sex as it was for showing support for Israel. At one nighttime event for the organization's young leadership, buxom blondes from the Pacific Northwest mingled with slender men from the East Coast at a bar at the Washington Hilton till the wee hours of Monday morning.

Everybody came for their own reasons, and in the end it was the ritual of AIPAC that mattered more than the substance of the conference.

The American Jewish community got to show its support for Israel and demonstrate its power to Congress. US senators, congressmen and Bush administration officials got the rare opportunity to brandish their pro-Israel credentials to 5,000 well-moneyed, well-connected and powerful people. High-level donors got the thrill of having private audiences senior Israeli and US officials. AIPAC got to show that the FBI investigation of two of its former staffers has not sapped the lobby's clout.

And, last but not least, Sharon got the chance not only to rally support for his disengagement plan, but to get a boost from American Jews. When the prime minister walked onto the stage at the closing plenary of the conference to deliver his address, he was met with a two-minute standing ovation from 5,000 people. That's not something he's used to getting.

Sharon didn't quite know what to do with the adulation, squinting under the bright lights while his face alternated between a delighted smile he wasn't sure he should show and his usual serious look of determination. The crowd applauded wildly. Sharon appeared buoyant, interspersing his prepared remarks with ad libs and even a couple of jokes.

When he was finished, the audience applauded madly and then went home. So did Sharon.

The challenge now for Sharon will be to generate anything near that level of enthusiasm and support in Israel. And the challenge for American Jewry will be to get Jews as excited and energized about other aspects of Jewish communal life. It looks to be an uphill battle for both.