Opinions: A Reflection on the AIPAC Policy Conference

Author’s note: I spent the first weekend of spring break in DC for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference.  AIPAC is a political group “working to strengthen relations between the United States and Israel”, and this year’s conference featured prominent pro-Israel speakers, including Senator Chuck Schumer, Secretary John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.  Below is my reflection on, and response to, the 2014 AIPAC Policy Conference.  The arguments reflect only my own views, and not those of any organizations with which I am affiliated.

No matter your opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there seems to be at least one empirically obvious fact on which we can all agree: the situation is complicated. Yet even this basic premise does not figure into AIPAC’s framing of the state of affairs in the Middle East. Indeed, AIPAC paints a picture of an Israel that can do no wrong and a Palestine that is nothing but an aggressor. They pay lip service to approval of a two-state solution, but unequivocally deny that Israel has done anything to impede progress towards a lasting resolution. Aside from being historically questionable, such a view is harmful to the entire project of pursuing peace. A complex situation demands nuanced discussion, and every day that we allow ideologues to dominate the discourse with oversimplified applause lines is another day that people on both sides of the border suffer the consequences of conflict.

But perhaps more perniciously, AIPAC’s dichotomous presentation of the situation actively facilitates the complete dehumanization of the Palestine people. It was ironically stated on a panel this weekend that trips to Israel, which are coordinated and funded through AIPAC, help show lawmakers and activists “the human aspect” of the conflict. But this claim seems obviously false. AIPAC-funded trips to Israel might provide some perspective on one side of the border, but to suggest they present a comprehensive picture of the human costs of the conflict is to implicitly deny the full humanity of the Palestinian people. To speak of human consequences on one side of the border without actively acknowledging and showing genuine concern for abject poverty on the other is to imply that the other side of the border is not worth caring about. AIPAC’s disregard for the suffering of the Palestinians is only thus sustainable insofar as Palestinians are viewed as less than human. Indeed, based on the speeches and panels at AIPAC, one would never know the poverty and economic deprivation that are a daily reality in Palestine.

Too often, both at AIPAC and in American political discourse more generally, “Palestinian” is synonymous with “terrorist”, without any effort made to understand or even acknowledge their rich cultural and religious heritage. At a minimum, this viewpoint allows Americans to ignore the oppression of millions of people. But in practice, it also blames the Palestinians for their own suffering.  They wouldn’t be oppressed, the argument goes, if they weren’t such Israel-hating, anti-Semitic terrorists. The Palestinian people wouldn’t live in poverty if only they were more civilized. As though there is something wrong with refusing to accept exile and occupation as historical, or even cosmological, necessities. Indeed, on the same panel described above, a sitting Democratic Congressman claimed that a two-state solution was against the will of the Palestinians, who all want, he asserted without evidence, to see Israel destroyed. While the absurdity of this statement should be apparent, it was accepted as uncontroversial by the crowd at AIPAC. So long as one of the most powerful forces in American politics views the Palestinian people as an a-human amalgam at best, and a force of inhumane evil at worst, there can be no lasting peace.

In order to make peace, we must dispel the false notion that one cannot be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.  We must resist AIPAC’s ideological rigidity and make space in our political discourse for both a recognition of the full humanity of the Palestinians, and thus a genuine concern for their oppression, as well as the acceptability of legitimate criticism of Israel. Those who truly want peace will not only criticize Hamas for firing rockets into Southern Israel, but will also criticize Israel for building illegal settlements on the sovereign land of the Palestinians. Those who truly want peace will not forget the displacement of Palestinians by Israeli paramilitary groups in 1948, nor will they scoff at the legitimate claims to a right of return for Palestinian refugees. Those who truly want peace will not, as the crowd at AIPAC did, sit in silence when Secretary Kerry correctly describes Mahmoud Abbas as a “partner in peace”. Just as we are rightly concerned about young children in Tsederot, Israel with PTSD, we should be concerned about young children in Gaza who starve because of the Israeli blockade, and we should be able to voice that concern.  Peace will only come when we are allowed to openly criticize Israel where criticism is warranted, and AIPAC is indisputably an obstacle to the fair-minded dialogue that is required.

I’d like to close on a different note, though, in addressing an argument made by speakers often during the conference: namely, that the legacy of the Holocaust demands the ultra-hawkish, pro-Israel stance that AIPAC defends.  I am a Jew, and as such, I take the Holocaust very seriously.  But I can think of no greater affront to the memory of those who faced extermination at the hands of the Nazis than to use the Holocaust as a means of passing over, or even justifying, further oppression.  Indeed, while the historical and theological consequences of the Holocaust for Jews are manifold and still being discerned, surely one must be the clear imperative for Jews to vehemently oppose oppression of any kind, whether it is Jews or Palestinians who suffer.

To apply an imprimatur of unqualified moral rightness to Israel’s every action is clearly misguided, but to do so on the basis of the historical fact of the Holocaust should be sacrilege for Jews, insofar as this exploits our historical oppression to rationalize present oppression of others.  Using our history to justify acts of oppression is not only antithetical to the peace process, but is fundamentally opposed to the notion of tikkun olam, mending the whole world, which ought to be central to Jewish understandings of justice.  Opposing and critiquing the oppression of the Palestinians, then, is not simply important to the pursuit of peace, but is a Jewish moral imperative, one that does not, in my view, contradict the concurrent moral imperative of ensuring Jewish survival.

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