“Come Together,” the global theme of last week’s AIPAC Conference in Washington, inspired a passionate feeling of togetherness that was unexpected at the outset.
The imperative of unity of purpose in support of Israel was on constant display throughout the conference. From small buttons on lanyards to oversized video displays dubbed Together Cams that dominated the stage at the Verizon Center, the message was very clear: Politics aside, we were all there, regardless of party affiliation, to support an unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.
As an AIPAC first-timer, I was free (from the very first moment I passed through the secret-service level of security) of the baggage of experience, and therefore could bounce from one event to another unburdened with any preconceived notions or expectations.
I realized early on just how powerful the media are in terms of manipulating expectations. Let me give you an example. Before Donald Trump spoke, the buzz for days had centered on the likelihood of protests and walkouts greeting his appearance.
My wife in Los Angeles reminded me by phone (yes, we actually talk on the phone) numerous times to protect our 17-year-old daughter from protesters who might get violent. But true to AIPAC fashion, all I experienced was the pleasing aroma of respect and reverence that permeates the air when we remember the true calling of derech eretz.
This notion of doing things for the good of the community was a common thread in many of the short videos shown between speaking events. To cite just two examples: the efforts of IsraAID to be first on the scene in disaster efforts around the world, and the work of the Israeli army’s Roim Rachok program, designed to integrate those with special needs, such as autism or other learning disabilities, into the IDF. The stories of so many heroes acting on behalf of the Jewish people brought tears to one’s eyes.
An unprecedented number of synagogue groups and AIPAC attendees from all 50 states came together just to have lunch. This group of thousands was introduced to Natan Sharansky, who immediately won the audience over with a joke about how he could have spent ten more minutes with the audience were it not for the very unnecessary and lengthy introduction he’d been given.
Our synagogue (Bnai David Judea) joined with other Los Angeles-area synagogues representing a wide spectrum of Orthodoxy to have a private briefing with former ambassador Michael Oren. As much as we enjoyed his compelling and revealing anecdotes (he didn’t want to leave, although he kept getting waived away by his assistants), what I found most compelling was that such a wide variety of attendees, from so many different shuls, felt more of a bond with each other than we do back home, where we all live within roughly one square mile. To experience such togetherness, under one roof for one purpose, in and of itself made the 3,000-mile trip worthwhile.
If you came to the AIPAC conference looking for conflict, you walked away empty-handed. The vibe was all about finding ways to bring people together in support of Israel. This was not some superficial love fest replete with empty gestures. There were displays of real solidarity and a palpable effort to deliver a unifying and empowering message that what’s good for Israel and America is good for the world.
I met a group of Christians from Oklahoma, each of whom has visited Israel several times, who were thrilled to be at AIPAC. We all reminisced about how powerful the feeling was to walk the streets of Jerusalem and other biblical cities. Sometimes a shared history is all it takes to bring people together.
One of my takeaways from the conference was the positive energy that comes from looking for ways to connect rather than expending energy on finding ways to stand apart and be divisive. I belong to a group of business people in Los Angeles who follow the mantra of ‘Know, Like, Trust, and Refer.’ At AIPAC we learned how to apply a similar message, with a slight nuance, to our relationships with congressmen and local politicians:’ Know, Like, Trust, and Support Israel.’
On Monday morning, before Hillary Clinton delivered what some felt was the best speech of her life to a Jewish audience, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer sat on stage and while high-fiving each other agreed that when they travel abroad they are neither Democrat nor Republican – just American. And when it comes to Israel, they agreed that the U.S. needed to make sure Israel has what it needs to be able to defend itself and remain secure and sovereign.
All the presidential candidates who spoke – Clinton and Trump and Cruz and Kasich – had different variations of the same message: They would not allow the United Nations Security Council to bypass Israel’s right to protect its present and future.
I was there with three generations of Ciments, including my 17-year-old daughter, my parents, and my aunt and uncle. I mention this because although each of us experienced the AIPAC Policy Conference through differing lenses of age, life experience, and values, we all seemed able to hone in on the core messages we heard from event to event.
There is a popular notion that people look forward to coming to AIPAC to hear platitudes. A few of the speakers, such as Vice President Joe Biden in his Sunday night address, even acknowledged that some of their statements could be seen as trite and shallow.
And yet, despite the thought that they were probably preaching to the choir, it felt really good to be in that particular choir.
And when the patriotic music was booming and the red and blue “Come Together” messages were flashing from video screens all around the 18,000 choir members – Jewish and Christian, white, black, and Latino – who had come together to support Israel, all I could think of was: Where do I sign up for next year?