From May 21 to 24, the America-Israel Political Affairs Committee held its annual Policy Conference summit in Washington D.C. The event attracted more than 10,000 people – the conference’s largest attendance to date. Educators, religious leaders, politicians, students and many non-Jewish groups such as a large delegation of pastors from “Christian Supporters of the Jewish state,” African Americans and Latinos flew into D.C. for the event.
The conference typically hosts important political figures; many US Senators and foreign delegates attend the conference. This year saw two-thirds of the US Congress in attendance. However, the keynote speakers that stole the show were US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu.
The theme of this year’s conference was keeping the Zionist activist spirit alive in future generations. The theme was representative of the special attention the older delegation of each AIPAC Policy Conference places on the student delegation – this year totaling over 1,500 student leaders in attendance – made up of students from universities all across the country. AIPAC places much importance on understanding how to reach out to college-age Zionists and knowing where they are coming from.
Kimberly Duenas, a student from Laguna Niguel who attends the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, shared with me her feelings on being part of the AIPAC student delegation, as well as a Zionist student activist in general.
“I went to AIPAC with a Hasbara Fellowships California Delegation on a scholarship from the Milstein Family Foundation. It provides financial support for student leaders committed to pro-Israel activism,” Duenas explained. “I wanted to attend AIPAC to take my activism to a whole new level and learn from some of the most influential people working for Israel on Capitol Hill.”
Each conference plays host to dozens of breakout sessions, mini-seminars designed to educate its attendees on specific aspects of the complex situations surrounding Israel. Among the breakout sessions that stuck with Duenas were “The Changing Face of the Pro-Israel Movement” and “The Global Media Versus Israel.” The former, Duenas said, explored why Latinos, African Americans and Christians support the relationship between the US and Israel and how they show that support. The three speakers, she said, were “all extremely successful either in the business world or politically” and discussed why they take the time to educate others about Israel. The latter seminar went into detail about the often one-sided and misinformed tack that global media take with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We face an enormous challenge in projecting the truth about Israel though people who founded organizations such as The Israel Project and CAMERA,” Duenas said, “who work tirelessly to ensure that Israel is being portrayed in a just way.”
It has become expected to see a small group of anti-Israel supporters outside the Washington Convention Center on the days the Policy Conference is being held. An even smaller delegation of anti-Zionist Haredim rabbis tends to join them. This year, though, introduced a rather bizarre display of anti-Israel activism outside the center. When walking by the people parading around in puffy mock-Netanyahu costumes, toting effigies, playing drum circles on a small stage, dressed as clowns, it was almost easy for one to think the entire display was mocking the anti-Zionist movement. However, the protestors this year were a little more accepting of the AIPAC attendees; one courageous AIPAC student even took to their stage and microphone to debate with the entire crowd.
As excited as most students are to attend the conference and be in proximity of thousands of other like-minded people, many also look forward to the free time between conferences or breakout sessions to explore the city of Washington D.C. When night falls, many students head out to the bars and dance clubs in the area. Students also typically make at least one trip to the major monuments in the city. When walking around D.C. during the Policy Conference, it’s not uncommon to bump into a group of people wearing AIPAC nametags.
“We headed to the Metro subway [from the Smithsonian garden] to get back to the convention center. As we were sitting down, we heard some people speaking Hebrew,” Duenas related animatedly. “We started talking to them and it turns out, they were Netanyahu’s flight attendants!”
The Policy Conference is a great place for students to get a taste of hardcore pro-Israel activism and, perhaps even more importantly, network. Many influential figures, even aside from politicians, attend the event; two years ago, Michael Morhaime, CEO of computer gaming giant Blizzard Entertainment, attended the conference.
“I returned to California with more than sharpened activism skills, but also motivation; I was genuinely inspired by everyone’s commitment to Israel,” Duenas related. “The amount of political representation — senators, representatives, policy makers — publicly declaring commitment to Israel was encouraging and empowering. I’m excited to go back to my university and implement new strategies for educating students.”
On the last day of the conference, the entire Policy Conference delegation is divided into groups based on their county. They board buses and trek up to Capitol Hill, where they meet with their respective senator to share with him or her their concerns about Israel and America, as well to lobby any pertinent political issues.
“Attending AIPAC was a valuable experience,” Duenas said, “especially as a university student. During these crucial, formative years, investing energy and time into a movement such as AIPAC not only makes for an educated individual, but also a distinguished person who possesses the power to teach others and influence change. I look forward to attending next year!”