‘This Year at the AIPAC Policy Conference’

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. (Credit: Jill Kirsch)

Last year was my first time at the AIPAC Policy Conference, but AIPAC has been a part of my family for years. My husband is the faculty adviser to the AIPAC club at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and for almost a decade we have heard every detail about each year’s conference. And every year I have been inspired to say, “Next year I’m going with you.”

“Next year at the policy conference” became a refrain in my house.

Last year, my husband was honored at the conference for his longtime commitment to AIPAC. I had to support my husband, I thought, so with this excuse firmly in hand, I decided that I would join him. Finally, “next year” became “this year.”

Despite all that I had heard about the policy conference, I was unprepared for the sheer magnitude of...well, everything. Overwhelming doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. From the security to the number of attendees to the speakers to the size of the convention center itself, the AIPAC Policy Conference was huge.

Last year, I had the privilege of hearing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N Nikki Haley’s speech, when she announced there was a “new sheriff in town” to thunderous applause. And I have to admit I had tears in my eyes when Vice President Mike Pence expressed his and the Trump administration’s unwavering support for Israel.

“Next year at the policy conference.” My decision to return this year was firm. But a part of me wondered what a second policy conference would be like. Same old, same old? Been there, done that? It didn’t matter. I was going.

I am happy to report that this year’s conference did not disappoint. For those of you who have never been, just imagine being in a room surrounded by close to 20,000 people, all of whom are there for the same reason: to support the U.S.-Israel relationship.

I was surprised and delighted at being present for the proverbial passing of the torch. The outgoing president of AIPAC introduced and welcomed its new president: Dr. Mort Fridman of Teaneck! His rousing inaugural speech moved and motivated audience members, and I felt an immediate connection to this “fellow Teanecker,” no disrespect to my hometown of West Orange intended.

Dr. Fridman gave an impassioned shout-out to the many high school and college students in attendance. We had been told that there were over 3,500 students at the conference this year, and those individuals are our future activists and leaders, noted Dr. Fridman. The theme of the 2018 conference was “choose to lead,” and these young people have chosen to lead the next generation into a brighter future. This sentiment was echoed by Senator Chuck Schumer the following day when he said, “Students, stand up so we can applaud you,” by Senator Robert Menendez, who stated, “It’s important that you’re here. I salute you; I thank you, and I ask everyone here to join me in applauding you,” and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday when he joked, “Thank you for cutting class to be here.”

Dr. Fridman spoke of unity: bipartisan unity, denominational unity and unity between Jews and non-Jews, and the importance of unity to Israel’s future and its relationship with the U.S. Addressing the different groups represented at the conference, he concluded, “At AIPAC, your history, your stories, your passion and perspective are needed to ensure the Israel-U.S. bond for generations to come...we must approach each challenge together.”

The next part of the program was something I will not soon forget. Dr. Bracha Zisser, the manager of Israel’s Ezer Mizion bone marrow registry, brought together a recipient and his family with his donor. I could not stop the flow of tears as Steven Arnow and Gev Blau, his 25-year-old donor, met and hugged for the first time, and Arnow welcomed his “son” to the family.

Emotions were running high, and as a video presentation of Israeli innovations played on the dozen large screens in the front of the cavernous hall, a 20-second glimpse of Ambassador Haley visiting one of the terror tunnels drew such thunderous applause that AIPAC’s Managing Director of National Affairs Elliot Brandt asked the crowd to please “hold your applause for about a day and a half,” reminding us that we would be hearing her speak on Monday evening.

Sunday evening’s general assembly presentation included another emotional moment, as Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced his country’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his intention to “return and permanently move [Guatemala’s] embassy to Jerusalem...two days after the U.S. moves its embassy” this May.

Come Monday, it became clear that the conference was leading up to that evening’s speeches by Vice President Pence and, especially, Ambassador Haley. With Secret Service posted throughout the building and on high alert, the extra layer of security created a long wait to re-enter the general assembly room, but attendees were patient as they emptied purses and pockets, turning on laptops and tablets for inspection, and allowing themselves to be searched with security wands before entering.

An hour into the evening session, Ambassador Haley was announced. The cheers, applause and standing ovation was almost awkward in its length—in a good way. Like the conference itself, Nikki Haley
did not disappoint. “When I come to AIPAC, I am with friends,” she began, noting that “standing up for your friends is crucial.” Her entire speech was punctuated with continued cheers, and even shouts of “We love you, Nikki,” to which she humbly replied, “I love you, too.” When she left the stage, every attendee who was physically able was on their feet. I suspect there were many sore throats in Washington that night after all the shouting.

Ambassador Haley was followed by Senator Schumer, whose words continued her message: America has Israel’s back. With these true friends of Israel as the opening act for Vice President Pence, the anticipation was palpable. “America stands with Israel: today, tomorrow and always.” That was the promise the vice president brought from President Trump, adding that America “will never compromise the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel.”

The final morning brought U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to the podium. A calm and deliberate speaker, his message was twofold: pride in the administration’s accomplishments, and Israel’s need and desire for peace. Finally, it was time to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Despite his troubles at home, the prime minister confidently strode onto the stage amid cheers and applause. His address was filled with power and raw emotion and a sincere love for the U.S. and the Trump administration, and he walked the stage rather than remaining behind the podium in an effort to get closer to the audience. “Is this OK?” he asked rhetorically as he left the podium. “Hey, what the heck—I’m the prime minister.”

Bibi’s message was simple. “We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran,” he said, as he went on to explain why stopping Iran is crucial to Israel, the region and the world.

By mid-morning the speeches concluded, leaving me feeling proud of our elected officials and in awe of the support for Israel I had seen throughout the conference.

Emotions at the AIPAC Policy Conference cross party lines and transcend denominations and religions. The press is known for being impartial, which is often appropriate; however, for me, at this conference, emotions also transcend the expectation of stoicism. Of course I was touched. Of course I was part of the thousands giving the speakers standing ovations. This conference is more than “just news.” It is part of us. It is important—for us and our children. It matters.

I left the convention center having learned a couple of things. I learned that a second trip to the policy conference was decidedly not “same old, same old,” and I imagine that third, fourth and subsequent trips will not be either. I also learned that I will be going back. The U.S.-Israel relationship is important and I need to support it, along with the thousands of others who attend year after year.

This year at the AIPAC Policy Conference. Next year at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

By Jill Kirsch

Jill Kirsch is the senior editor at The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut, and she fully intends to become an annual attendee at the AIPAC Policy Conference.