Minnesotans awed by huge AIPAC assembly
By MARSHALL HOFFMAN / Special to the AJW
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Minnesotans who were part of the largest-ever delegation from the Gopher State to attend an AIPAC Policy Conference, held earlier this month, seemed genuinely blown away by the sheer size of the event, which itself set an attendance record at more than 16,000 delegates. Minnesota sent just shy of 200 people to the event.
“It’s incredible to be in this space,” said Temple of Aaron member Lisa Lerman. “There are people from all over sharing a common interest. It’s really powerful.”
Her thoughts were echoed by Beth El Synagogue’s Ariel Biel.
“Living in Minnesota, you don’t get a lot of feel for people supporting Israel,” she said. “But it’s an incredible feeling being surrounded by 16,000 supporters.”
Temple of Aaron’s Mark Lerman was impressed at how AIPAC is “impacting how Americans view Israel.”
Beth El’s Rabbi Avi Olitzky has seen the delegation grow every year since he began attending the conference with them in 2008.
“It’s part of a grassroots effort by the synagogues about what it means to be a citizen lobbyist and a citizen activist,” he said, noting that the AIPAC conference has become the epicenter for Israel advocacy.
“There are one of every 1,000 Jews [in the world] at the conference,” Olitzky added. “When you think of it like that, it becomes representative of the world community, and to not be a part of that is missing out on something big.”
Of course, not all attendees were Jewish. JoAnn Magnuson, a member of Christians United For Israel (CUFI) who joined AIPAC in 1981, said she was “very happy to see the hundreds here to pack the room now. It’s triply important to be part of it now.”
Delegates saw a range of speakers, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and a host of congressional representatives, as well as other world and Israeli business leaders.
Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC the day before his controversial speech to a joint session of Congress, which saw close to four dozen Democratic members of Congress boycott his speech.
(Minnesota representatives who did not attend Netanyahu’s speech to Congress included Rep. Betty McCollum, who called the Israeli leader’s speech “a campaign event hosted by Speaker [John] Boehner and paid for by the American people”; Rep. Keith Ellison, the only Muslim in Congress; and Sen. Al Franken, who last month had decried the speech as a “partisan spectacle.”)
The last day of the conference had delegates engage in lobbying with their Minnesota representatives. This year’s focus was on the danger of Iran securing a nuclear weapon.
AIPAC officials believe a nuclear-stocked Iran, which has publicly declared its intention to annihilate Israel, would pose an existential threat to Israel, as well as spark a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East. To that end, the Minnesota citizen lobbyists were urging senators to sign on to the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015, as well as the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015.
The Minnesota contingent met with U.S. Sens. Franken and Amy Klobuchar.
“They were both very engaging, especially Amy,” said Margie Schneider, a Temple of Aaron member who attended her first AIPAC Policy Conference with her husband, Bart. “She was most appreciative of the large number of us who came to meet with her.”
Schneider noted that Franken stood on a chair so everyone in the room could see him.
“It was our first time at AIPAC and we were so glad to have gone,” Schneider said. “We made our first trip to Israel two summers ago, and it has totally changed our feelings for Israel. Both (husband Bart and I) agree that we feel much more connected now and are much more interested in all of the news about Israel. It just seemed natural to extend that to attending the AIPAC conference.”
Olitzky was part of a group that also met with Ellison, and brought a letter advocating that Iran’s nuclear structure be constrained. Ellison told the group he would review the letter.
“We were given a great amount of time,” Olitzky said. “We felt we were heard and listened to… In my time lobbying for AIPAC, I’ve been much impressed by all the officials who give us the time of day.”
For Beth El’s Aaron Biel, he enjoyed the breakout sessions on changing demographics and the rise of Islam in the Western world, and how that affects the treatment of Jews and attitudes toward Israel.
“I appreciate the level of expertise at such a high frequency,” Biel said.
He also found it heartening at the number of young Jews in attendance, many using the Jewish dating app JSwipe on their phones during the conference.
For New Yorker and former Minneapolitan Michael Mintz, business sessions on the Israeli startup market were of interest to him. The only objection he had was his belief that AIPAC should have come out stronger about President Obama not attending Netanyahu’s speech. “AIPAC’s role is to let politicians know when they are doing something wrong,” Mintz said. “As the main advocate for American Jews, they should come out stronger against it. It’s a major slap in the face.”
Controversy will likely not go away at next year’s conference, which will be in the midst of a presidential race. Already, Olitzky noted, one-third of this year’s Minnesota delegation has signed up to come back in 2016.
(American Jewish World, 3.13.15)