(March 24, 2016 / JNS)
By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference is the largest gathering of people who wish to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. I went to an AIPAC Policy Conference for the first time in 2011 as a college freshman, and I fell in love.
The mix of the inspirational videos, plenary sessions, and breakout sessions were one thing. The networking with other Jewish and/or pro-Israel students was another. We talked about our experiences on campus as Jews and as pro-Israel activists. We reminisced about Israel. Remember when I said in this column that my 12th grade math teacher called me “Israel Girl” because I wouldn’t shut up about Israel? Well, neither could these people. I had found my people.
After attending the policy conference again in 2014 and 2015, this year was my fourth time there. But this time was different—this year I attended the conference as a member of the press. The one thing that stayed absolutely consistent was the incredible networking. After each day’s planned sessions, many organizations hosted galas, receptions, and get-togethers. While the conference delegates came from a diverse range of backgrounds (there were Jews and Christians, African-Americans and Latinos, Democrats and Republicans), I think that Jewish people in particular are natural networkers. When we encounter a fellow Jew, we instinctively connect.
Maybe this is because there are so few of us in the world that every time we meet each other, our first inclination is to come together. We wonder, “Who do we know in common?” This “game” is called Jewish geography, and the AIPAC Policy Conference is the perfect playing field. I am convinced the AIPAC conference is intended for networking as the main course, with a side of politics. I even heard of people who register for the conference with no intention of stepping into the sessions even once. Instead, they go solely to network. The focus on “coming together” has not changed over the years, although it was literally this year’s AIPAC conference theme.
But as press this year, my experience was different in a variety of ways. When the plenary sessions began, I got to sit in a special press box with other print journalists, watching the speakers from high up at the Verizon Center arena in Washington, DC. We got snacks and coffee for free, unlike the “delegates.”
I had a different lanyard color denoting certain rights and limitations. I entered the plenary sessions through a different entrance—one that barely had lines. In past years, the lines to get through security, especially when the Secret Service was present, marked the worst part of the conference for me. Getting through the lines sometimes took an hour or more. It was like Disneyland, but instead of riding the Mad Hatter at the end of the line, you got politicians. But this time, as a member of the press, the longest line took five minutes.
I imagine that the lines-management has since improved for delegates as well, as the Verizon Center, AIPAC’s new venue this year for plenary sessions, has even more entrances and seats. (Indeed, attendance of conference has almost doubled since the first time I went in 2011. This year’s conference drew nearly 19,000 people.)
On the limitations end, I was not allowed into most of the breakout sessions due to my status as press. Breakout sessions are panels and lectures that meet in smaller groups and have a focused address or discussion about various topics, such as the Syrian conflict, gay rights in Israel, entrepreneurship and innovation in Israel, Islamic State’s media and recruiting strategy, and the progressive case for Israel, to name a few. With more than 100 breakout sessions per day, I was limited to maybe 20 percent of them. To me, this was the major drawback of being press.
This year’s policy conference was also special because we’re in an American presidential election year. As such, candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz addressed the conference, all of them assuring the audience of their unwavering support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
When it came to these speeches, nobody in the press box showed emotion or support for/against the candidates’ statements. Sometimes I found myself wanting to clap, but holding back. This tension represents one of the biggest challenges for me. As a journalist, when I write a feature or news piece, I need to be unbiased and dispassionate. This is crucial but difficult, as I am anything but dispassionate about the topics. But I believe I’m getting better at it.
The visit to Washington was short, but I was able to do some touring with my mom, grandma, brother, and some of my best friends (most of whom I surprised by coming all the way from Israel).
I have to say that by the penultimate day, I was ready to come home to Israel. I missed the language, the music, the culture, and my boyfriend. During the AIPAC conference videos that portrayed Israel in a nostalgic manner, I saw the look in people’s eyes that said they, too, wanted to be in Israel. When I told them I was going back home to Israel after the conference, they told me how lucky I was. And, boy, do I know that they’re right.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.