This Saturday night, I embarked on a journey that was perhaps long overdue. I participated in an important Jewish life cycle event that seems to have become as vital as a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding. This weekend, I went to my first AIPAC conference ever, the 2012 AIPAC Summit in Boston.
Walking into the first plenary session, I was largely unsure of what was about to occur. Of course, as an engaged member of the Jewish community, I am aware of AIPAC’s stances on many important Middle East issues. I often disagree with those stances, but I was not at the Summit to stubbornly insist on the correctness of my own opinions, and instead I genuinely hoped to walk away with some new knowledge and understanding.
In some ways, my hopes were fulfilled. John Baird, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, offered a detailed description of Canada’s relationship to Israel, a piece of the puzzle to which Americans are often left unexposed. AIPAC honored Judy Feld Carr, a fascinating woman who rescued thousands of Syrian Jews over the course of a few decades, and the presentation left most in the audience feeling quite moved.
However, there were a number of truly disappointing trends I noticed at the summit. Many of the speakers felt that simply stating, “Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon,” in multiple ways constituted a legitimately nuanced and interesting speech. Admittedly, many speakers were politicians currently in the midst of intense campaigns, and they were simply saying what the audience wanted to hear. That said, from politicians such as Congressman David Cicilline and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, two of my own representatives in Rhode Island, I’ve come to expect far more. While Iran is certainly an issue of vital importance to Israel and to the world, it should never be true that Iranian politics are discussed more than Israeli politics at a summit on the America-Israel relationship.
Another disturbing statement I heard repeated again and again was the idea that anti-Zionism is “the new anti-Semitism.” This sentiment is incredibly dangerous for a variety of reasons. First, and most relevant to those of us on college campuses, there are many young Jews who identify as anti- Zionist. In the past week, I’ve had conversations with two personal friends of mine who connect to their Jewish identity in a very real way but who legitimately believe that Israel does not have the right to exist. If their anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, should I be thinking of these friends of mine as self-hating Jews? Should I be encouraging them to seek counseling for their irrational ways of thinking?
While I personally believe that Israel should exist as a Jewish state, I would not place myself on the moral high ground and say that those who disagree with me are bigots, nor would most college students. The reality of the situation is that there are many different reasons that people think Israel should not exist. Certainly, there are individuals that don’t like Jews and therefore would like for Jews not to have a state. However, many people, especially young Jewish people, have other reasons for not wanting Israel to exist.
Philosophically, they may believe that separation of religion and state is such a vital component of government and therefore any government that incorporates theocratic aspects should be changed. Morally, they may believe that Israel’s government has committed acts that place it outside the realm of acceptable behavior, regardless of its Jewish nature. From a utilitarian perspective, they may simply postulate that Israel’s existence does not lead to the greatest good for the greatest number, and that a one-state Palestine solution, though harmful to many Israeli lives, may in fact create a world with fewer unnecessary deaths and less paranoia. I disagree with all three of those arguments, and that’s part of why I identify as pro-Israel. But would I feel comfortable calling my friends who make those arguments anti-Semites? Absolutely not.
While we on the left occasionally go overboard with our criticisms of AIPAC, I do believe that the equivocation of Anti-Zionism with Anti-Semitism is profoundly dangerous. While I believe it is true that most anti-Semites are anti-Zionists, it is not accurate to say that most anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. I would hope AIPAC and other organizations take that to heart and find ways that they can nuance their messages in order to avoid slippery generalizations.