By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
I just returned from one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’m speaking of the three days I spent in Washington, D.C., participating in the AIPAC Policy Conference 2017.
Even without considering the content of the Conference—which was all at once edifying, heartening, moving, and inspiring; even without all that, what really reinforced in me the essential need to be there was the crowd that gathered across the street from the Washington Conference Center. There was a small group of sweet, fresh-faced, naïve, Jewish young men and women—they looked college age—singing sweet Jewish songs and simulating waves with long blue plastic sheets they held.
And the other group that they were standing right next to, which unfurled a huge banner that read: “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free.”
“From the river to the sea.” Forget “The Settlements;” forget the 1967 or the 1948 armistice lines. Forget any of it. Not even the thinnest sliver of the Land of Israel could be a Jewish state.
I was surprised not by the anger but rather by the pity that arose in me for those naïve, young Jewish demonstrators. For in the book of the pro-Palestinian group, their fate was already sealed. Pray God they would never have to face the consequences of their naiveté.
As for me, a Second Generation Survivor of one of the greatest evils human beings ever perpetrated, I am not willing to give any of them half a chance. And that’s why I was there.
Inside the Convention Center, one of the first presenters to take the stage was a ten-year-old Arab boy from Gaza, born with a heart defect and who would have died if it weren’t for the Israeli surgeons who operated on him as a newborn infant at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Speaking about Yousef as well as of hundreds of other men, women and children injured in the war in Syria, the commanding officer of the IDF Medical Corps, whose work today includes running emergency field hospitals for these victims, reminded all of us that the Arabs “think of Israel as their enemy, when we are not the enemies. We are their surgeons, doctors, nurses and social workers.”
Taking the stage one after another were political leaders from around the world, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (by live video), former Prime Ministers Toni Blair of Great Britain and Stephen Harper from Canada, as well as the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.
African American presenters spoke about the shifting landscape in Israel-African American relations, inspiring heartfelt and meaningful dialogue that must and will continue. Representatives of the Hispanic American community likewise spoke of strong bonds with Israel, bonds that go both ways.
Needless to say, there was no shortage of American leaders, both Democrat and Republican. There were quite a few entertainers, among them Alan Dershowitz—OK, strictly not an entertainer, but certainly one of the most entertaining and brilliant lawyers in America or anywhere else around the world for that matter; and Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, co-producers, writers and stars of the Fauda, the highly acclaimed Israeli political thriller TV series (now available on Netflix).
The list goes on and on (You can see the full list of speakers here).
But the speaker who brought the house down, receiving the longest and loudest standing ovation in AIPAC history, was the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley. She spoke to the heart of all of us, addressing our deepest frustration: The shameful, incredibly biased bashing of Israel in the United Nations.
Among the chief topics of discussion that speakers and panels addressed were: Iran’s threat to the Middle East and the world; the campaign to delegitimize Israel; the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement that employs bullying and harassment tactics mostly on college campuses; and the need for ongoing military aid to Israel—America’s best and most reliable ally in the world today.
But it was the personal stories and testimonies that touched us most.
One of these was the story of Amnon Weinstein, a violinmaker from Israel who has been restoring the Violins of Hope—instruments used by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, whose sweet melodies were silenced when their owners were murdered. On the stage, virtuoso Hagai Shaham, playing one of those violins, improvised a soul-moving interlude that slowly transitioned into Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope). Silently, 18,000 spectators rose to their feet and one by one joined in singing the anthem. I am not exaggerating when I say that there was not a dry eye in the entire convention center.
To see this video, among others from this incredible conference, click here.
On the final day of the conference, many of us took to Capital Hill to lobby our House and Senate representatives. I had the great honor of voicing my concerns before New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan. The Senator’s empathy and understanding were matched by her brilliant and warm Senior National Security Advisor, Harlan Geer.
Some forty-five minutes later, as I left Senator Hassan’s office, I was thinking what an incredible privilege this was. Here I was, walking down a long hallway lined with the offices of U.S. Senators, playing a part—a minute part indeed, yet a part nonetheless—in the political machinery of the most powerful nation on earth. I had the amazing privilege of representing not only Israel, but also my congregants in Temple B’nai Israel of Laconia, NH. I spoke for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I spoke for my grandparents—both those who didn’t survive the Holocaust, and those who did. I spoke for the children who were denied life; and for my children in America, and for my brother’s children in Israel.
I spoke for Arab children who deserve to live in peace, a basic human right, but who—terrorized, miserable and hungry—live instead in war-torn countries and soulless cities and who seek shelter from constant—and intentional—bombardment carried out by their own leaders.
I spoke for them all because so many around the world would rather blame Israel for anything bad that happens, rather than reach a hand in peace and together build a better, safer and saner world.
By myself, my voice doesn’t carry very far. But get together 18,000 others who feel and think as I do, and your voice resonates powerfully. That’s what AIPAC really is all about. AIPAC isn’t only about Israel; AIPAC is about progress and humanity. AIPAC is a coalition of voices, parties and opinions, all gathered for the cause of sanity, dignity and peace.
That’s why I went, and why—with God’s help—I will go again next year. I have already registered, and I encourage each and every one of you to join me. PC 2018 will be held March 4-6; IF YOU REGISTER NOW YOU WILL SAVE $200 OFF THE PRICE OF REGISTRATION. Click here to register.
You will be grateful, as I am, that you did.