First Person

AIPAC conference is exhilarating, essential

Billie Kozolchyk

My husband, Boris, and I always anticipate with excitement the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but we could not imagine the magnitude of this year’s event. For the first time, there were more than 10,000 delegates including 1,500 students. Among the students were 215 student government presidents representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the president of the College Democrats of America and the chairman of the College Republican National Committee. They represented multiple ethnicities and I was especially moved by the number of students from historically black colleges and universities. About 350 members of Congress attended as well as representatives from 65 countries including ambassadors from China, South Africa, Mexico, Turkey and the Netherlands. For the first time, we could not all fit in one banquet hall for the gala.

It is daunting, if not impossible, to pick a favorite speech, video or moment. But one thing that always tickles me at AIPAC conferences is how unfailingly polite Democrats and Republicans are to each other. Case in point: Steny Hoyer, House Democratic Whip, and Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, who both gave fantastic speeches. Hoyer, who spoke May 22 after President Obama’s speech (which has been endlessly analyzed by others), referred to Cantor as his “friend and colleague and partner.” Noting that Israel’s “light has shown all the more brightly for shining so often alone,” Hoyer said that he and Cantor have pledged to work together to insure that U.S. security funding for Israel is provided in full. Cantor, who also spoke May 22, said that beyond the importance of the strategic ties between Israel and America, every time he and “my friend Steny Hoyer” take members of Congress to Israel, “there’s something Americans identify with on a gut level … places from their Sunday school studies come alive. It is emotional and profound.” On a lighter level, imagine Ralph Reed, conservative Republican, and Ann Lewis, liberal Democrat, bantering with each other — they did — on a panel together.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a softspoken man, but at the conference he spoke with true passion. He insisted that only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would lead to peace. “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about buildings or about anything else … I’ll say this as clearly as I can, the United States of America will not give money to terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel … This is the Israel that built the armor that keeps American soldiers safe. This is the Israel that gave a grant to a Jerusalem start-up so it could invent the bandage that would save Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ life … You see, this is the Israel we love … America’s commitment to Israel is incorruptible. It is non-negotiable, and we will never, never leave her side.”

Senator Reid was not the only person who mentioned our beloved congresswoman’s name. In the spirit-raising annual roll call where, one by one, all the distinguished guests at the gala are named, AIPAC’s director, Howard Kohr, paid homage to Gabby as a friend of Israel and said he hoped to see her at next year’s conference. Prime Minister Netanyahu also mentioned her, saying, “I wish Gabby, a great friend of Israel, refuah shlemah, a happy, quick, speedy recovery.”

Another speaker was Jose Maria Azna, the former president of Spain, a hero who founded the Friends of Israel Initiative “to establish a high-level group dedicated to fighting the growing global chorus working to isolate and delegitimize Israel.” In defending Israel, he said, “we are defending the West, we are defending our way of life, our values, we are defending ourselves.”

Exhilarating, exhausting, all consuming. I agonized over my choices for the breakout sessions; there were pages of tantalizing topics. Oh, to have heard them all.

A sweet ending after the gala: Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz held an open reception for attendees. I thanked her for being such a supportive friend to Gabby. We talked very briefly because she said she would cry if we talked more.

Anybody who supports Israel should attend at least one AIPAC conference in his/her lifetime. It gives one the strength to continue advocacy.

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