- I've been working as teacher's assistant
at my temple's religious school for the past four years. I love teaching
my second-graders their first Hebrew letters. I love watching my sixth-graders
find Israel on a map. But what I love most is the connection my job gives
me to Judaism and to Israel, where I hope to travel during college. That
is why I jumped at my grandfather's invitation to attend the annual American
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington
D.C., where I could join more than 1,000 students and 4,000 adults in discussing
the future of Israel. I returned from the conference, however, feeling
manipulated, disturbed and disgusted with a great deal of what I witnessed
- The first thing I noticed about the conference,
besides the sheer volume of participants, was the carefully manufactured
atmosphere of fear and urgency. The cavernous hall that hosted all our
meals and plenary sessions was always filled with dramatic classical music,
red lighting and gigantic signs reading "Now Is The Time." That,
combined with the montages of terrorism footage projected onto six giant
screens, whipped the audience into a "Save Israel" fervor that
most found inspiring. By the time we finished our meal, the audience seemed
eager to agree to anything that would protect Israel - even war.
- The conservative slant of the conference
became obvious as I chose "Policy Perspectives: How the Democrats
and Republicans View Foreign Affairs" for my first breakout session.
The Republican speaker, John Podhoretz of The New York Post, got to have
the first word and the last word on almost every question. Podhoretz insulted
the Democratic Party, calling it "schizophrenic" and "weak"
because of its division on certain issues, and calling Democratic protests
about the Iraq war "inappropriate and dangerous."
- Democratic speaker Simon Rosenberg, president
and founder of the New Democratic Network, responded: "Debate, besides
being a sign of health in a party, is important to any democracy."
He addressed the "mishandling" of the Iraq war: "The Republican
Party only cares about winning the war militarily, which isn't enough.
We need to win culturally as well. We need to win the war and win the peace.
The Republicans have won the war, but lost the peace."
- Podhoretz interrupted, saying that the
Democrats should have been "loyal and responsible" by supporting
the war, instead of "hostile."
- The mealtime plenary sessions taught
me the most about the mindset of our country and about the art of rhetoric.
Each speaker played upon the audience's deepest fears and greatest hopes.
Even after four days, it never ceased to amaze me how easy it was to get
a standing ovation out of the crowd. Even platitudes such as "I believe
in democracy" or, even better, "I believe in Israel" had
the crowds on their feet. How much political integrity and courage does
it take to say "I will defend Israel" to thousands of pro-Israel
activists? Flattery seemed to work as well, which acting Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert proved by saying, "Thank God we have AIPAC."
- Overall, I felt the conference made every
issue black and white. You're either for Israel or against it. You're either
pro-Democracy or pro-evil regimes, as Israeli candidate for prime minister
Benjamin Netanyahu put it, "The world is split between those who oppose
terror and those who appease it."
- The speakers and "informational"
videos left no grey area, no place for dialogue or debate, and certainly
no place for dissent. I especially squirmed at the parallels AIPAC drew
between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hitler. To the tune of
more dramatic classical music, the six enormous screens flashed back and
forth between Hitler giving anti-Jew speeches and Ahmadinejad giving anti-Israel
speeches. The famous post-Holocaust mantra "Never Again" popped
up several times. Everything was geared toward persuading the audience
that another Holocaust is evident ... unless we get them first. Now, I
don't dispute that Iran's leader is a Holocaust denier or even that he
could attack Israel, but I mind very much being forced to think he's pure
evil through clever sound bites and colorful images.
- The screens faded to black and the speeches
began, and I recognized, beneath the rhetoric, a battle cry. As U.N. Ambassador
John Bolton promised "painful and tangible consequences for Iran,"
and as Vice President Dick Cheney said, "The terrorists have declared
war on the civilized world, but we'll declare victory," I noted the
scariest division of all: You're either pro-war or pro-Holocaust.
- Despite all this madness, I did enjoy
some aspects of the conference. First of all, picture the hilarity of thousands
of Jews staying in the same hotel. Phrases like "Could you shlep this
bag up to my room, please?" or "I'm shvitzing like a pig"
were common in the lobby. I also loved meeting students from around the
country, regardless of whether I agreed with them politically. The chance
to hear all three candidates for Israeli prime minister via satellite was
also priceless. But in reflection, after returning from the belly of the
conservative beast, I support Israel with all my heart, but I do not support
- Alice Ollstein is a senior at Santa Monica