I returned on Tuesday from three of my favorite, most inspirational days of the year: AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC. I was joined by over 18,000 pro-Israel activists, including 50 from our synagogue. The theme of this year’s conference was “Connected for Good”. In many different speeches, sessions, and presentations, we learned and were reminded of the many ways that Israel is a force for good in our world, especially for the United States.
This is a message that is especially important at this moment in history. When a member of Congress suggests that support for Israel comes at the expense of the patriotism for the US, echoing age-old anti-Semitic tropes of “dual loyalty”, we need to be strong and clear that US support for Israel is based on shared values and shared interests. America prides itself in supporting democratic values across the globe. It is therefore obvious why the US would support Israel, the only democratic country in the region. As was mentioned at the conference, there is a misunderstanding (perhaps deliberate) about the source of AIPAC’s strength. AIPAC’s strength is not “all about the Benjamins”. The widespread support in America for Israel is not a result of AIPAC’s size, or financial spending on lobbying. The strength of AIPAC is a result of American support for Israel.
Although we expect this support from the Jewish community, at the Policy Conference I had a chance to see the diversity of the pro-Israel community: liberals and conservatives, Jews and Christians, Latinos and African Americans. Though the reasons for their support for Israel were different, there was a common theme among all of their stories: they see something in Israel that is familiar, something that relates to their own experience or upbringing. I heard from a businessman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He told a story of his visit to a Jewish community along the Gaza border, as part of an AIPAC educational trip of African American business leaders. There he heard about the anxiety and terror that families feel as they have only seconds to find shelter when a rocket is launched from Gaza. This businessman asked a mother whom he met why she chooses to remain with her family. Why doesn’t she just pick up and move to somewhere safer? She answered, simply yet poignantly, “because it’s my home.” At that moment this man from Louisiana was reminded of families who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. When they had lost everything in the deadly floods they too were asked why they stay. And they also responded “because it’s our home.” In that moment, this man sympathized with the Israeli cause. In that moment a pro-Israel activist was born.
I also heard from Mareshia Rucker, a former college student leader who was President of the Student Democrats Club on her campus. She was part of an AIPAC educational trip that took 25 college Democratic leaders and 25 Republican campus leaders to Israel. This articulate woman told how impacted she was to see bomb shelters alongside bus shelters, so Israelis can find cover in the all too common event of rocket fire. She noticed that the bomb shelters were painted in child friendly colors and motifs. This brought home the reality that these innocent Israeli children live life “under fire”. All of them have heard rocket fire and have learned from a young age what to do to stay safe in the face of incoming fire.
And this reminded her of her own painful family story. She grew up in a tough neighborhood in Georgia, where gang violence was common. One day she went to the store and her 4-year old sister followed her. She left her sister on a bench and walked across the street to talk to some friends. In the meantime, a fight broke out near the store between a young man and a gang member. Soon shots were fired and bullets were flying. Her 4-year old sister was shot, and died in her big sister’s arms. Seeing the bomb shelters in Israel brought home to this student leader the common challenges faced by her community and this Israeli community. And when that connection was made, a pro-Israel activist was created.
Part of being a Religious Zionist is realizing that our personal stories can and must include Israel. Israel is our inheritance, our heritage, our homeland. We must seek out ways to personalize our connection to Israel, thereby becoming greater “Lovers of Zion” and more active pro-Israel activists here in America.