January 16, 2019

L.A. contingent has plenty to say at AIPAC Policy Conference

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5, it became clear why more than 13,000 Americans — most though not all of them Jews, and nearly 1,700 of them from Los Angeles — had come to attend the organization’s three-day conference. Although they would hear essentially the same pro-Israel messaging as in past years, one topic in particular was regarded with new exigency.

“Iran, Iran, Iran,” first-time attendee Jonathan Baruch, a founding partner of Rain Management Group, said, in describing the crux of this year’s conference. For AIPAC veterans, the laser-like focus on Iranian nuclear proliferation probably wasn’t a surprise, as the organization has been pressing the issue for more than a decade. But the urgency of the cry to confront Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons has reached fever pitch in recent months, as Israeli officials warn of an impending “point of no return,” saying soon will come a day when destroying the Iranian program could become impossible.

“I’d like to talk to you about a subject no one’s been talking about lately,” Netanyahu joked to a standing-room-only crowd of Israel supporters at the Washington Convention Center. Just hours after a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama, the prime minister was unequivocal: “The Jewish state will not allow those that seek our destruction the means to achieve that goal,” he said, laying the foundation for what sounded like the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “As prime minister, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

That, too, seemed to be the message that this conference, the largest-ever assemblage of pro-Israel advocates, was aiming at U.S. policy makers. For a lobbying organization whose numbers are its most valuable asset — volume, after all, equals votes — AIPAC owes much to its Pacific Southwest Region, and especially to Los Angeles, which comprised the second largest regional delegation in the country, trailing only New York. Leading the L.A. charge was Sinai Temple in Westwood, whose 285 attendees made up the largest synagogue contingent in the country, though L.A.’s Valley Beth Shalom, Beth Jacob Congregation, Young Israel of Century City, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Am also were all well represented.

“This conference is like Yerushalayim,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led one of the largest L.A. delegations for the fourth consecutive year. “If you sit here long enough, you’ll meet every Jew in the world.”

The impulse to compare the scene at AIPAC with the capital of Israel may sound like hyperbole, but it is, in fact, another reason why the Iranian threat loomed large: A danger to Israel is a danger to all Jews. The urgency of the Iran issue is what compelled many of the West Coast residents to travel more than 2,000 miles to hear, in person, President Obama address one of the most powerful and privileged voting constituencies in the nation. This is an election year, after all.

“This convention is unusual, because there’s a meeting going on right now between Netanyahu and the president, and the entire convention is aimed at that meeting,” Feinstein said, sitting in an enormous lounge at the AIPAC Village, where conference attendees mill about between sessions, eating, drinking and kibitzing. “The purpose of this conference is to change the atmosphere in which that meeting is taking place. People are here to tell the president to take great care in that meeting, so it gives the conference the sense of an impending historic decision.”

Feinstein said the conference offers an opportunity to exercise personal political will and engage in politics in a way not often experienced by Hollywood-dominated Los Angeles:  “There is a sense, particularly for those living in California, that there are events transpiring, and we can’t do anything about it. People call me all the time, saying, ‘I’m reading the paper — what can I do?’ I direct them here.”

Daniel Gryczman, 37, a real estate developer who sits on the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and is a member of Temple Beth Am, is a longtime AIPAC supporter. A member of its national council, congressional club (requiring a $3,600 annual donation) and new leadership network (a $10,000 commitment to pro-Israel politics outside of AIPAC each political cycle), Gryczman considers the conference’s exponential growth staggering. “Twelve years ago, this thing was at the Washington Hilton with 800 people,” Gryczman said. But he understands the attraction. “One person can actually make a difference,” Gryczman said. “Each member of Congress has a vote, and I do, too. And I can influence that vote and impact the U.S.- Israel relationship — which is probably the most powerful thing I’ve done. For me, this is the end-all, be-all.”

Actress, onetime supermodel, and design and marketing firm CEO Kathy Ireland called herself “a very proud pro-Israel American” during a speech at one session. The Los Angeles resident first visited Israel because of her Christian faith, but soon discovered shared values between the Holy Land and her own homeland. “I see in Israel what I see in our country,” she said: “The unrelenting pursuit of justice.” Ireland offered AIPAC’s answer for why non-Jews should care about Israel, delivering an impassioned speech about Israel’s wish for peace and the dangers posed by its “oil-rich neighbors.” 

For some, the oft-repeated tropes about a conflict-laden Israel in peril can seem a little dull.

“I think people are just nervous. What we’re so consumed with here,” Baruch said, pulling out his iPhone. “I just got an e-mail from a friend in Israel, and it was very funny — it was, like, ‘Oy vey, the Americans! There they go again. Boring.’ ”

“None of this is earth shattering,” Ron Alberts, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, said. “When you do follow [the U.S.-Israel relationship] closely, you see the nuances a little better, but the overall message isn’t as exciting, because you know the message.” Still, veterans contend that much of the value of attending Policy Conference is in simply showing up.

“I don’t come because I find it so interesting,” Gryczman said. “I come because it’s about what we’re doing. And if we don’t come, we’re not doing the work we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not about receiving; it’s about giving.”

Mark Rohatiner, a member of Beth Jacob’s delegation, said he finds the repetition both comforting and inspirational. After Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, delivered a conference address last year, Rohatiner’s 22-year-old daughter left NYU graduate school to make aliyah. “I jokingly told Elliot Brandt [AIPAC’s Pacific Northwest Regional Director], you saved me 50 grand,” Rohatiner said, adding, “Now I have to increase my contribution to AIPAC.”

Some Angelenos used the conference to explore the unpredictable San Fernando Valley congressional race between veteran Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both staunchly pro-Israel, Jewish Democrats who, because of redistricting, find themselves competing for the same seat. Following a breakout session in which Berman spoke on a panel about Iran, Sherman Oaks resident Megan Schnaid said she was convinced of Berman’s edge over his opponent.

“In my district, he’s commonly referred to as the Godfather,” said Schnaid, an executive with the Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging. “What I like is that he has a good policy balance vbetween the local and the foreign. He understands the big picture,” she said, adding that locally Berman’s policy has made an impact. “I live in the Valley, and I drive over the hill every day, and he’s been instrumental in the expansion of the 405 [Freeway].”

Shai Kolodaro, another Sherman Oaks resident, had the opposite reaction to Berman’s panel. “After I heard him just now, I didn’t like his approach. His approach is too Obama-ish. Sherman has a harsher, more realistic approach,” she said.

Berman was among the many Angelenos expressing pride — and a touch of competitiveness — over L.A.’s large conference presence.

“Why don’t we have more people than New York?” he asked.

Maybe next year?