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Evan Ross: A Democrat’s perspective — Why AIPAC is a model for America

I’m passionate about this issue and this organization.

I’m a Democrat. I’m a millennial. I’m Jewish. I’m an AIPAC member.

I believe that Israel must be preserved as a Jewish state. I believe that Israel should exist side-by-side in peace with a Palestinian state.

Last week, I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference for the first time. I’d like to tell you about my experience.

I was one of more than 18,000 people who attended this year’s policy conference. In what seemed like a sea of people, the conference commenced early Sunday morning. Before speakers took the stage, we were all reminded that we were not there as partisans, but as people who share a common set of values and goals. We were reminded that while we were under no obligation to stand or applaud for any speaker, we were asked to treat everyone, including those sitting around us, with respect.

Speaker after speaker took to the stage. Some were Democrats, others Republicans. Some were impossible to identify with one party or the other.

Speakers were generally greeted with a room full of standing applause. Though some sat for certain speakers, it seemed that everyone was following the request to treat each speaker with respect.

As a Democrat, I knew that certain people that I’m not such a fan of would be welcomed warmly. In my view, Israel policy has been one of the few bright spots of an otherwise dark few years of the Donald Trump administration. Though I think certain policy rollouts could’ve been handled better, the support this administration has shown for Israel has been wonderful.

I made the decision that I would stand and applaud for people like Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and Mitch McConnell, even though I’m not particularly fond of any of them. I think the office each of them holds warrants a level of respect, and too often we are getting away from treating it that way.

Once the general session ended, we each went to small breakout sessions on a variety of topics. My first one was about water and agriculture. My expectation was that I would hear a lot about Israeli technology. But what I got was very different. The conversation among the four panelists touched on Israeli technology but focused heavily on the use of that technology to help neighboring countries, and especially the Palestinian people.

There is unquestionably a humanitarian crisis going on in Gaza. Under the rule of Hamas, the lives of the Palestinian people there have been greatly harmed. One of the core issues is the need for improved water quality, both for drinking and for farming. No topic took up more time during the discussion than Gaza.

I sat there in awe. Here I am, sitting at a conference with thousands of Israel supporters, and at my first breakout session, four Israeli’s are sitting on a panel discussion how they can help the Palestinian people.

It also included a discussion on how Israel is working with Nigeria and a group of African farmers to help them grow their crops more efficiently and make them last longer after harvest.

Israeli agricultural and water technology is some of the most advanced in the world. It has been a key factor over the last decade in Israel’s improved trade and diplomatic relations with Arab countries. In a region that is incredibly dry, and therefore has struggled to grow food, Israel has led a revolution in desert farming, producing some of the highest quality and best tasting fruits and vegetables in the world, all while using minimal amounts of water. Those innovations have changed the geopolitical landscape in the region.

Following that session, I headed to my next one, which featured a number of speakers on a variety of topics. One of them was a young man from Boca Raton. As Marvel Joseph took the stage, he told his story. He spoke about how he discovered the rich history between Israel and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the Island. As a young man, he wondered how and why Israel was the first country on the ground with critical assistance following the earthquake. How did a country so far away manage to get there so fast? And why? What does Israel care about a little Island halfway around the world?

The answer is rooted in history going back before Israel’s modern existence. Haiti was one of few countries that took in Jews escaping Nazi rule in Europe. And in 1947, when a vote on Israel’s statehood took place at The United Nations, Haiti cast the vote that put its approval over the top.

So why does Israel care about a small island in the Caribbean? Because that small Island cares about Israel, and about the Jewish people. And because as Jews, we know that in a world with an ugly history of anti-Semitism, we value true and long-held friendships.

Why did Marvel stand out to me? Well, that’s pretty simple. I’m engaged to a beautiful and brilliant Haitian-American woman. I work in heavily Haitian communities like North Miami. I know the culture. I know the people. And I know the history.

My children will be Jewish as well as Haitian-American. For those that understand the reference, they’ll eat soup Jou Mou on New Year’s Day (Haitian Independence Day) and bagels and cream cheese on, well, lots of days.

Marvel and I had lunch the next day. I got to share with him how much I enjoyed listening to him. And I got to learn more about him. His future is bright. And at just 22 years old, he is inspiring people to reach higher and do more with their lives.

Day One concluded with speeches from a number of people including Democratic House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer. He was quick to address the recent antisemitic remarks made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. He spoke with passion in denouncing anti-Semitism and continuing the long tradition of bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship. I could go on, but I would encourage you to click the link and watch his speech for yourself.

My second day at AIPAC was quite eventful on the main stage. Bill DeBlasio made an incredible progressive case for supporting Israel. Among that case was that like him, you can disagree with the current Israeli government, but that isn’t a reason to stop supporting Israel. I think for those of us who find daily disgust in our own president, we can relate. Trump’s presidency isn’t a reason to be anti-American.

Monday morning also included remarks from Benny Gantz, former Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces, and head of the newly created Blue and White Party. Gantz is challenging Benjamin Netanyahu to be the next prime minister of Israel in what has been a contentious and tumultuous election in Israel. In a room filled with a mix of liberals, moderates, and conservatives, Gantz got an overwhelming ovation as he took the stage.

He spoke of one of his missions during his time in the IDF. It was in Ethiopia. He spoke about a 2-year-old Jewish Ethiopian girl who he helped to rescue and bring to Israel. Then he introduced her as one of his party’s candidates for the Knesset (Israel’s legislature). I was moved to tears. This refugee is on the verge of becoming one of 120 to lead the Jewish homeland.

I heard countless people who were critical of AIPAC prior to the policy conference insist that the organization was somehow loyal to Netanyahu. The simple fact is that AIPAC doesn’t take sides in Israeli politics, nor in American politics. AIPAC supports the US-Israel relationship. That is why both Gantz and Netanyahu were invited to speak. That is why leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties were invited to speak.

Following Gantz was the only person who seemed to unite the crowd in excitement and approval. As Nikki Haley took the stage, I only saw one seat in the entire room that was in use, and that one had someone standing on it to applaud. Haley’s standing ovation lasted so long, she had to stand back up from her seat to thank the audience before the room would take their seats.

She may be the only person to leave the Trump administration unscathed. Without getting into a long bit about her, I think she is going to be a force in the 2024 presidential election.

On that evening, we also heard from Senate Democratic Leader, Chuck Schumer.

That night, I had the chance to engage with a large group of members of Congress from Florida and beyond at a reception. The Florida delegation included Nikki Fried, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Brian Mast, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch, Charlie Crist, Val Demmings and Rick Scott.

The following morning, we had three noteworthy speakers close out the conference. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke via video conference after returning early to Israel following a rocket attack from Gaza. Much to my surprise, the audience didn’t applaud him with the same fervor as Gantz received. Maybe it was because he wasn’t physically in attendance. Maybe it is because of his recent controversial policy decisions. I’m not sure.

We also heard from Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, as well as Sen. Robert Menendez, who emphasized his excitement at being asked to once again, close out the conference.

Now just to be clear, we heard from lots of Republicans as well. McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, David Friedman, Pompeo, and Pence were among those to take the stage during general sessions. If you want to watch any of the speeches or Q&A sessions, you can do so by clicking here.

Following the conference, thousands of us went to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress. In my case, I met as part of a group with two newly elected Democrats from Miami-Dade Country. First was Congresswoman Donna Shalala. Now, she may be a freshman member of Congress, but as she likes to say, she’s no rookie. She expressed her passionate support for the US-Israel relationship and pledged her support for the three pieces of bipartisan legislation that AIPAC and it’s members were asking members of Congress to support.

Next, I participated in a similar meeting with Mucarsel-Powell. She too is a freshman member of Congress, and also a first-time elected official. Having been elected on a platform that centered around health care and common-sense gun laws, she was eager to learn more about the US-Israel relationship, and how she can use her position in Congress to promote peace and a two-state solution. I had the opportunity to present the case for a bipartisan effort to oppose BDS, and explain how and why BDS is rooted in anti-Semitism and is counterproductive to the goal of a two-state solution.

She spoke clearly in saying that she is absolutely supportive of Israel. She emphasized her desire to see Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace, something that everyone in the room shared her heartfelt support for.

And with that, my first AIPAC policy conference came to a close. Over the last week, I have had a great opportunity to reflect on my experience. I came away with a few key thoughts that I’d like to share.

In a country that is so divided by partisanship, race, gender, religion and so much more — where we’ve stopped speaking to each other because of who we voted for in the last election — AIPAC brought people of all kinds together. I attended a conference where I saw a diversity of race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation and party. I attended a conference where I couldn’t always tell who voted for who. And I loved that. I loved that I could sit next to a Republican and find common ground. I love that we could disagree about so much, but instead, focus on our shared values and how we could come together around them.

AIPAC is a model of what we need more of in America — something that unites us around the things we can agree on.

The idea that AIPAC is in any way a partisan organization is patently false. There were breakout sessions that focused on issues that were important to progressives. Others focused on issues of importance to conservatives. One that I attended featuring Ted Deutch and Mark Meadows focused on bipartisanship. When a liberal South Florida Democrat like Deutch and the chairman of the freedom caucus, Meadows can sit side by side, while smiling, cracking jokes, and sharing their passion for a common cause, the idea that AIPAC is partisan falls by the wayside.

Finally, my last thought is that I need to do more. I need to do more to bring people together around shared values and goals. I need to do more to engage people with AIPAC. I’ve already gotten a handful of my family and friends to register for next year’s conference. And that is just the start of how I plan to grow my activism.

I’m passionate about this issue and this organization. I’m passionate about supporting candidates for office that share my values. The US-Israel relationship is one of those values.

As a Democrat, I leave those of you on my side of the aisle with one final thought. What brings us together as Democrats is the belief that we as people should care more about each other, and our government should reflect that.

Join me at AIPAC Policy Conference next year, and you’ll see why the US-Israel relationship is a model of our principles as Democrats.


Evan Ross is head of Government and Public Affairs for Public Communicators Group.

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