Wednesday, May 25, 2011

AIPAC's Cognitive Dissonance

AIPAC uses ahavat ha'aretz, love for the land of Israel, to motivate activists and constituents on behalf of Israel. To that end, the feeling at AIPAC conference was overwhelmingly positive, like a huge bar mitzvah party. During the plenary sessions, the sounds and images which played on the massive screens behind the proceedings were heavily emotionally charged. Scenes of Israeli flags being burned and sad piano music on one end of the spectrum contrasted with music straight out of a George Lucas movie on the other hand. Only at AIPAC could reading a list of 2/3rds of the members of the House and Senate be made exciting.

Behind the carefully orchestrated production of AIPAC Conference however, is an Israeli public more centrist than its American supporters, an occupation whose human cost went unacknowledged at the conference, and an Arab Spring to which Israel is failing to adequately respond. In the feel-good glow of the Emerald City of AIPAC Conference, paying no attention to that man behind the curtain is all too easy.

But for a PhD student focused on Middle East politics, the glitz and glam of AIPAC could not overcome the cognitive dissonance between AIPAC's framing, and the reality on the ground in the Middle East. The inclusion of scholars like Michelle Dunne and more liberal voices like former congressman Robert Wexler is admirable of AIPAC. The attempt at being big-tent is easier for AIPAC because it holds the center of American Jewish public opinion. Yet the organization deserves credit for including speakers from a range of different opinions.

However, because AIPAC's messaging at the plenaries is so focused, it can include more liberal voices at breakout sessions without compromising the strength of the message.

The liberal voices at the conference may very well be intended to honestly showcase a range of opinions on Israel. And while J Street's speakers were Left, and More Left, AIPAC's speaker are Very Right, Center Right, Center, and Center Left. However, the effect of this array of speakers is not to encourage critical thinking and rigorous debate on Israel. Rather, these speakers embolden the conservative reactionism and ahavat ha'aretz of AIPAC's constituency.

The reaction of the audience in two different panels to liberal speakers was not "That's an interesting counter-point," but rather "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about." At one point, as an expert in a panel on whether Palestinians are a partner for peace cautioned the Prime Minister for his policy choices, an audience member remarked to her friend "Is he puttin' down Bibi?" For her, the Prime Minister was not a government official to be evaluated through public discourse, but a friend to be defended.

Using talking points and in-group reinforcement versus true education is the modus operandi of all lobbying organizations, and AIPAC cannot be blamed for wanting to be effective or for the cognitive shortcuts taken by its constituents. However, if the American pro-Israel community is not educated on the complexity of Middle East issues, it will become less and less equipped to address the complex challenges Israel faces in the 21st century. Knowledge is power. Truly fostering a stronger US-Israel relationship requires educating, truly educating, American supporters of Israel as to why conflict exists. Talking points education, whether from J Street or AIPAC, does a disservice to the American pro-Israel community's ability to advocate for Israel.

No comments:

Post a Comment