Bham Millennials Embrace Israel Advocacy In Nation’s Capital
Through a fund established in the Birmingham Jewish Foundation by Willine and J. George Mitnick, both of blessed memory, the Birmingham Jewish Federation sends a delegation of young Jewish professionals to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, DC each year. The Mitnick Fellows join thousands of other pro-Israel activists in a three-day conference packed with educational opportunities and policy addresses from political leaders.
This year’s Mitnick Fellows are Carlie Stein Somerville, Liora Chessin, Mark Zager and Daniel Odrezin. (Daniel is the BJF’s former assistant executive director.) As the conference ended, we asked them to share some final thoughts on their jam-packed experience. Here is what each of them had to say.
It was a hugely satisfying and empowering experience to get to meet with our representatives in Washington and convey to them the importance of a strong US-Israel relationship. Our main agenda focused on three key issues: 1) thwarting Iranian aggression in the region; 2) the need for a robust foreign aid package from the US to its allies; and 3) ending the delegitimization of Israel through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. These issues are critical to creating a stronger US. I was moved by how supportive our Alabama representatives were of the State of Israel and their commitments to advocate on its behalf.
As I reflect on my overall experience at the Policy Conference, I realized how much information I have gathered about the necessity of strong ties between Israel and the US. Without a doubt, after attending the conference, I feel as if I can be a better advocate for Israel in my community and I feel far more versed on the key issues facing the country in the political arena. Lastly, in an age of increasing political polarization, it was amazing to see the truly bipartisan support for Israel.
Respect. Compromise. Partnership. Peace. These themes resonated throughout the halls of the Washington Convention Center to the 18,000 voices who came together this week at the 2017 AIPAC policy conference under the premise of ONE mission: to support a strong relationship between Israel and the US. In a time where our nation appears divided in the political arena and discussions of politics often lead to heated debates even amongst the closest of friends, we were reminded that support for Israel MUST remain a bipartisan issue and that despite our differences, this is one issue where the world can come together. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said,”Out of chaos can come opportunity.” We must take this opportunity to remind the world that hate, anti-Semitism, and discrimination are issues that affect us all.
AIPAC does an amazing job of relating to the audience not only through discussion of policy issues but also by showing us the work Israel does around the globe to advance human rights and provide aid to anyone in need. We learned about the Peres Center for Peace which has worked relentlessly to help children from Palestinian territories receive life saving surgeries. We heard from the wife of one of the 11 Olympic athletes killed in the 1972 Munich games, who has spent her life fighting for acknowledgement of this terrorist act at the Olympic games, with the first moment of silence held 44 years later in Rio 2016. We sang the Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) along with the “Violins of Hope”– violins preserved from the Holocaust and restored to their original form in memory of their previous owners who had perished. Surrounded by people of all ages and backgrounds, we came together and shared tears, laughter, and awe for these personal stories which warmed our hearts.
The highlight of the conference was Nikki Haley, our new ambassador to the United Nations. Although she spent less than 15 minutes on stage, she was met with an outpouring of cheers, standing ovations and audience filled with awe, admiration and respect. She brings a refreshing perspective to the longstanding controversy surrounding the UN and the one sided resolutions that continue to target Israel. She stated, “Leading is not saying and doing things when it’s comfortable,” reaffirming her support for Israel no matter the challenges ahead. With Nikki Haley on our side, I believe we have an opportunity to not only strengthen the US-Israel relationship, but to change the world’s perceptions and actions. As Haley clearly said, “The days of Israel bashing are over.”
I am so thankful for the opportunities the Mitnick fellowship has given me. At my second AIPAC policy conference, I have continued to learn about pro-Israel advocacy and the threats Israel faces around the world. But even more importantly, I am thankful for our Alabama senators and congressmen and women who are steadfast in their support of Israel and who take time from their busy schedules to discuss their ongoing commitment to the US-Israel relationship. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his address to AIPAC, “Light triumphs over darkness, good over evil”. I know that through ongoing learning, conversation, and partnerships we can continue to bridge the gaps around the world and build a brighter future together for generations to come.
— Carlie Stein Somerville
The entire AIPAC Policy Conference was meaningful and educational, and the last day was especially powerful. We started the morning listening to Members of Congress speak about their connection to Israel. I was blown away by the varied, yet all strong and important, relationships our elected officials have with Israel. This was not only about America’s role as Israel’s ally but also about the role Israel plays in America’s well-being from water security to the economy.
California Senator Kamala Harris spoke about Israel’s importance to her state, our country, and the world. She shared that, “I believe that it’s the common ground that unites so many of us, values like faith, family, respect, and empathy that will see us through…Common ground. Look at Israel’s Supreme Court, that beautiful place I visited, upon which sits a Tunisian judge alongside an Israel-Arab Christian and a Brooklyn-born Israeli, all presided over by a female chief justice — common ground.” This idea of common ground (and the tenets of democracy) resonated throughout the conference.
The Alabama delegation then headed to meet with Congress. After hearing from leaders throughout the conference about the policies and sentiments which contribute to our partnership and friendship with Israel, we spoke as a group about three issues — the delegitimization of Israel, foreign aid, and Iranian aggression. At every appointment, someone shared the fact that 18,000 people of diverse political views and backgrounds attended the conference. I found this experience of being able to talk to our legislators about bipartisan support for Israel and specific actions they can take to be powerful and encouraging.
I am thankful for the Mitnick Fellowship and the families who made the experience possible. I left more educated, more motivated, and more hopeful about the future of Israel and America as they are so closely linked!
Even after having attended eight policy conferences, AIPAC never disappoints. This year’s conference met all my expectations, and it took place at an especially important time. The polarizing political climate creates new challenges for AIPAC, an organization dedicated to ensuring that support for Israel remains a bi-partisan issue. Navigating these difficulties was a top priority at this year’s conference, which encompassed the theme “Many Voices, One Mission.” I was impressed with the diversity of the 18,000 pro-Israel advocates that represented a wide range of political perspectives, joined together to promote a strong US-Israel relationship. As always, it was an inspiring experience, that made me proud to be a part of the pro-Israel movement.