18,000 delegates gathering for a loud and proud pro-Israel conference made me think 'Only in America'

Board of Deputies chief executive Gillian Merron reflects on the Aipac gathering in Washington

March 28, 2019 10:04

The phrase “only in America” comes readily to mind. Only in the USA would 18,000 delegates gather for this glitzy, loud and proud pro-Israel conference, also attended by two thirds of the country’s Congress.

Nothing is held back as delegates regularly jump to their feet to enthusiastically applaud the likes of Nikki Haley, crew members of the Israeli space mission and numerous personal testimonies of those whose lives have been touched by Aipac’s mission. And all of this in the most massive hall you have ever seen.

It is with pride that I represented the UK as part of the World Jewish Congress delegation, and it was with close interest that I listened to speeches in support of the Jewish state. It was refreshing to be in this kind of atmosphere following a year in which anti-Zionist antisemitism has hit the headlines at home with monotonous regularity, and during which time the spectre of hatred against Jews has surfaced across Europe and beyond.

The highlight had to be the honour of being a witness to the tremendous reception given to Joan Ryan MP, who as Chair of Labour Friends of Israel, came to Aipac as a leading fighter against anti-Jewish racism. From the moment Joan strode onto the stage, she owned it. Very real, very British and very clear, she was rewarded with warmth and standing ovation after standing ovation.

It was less easy to listen to her account of how she felt she had to leave her party after 40 years of membership.

Her bravery was acknowledged by the thousands who had already heard Aipac’s CEO Howard Kohr tell the conference that his own organisation had come under attack by those claim you cannot support Israel and be “a good American”.

When I later addressed an audience as part of a WJC panel on global challenges, I spoke of the particular challenge facing UK Jews, whereby antisemitism is no longer a fringe issue but now front and centre. Delegates wanted to know what advice I had to give on the basis of our experience a year on from when I spoke at the ‘Enough is Enough’ rally.

Thankfully it was not all bad news.

From the UK, we had positive news to impart to our American friends about our own government, which in recent weeks has announced two policy changes which we in the Jewish community have long campaigned for. These are the decisions to extend a ban to the so-called “political wing” of the terrorist organisation Hezbollah, as well as the announcement that the UK government would oppose any motions tabled against Israel proposed by the UN Human Rights Commission under discriminatory Item 7, which singles out the Jewish state for criticism.

The reception to this all of this? As it would be — big, glittering and enthusiastic.

Only in America.

Gillian Merron is chief executive of the Board of Deputies

March 28, 2019 10:04

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