I spent last weekend in Washington, D.C. at the much-maligned and mostly-misunderstood American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, an annual convention in which legions of citizen lobbyists descend on the nation’s capital to hear from policy makers, discuss developments in Middle Eastern politics and meet with representatives to make the case for “pro-Israel” legislation. It was my first time at the policy conference — I was raised in a theoretically, but not aggressively, Zionist home, and the year I spent in Israel before transferring to Brandeis from my small liberal arts college in Minnesota involved more protesting of the current Israeli government than lobbying in support of its American policy agenda. But then, controversy ensued when my old object of admiration in Minnesota, now-Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, called out AIPAC by name as buying American politicians. This triggered a collective heart attack in the Jewish community, as well as a spate of purportedly philo-semitic Islamophobia from Omar’s political opponents, and then a problematic conflation of that bile with the good-faith criticism that preceded it. Obsessed with this story to the point of being unable to talk about much else, I felt compelled this year to see for myself what this “Israel lobby” thing was all about. 

The first thing I saw when I came in were the protestors, Jews and non-Jews alike. On one side stood the Westboro Baptist Church, there to protest the “God-hating milieu that is Judaism.” Across from them, the anti-Zionist sect of Ultra-Orthodox Jews known as “Neturei Karta,” known, among other things, for attending a Holocaust denial conference in Iran. Earlier that weekend, the Jewish activist collective IfNotNow, which has as its goal “to end our [Jewish] community’s support for the occupation,” had been protesting, and a few days later, when I left the convention center to get lunch, a woman turned a placard in my direction demanding “AIPAC: register as a foreign agent!” 

Inside the convention center the picture was, at least superficially, quite different: rather than t-shirts and poster-boards, attendees wore suits and carried government IDs. Instead of condemning big institutions, delegates networked with those in charge of them. And rather than shouting at people in power; delegates applauded them and lined up to ask them pre-written questions, mostly amounting to “Will you support such-and-such a bill to protect Israelis in such-and-such a way?” 

In other words, instead of confrontation, the theme at AIPAC is cooperation — or, as a skeptic might say, collaboration. AIPAC is aggressively bipartisan; the Democratic congressional leaders all spoke, but so did the vice president. For an anti-Semite, this confirms the suspicion that some wealthy, vaguely alien Jewish lobby controls American politics, convening once a year so that American leaders can come kiss its ring. The implicit condemnation throughout the conference of Ilhan Omar’s suggestion that AIPAC wants her to “pledge allegiance to a foreign country” suggests that you can never criticize this influence without some censorial force coming down on you.

But for those who attend the conference, those unseemly alliances and over-the-top assertions of patriotism are not the product of power, but rather a communal response to what would otherwise be a condition of powerlessness: Jews must, the logic goes, be friends with both parties, because we can’t afford to make any enemies. We must be skeptical of progressive criticism, because it was not just the czars, but our angry and downtrodden neighbors who made us scapegoats for their problems and attacked us in pogroms. And, most sensitively, we can’t ever stand for a suggestion of disloyalty, because we’ve finally found a country that treats us as equal citizens, and we can’t afford to lose that status once we’ve got it.

This is the nerve Ilhan touched: the lingering insecurity of American Jews that maybe we really don’t belong here after all; maybe when they talked about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” that “people” never included us, at least not as long as we advocate for our relatives in the Middle East. This is the tragic irony of AIPAC: the act of lobbying is now, to so many, our sign of non-Americanness we thought was as American as apple pie. Hence the highly applauded line from Chuck Schumer in his address to the conference on Monday: “You can be a Jew and lobby for Israel, and it doesn't make you any less of an American, it makes you a better American.”

Schumer’s entire speech was full of Yiddishisms, Holocaust stories and the accented Hebrew of an American Jew who grew up with two feet in this country but a radio tuned to news of the Jewish State. It affirmed American Jewry’s Americanness, but also its Jewishness — a distinct identity that is proud, but also awkward, and intergenerationally traumatized. When Schumer took aim at Ilhan’s comments, I clapped. When he took aim at the Republicans’ hypocrisy in condemning her, I literally cried with catharsis. 

A week later, I attended a retreat in New York for non-Orthodox Jewish communities on campus. We heard from a rabbi slash human rights activist and from a Jewish intellectual about peoplehood and social justice. The audience at the retreat was young and left-wing; I had seen at least one of them at an activist conference earlier this year with decidedly anti-Zionist politics. But I felt the same anxiety in New York that I did in D.C.: identity politics are hard to square with an ongoing identity crisis, and no one explained to us in Hebrew School, as the Obama years introduced us to American elections, that our progressive coalition would be besieged with, of all things, the Jewish Question. For a generation raised on talk of privilege and structural oppression, we’re disarmingly unprepared to explain who we are and where we fit in. But in the scope of Jewish history, I suppose that’s at least one tradition of our parents and grandparents to which we still hold fast, and one which I have little doubt we will soon pass on to our children.