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AIPAC's most awkward tradition: non-Jewish politicians faking Jewishness

Susan Rice speaks at AIPAC in Washington
Susan Rice speaks at AIPAC in Washington
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty

Monday is the annual Washington policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an occasion for many celebrated traditions in the US-Israel relationship:

There is of course the Israeli prime minister declaring his love for America and his profound connection to American Jews. Members of Congress making vague and impassioned statements about their commitment to Israel's security. And, most special of all, American gentile politicians and administration officials going to extraordinary lengths to prove that, deep down, they are totally Jewish in their hearts.

That American politicians are celebrating a minority group almost to the point of claiming that identity on their own is, of course, wonderful. The point of all this is to demonstrate not just a policy commitment but an ideological affinity for both Israel and global Jewry. It's a striking contrast with how Jews have been treated in much of history, and still are in much of the world. (If you are an American, take a moment to appreciate that this is happening as Jews come under attack in much of the rest of the world.)

It's a badge of American inclusiveness that they are working so hard to identify with a minority group's history and concerns. There is nothing wrong with this and much that is good about it. One wishes more minority groups could enjoy the same treatment, but that is no reason that Jews shouldn't.

Still, the lengths to which gentile politicians at AIPAC take this, however well-intentioned, can become a bit comical. You do not have to be Jewish to appreciate these routines, which often include someone trying very hard to look natural while dropping Yiddish phrases or Jewish historical references that are probably not, in fact, regular features in their vernacular.

The signaling can often veer way beyond "I have an affinity for Jewish culture and history," and even past "Israel and Jewish identity occupy a central place in my heart" to something along the lines of "I make Moses look like some sort of WASP."

UN Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Susan Rice represented the White House this year, and neither disappointed, with Rice stopping just short of converting to Orthodox Judaism right there on stage.

These theatrical shows of affinity-bordering-on-conversion can get comically excessive. That's especially true during presidential elections, when leading candidates all try to out-Jew one another. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart mocked this wonderfully in 2008, when then-candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all spoke at AIPAC:

A couple jokes that might need explaining: The "Indecision 5678" title is a reference to the Daily Show's "Indecision 2008" election coverage, re-named to fit the Hebrew calendar year. And the audience seems not to get the joke where Stewart compares the candidates to various Israeli leaders. The eyepatch-wearing Israeli shown alongside McCain is former military leader and foreign minister Moshe Dayan — a high compliment, in Israeli terms. (Clinton is compared to Prime Minister Golda Meir.)

His point — which remains true today — is that it's tough to take these overwrought gestures as much more than pandering. Still, even if that's the case, the mangled Yiddish makes it all worthwhile.