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Learning to Lobby

Read this story in the Washington Jewish Week

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee holds an annual summit exclusively for high school students, educating them on the American-Israeli relationship and training them on the basic skills and know-how of lobbying congressmen.

However, because of the demographic in attendance, many present had to make the decision to miss two to three days of schools. “Missing school, no matter how it happens, isn’t convenient. But when it came down to actually learning about how I can be a proactive American, with my own influence on Congress, with an emphasis on pro-Israel advocacy, it was a no-brainer,” said Ryan Dishell, BBYO National Leaders, Paci"c West Region delegate.

This summit was directed toward high school students, and in my opinion, organizers nailed it. Every teenager there was treated like a responsible adult and like a future leader of the United States-Israel relationship. At the same time, the teens were perfectly engaged with interesting speakers and applicable skill training. The passion they were able to instill was remarkable. Interestingly enough, if you treat teenagers as adults, they can often rise to the occasion.

“AIPAC took teens who have never been involved in the political process before and treated them like mature adults who are capable of making a difference,” said Ethan Steinberg, BBYO National Leaders, DC delegate.

I appreciated the opportunity to be active in politics as a high school student. There is a common misconception that not only teens do not care about politics or are not capable of doing so, but actually cannot get involved. AIPAC made it abundantly clear that conception is false. By simply having a summit exclusively for high school students, this influential lobbying organization made students realize how big of an impact they can have on the political scene, especially topics they are passionate about like the U.S.-Israel relationship. In fact, AIPAC emphasized that politicians are not only willing to talk to high school students, but are actually very excited when youth who cannot even vote feel passionate enough to meet with them.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a lecture by Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s leadership development director. He spoke to many of these points, stressing that the U.S.-Israel relationship needs young people to voice their thoughts.

“Jonathan Kessler inspired us all to be advocates for Israel, no matter the circumstance,” Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School delegate Claire Mendelson said, “In less than one hour, he had us all firmly believing that support for Israel was not the responsibility of another older, or seemingly more qualified person; rather it was the responsibility of each one of us.”

The conference also stressed AIPAC’s bipartisanship, partially attributing its success to it. The concept that in such a partisan nation with such a partisan government,

I could attend this summit on political advocacy for Israel and be surrounded by far-right conservatives, far-left liberals and everything in between is extraordinary.

When it comes to Israel, “they all promote the same values and work toward the same goal,” CES-JDS delegate Yael Kriftcher said.

The bipartisan support that AIPAC receives is in fact necessary for the success of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship as a whole. In such a partisan time, when almost nothing is getting done through Congress, the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Act passed the House and Senate in July by voice vote unanimously; tightened sanctions on Iran have passed the Senate unanimously; and the Waxman-Royce letter to the European Union on designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization this year was signed by 255 representatives from both sides of the aisle. Israel’s security is a bipartisan issue.

The summit then shifted to legitimate lobbying training, teaching us the talking points and how to interact with either congressmen or their staffs. AIPAC, in fact, stressed how key congressman’s staff members are, as they are often the ones they will look to for advice. The entire summit was supposed to culminate with each delegation lobbying a certain member of Congress or his or her staff, but unfortunately, due to Hurricane Sandy, Congress was closed.

However, Howard Kohr, AIPAC executive director, made an appearance during dinner on the final night. He spoke about the U.S.-Israel relationship, then opened the floor for questions. The ability to have an open Q & A with the chief of the organization was eye-opening.

Throughout the summit, some of the most discussed topics were a potential nuclear Iran, the European Union recognizing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the Palestinians returning to direct talks with Israel and United States foreign aid. Yet, when Kohr spoke, he discussed a wide variety of different situations in the Middle East, ranging from potential future borders to the Muslim Brotherhood. He treated the crowd, full of high school students, like leaders. It was well received, and he was rewarded with a standing ovation.

The AIPAC High School Summit was created to engage high school students early and teach them how to be politically active and advocate for Israel’s security, and from what I saw, the U.S.-Israel relationship now has about 320 new teen allies.

Jeremy Etelson, 16, is a junior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School

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