WASHINGTON -- The theme of this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference  is “relationships matter” -- the significance of which should not be lost on the 193 student government presidents the lobbying group brought here for the occasion, as Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s leadership development director, told them Saturday. “Every conversation, every relationship starts somewhere.”
Including the relationship with AIPAC, of course. In the wake of the war in Gaza this winter came a surge in pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel activism on campuses , but AIPAC, which calls itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” has in recent years attempted to broaden its own base of support on campus, to incorporate not only the passionate pro-Israel advocates but "mainstream student leaders," as well. The organization has been paying the way for student government association presidents to come to its conference for several years now, and this year had its largest group attend, despite the conflict with final exams on many campuses.
“AIPAC is committed to maintaining and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and we don’t take the future for granted,” Kessler said in an interview. “For 30 years we’ve looked to identify and engage and educate the next generation of American policy makers.”
"You can really start something by just reaching key people," said Jason Lifton, who's newly elected to the student government at George Washington University. "I think it's important that you reach the biggest mouths on campus."
Lifton has also been involved with pro-Israel advocacy more generally, but for many if not most of the student government presidents gathered this week by AIPAC, that’s not been the case. While AIPAC didn't ask the students about their faith traditions, the sense, Kessler said, is that the vast majority of student government officers in attendance are not Jewish. Among those institutions well-represented are historically black colleges and universities and Christian colleges.
“They want to do this because the student body presidents are influential on their campus and in the community,” said Leigha Caron, the outgoing student government president at Dallas Baptist University. “This allows them to bring some of the influential people and educate them about what AIPAC is and what they stand for. Because most of us would never know what AIPAC is unless we had this opportunity to attend.”
"To really understand what the issues are is something I would never have experienced had it not been for this," said John Graves, the Student Senate President at St. Catharine College, in Kentucky. "It's more than just a free trip to D.C."
Of course, the broker of knowledge here is not an especially unbiased one, and AIPAC as an organization has been subject to increasing scrutiny in recent years, including within the Jewish community -- in part because of all the power it has accrued. “Inside the Beltway the lobby has been wildly successful at keeping policy makers and prominent individuals from criticizing Israeli policy. But academia is one place where they’ve had a lot of trouble,” said John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux ), a controversial 2007 book critical of the extent of the Israel lobby’s influence.
“The specific game, of course, is to co-opt these individuals early in their life so they are exceedingly pro-Israel over time and very reluctant to criticize Israel or the special relationship,” Mearsheimer said.
"That's the goal: to 'educate' them. Please put the word 'educate' in quotes. The name of the game here is to 'educate' these important student leaders to understand Israel's position on the various controversial issues of the Middle East."
J Street, a one-year-old player in the pro-Israel lobbying world that’s been depicted in the New York Times as the “un-AIPAC,”  last month announced its own outreach to college students. J Street (which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace”) is folding the campus-based Union of Progressive Zionists under its umbrella. Organizers largely declined to contrast their student outreach strategy with that of AIPAC's but said they're filling a niche that other pro-Israel advocacy organizations on campus (and there are many -- not just AIPAC) haven't.
“What we’ve seen a lot on campus is the very far right and the very far left. ... Israel can do no wrong and Israel can do no right,” said Tamara Shapiro, director of the Union of Progressive Zionists. “We are offering a space to provide a different perspective on what it means to be pro-Israel. There isn’t really a space on campus to talk about pushing for effective Middle East diplomacy, there isn’t really a space to talk about how to approach Israel when you have concerns with some of Israel’s policies.”
Kessler, of AIPAC, described the policy conference in big-tent terms, featuring high-profile Democrats and Republicans and offering an intensive, three-day graduate curriculum of sorts on Middle Eastern policy, with “a full array of speakers representing a full array of opinions. ... If anything, I’m exposing students to a widespread sentiment and not by any means a narrow or parochial sentiment,” Kessler said.
“It’s been really important to my education,” said Daniel McClure, a University of Central Oklahoma student who, as president of the statewide student government, recruited other student leaders from his state to come to this year's AIPAC conference, which ends today. “You can soak it up, if it’s meaningful to you, pass it on” -- as he has -- “if not, thanks for coming.”