Inside AIPAC’s Secret Summer Seminar Series

For years, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been organizing a secret “Summer Seminar Series” and other events geared toward recruiting and training students working for the summer in Washington, DC. These events have been off-the-record, in spite of the fact that they are sometimes held in congressional buildings, and are open only to those who are invited.

In fact, even the existence of AIPAC’s Summer Seminar Series and other events is only known by those who frequent pro-Israel circles in the US. Their events are scarcely publicized, and information online is hard to come by. If one seeks details about one of AIPAC’s secretive summer sessions, one must either be provided with a link for the event or search for its name in Google (it goes without saying, however, that one must first know its name before one can search for it). And, even then, a Google search for “aipac summer seminar series” renders around only 2,000 results—a pittance in the digital world.

After scouring the AIPAC website for a bit, I also came to realize that there does not appear to be a link to the Summer Seminar Series page itself—that is to say, one cannot access it through any other links on the AIPAC website. The page is technically available to the public, but effectively hidden from the public, unless it knows what it is looking for.

What does the enigmatic page in question say? Not much. The real action presumably happens behind closed doors. The page does indicate that the event is intended exclusively for “interns and young professionals”; it also reveals that this is the second year of the series.

I searched the WayBack Machine internet archive to see if the page for the first year of the event had been saved, but found nothing. In case AIPAC later takes down the present page, I archived it multiple times at the WayBack Machine (to date, I have been the only person to ever do so). I also captured a screenshot of the page:

aipac summer seminar series website

AIPAC holds three Summer Seminar Series events each year. I missed the first installment, but managed to investigate the second and third.

The AIPAC webpage disclosed a bit about the middle event, a session titled “American Leadership and the Middle East: A Democratic and Republican Perspective.” Clearly AIPAC’s goal with the seminar was to present steadfast US support for Israel as an unquestionable bipartisan issue.

An individual who frequents these circles but asked to remain unnamed tipped me off on the upcoming second event. I was told that I did not need to register beforehand, that I could register at the desk when I arrived. I thought the fact that I looked younger than I actually am, in conjunction with the fact that I was actually an intern—and, quite conveniently, for an organization with which AIPAC did not necessarily have a negative relationship, if not a positive one either—and student would allow me to wiggle myself in.

In the days before the session, I tried to research what exactly I would be attending, but came across virtually nothing. A Google search for “‘american leadership and the middle east’ aipac” elicited just five results. One, an event on allevents.in, was clearly posted by AIPAC staff. It noted that the first installment in the 2014 Summer Seminar Series “drew over 300 attendees.” It also indicated that “Past speakers at this annual event include John McCain, Eric Cantor, Richard Blumenthal, and Eliot Engel.” It did not however name who would be speaking this year, merely revealing that the “event will feature two high profile politicians, one Democrat and one Republican.”

I searched for information about the two speakers but, once again, came up with nothing. With knowledge of the date and location of the session, I decided to simply show up. I was hoping to participate in, and later report on, both of the events, from the invaluable perspective of an insider. Little did I know that AIPAC would prevent me from doing so.

aipac summer seminar 3

Summer Seminar Series Session 2

aipac summer seminar 1

I ambled into the Dirksen Senate Office Building on the evening of 9 July 2014. I was early, for once. I walked by the drab letters emblazoned on the large stone slabs outside and proceeded to wander the halls for a few minutes. When I turned a corner, I saw three signs. One read
AIPAC Summer Seminar Series. I knew I was in the right place.

Although press and photographers were not allowed, I did manage to capture a few photos on my phone—yet not without being harassed. After I snapped a few pictures, I was confronted by personnel, who reminded me that visually documenting the meeting was prohibited. I did want to risk being the target of more flak, and thus only managed to get these photos from outside the conference room.

aipac summer seminar 4

I approached the desk, which was staffed by impeccably dressed young professionals. They asked for my name, where I was interning, and where I went to school. I told them. They asked how I heard about the event. I said a friend had informed me. Things appeared to be going well.

They weren’t. The staffers would not let me in. They said I had to be invited. I explained that I was told that I could register when I arrived. The paperwork they had stacked on the table appeared to suggest that, yet they maintained that I was mistaken.

aipac summer seminar 5

Although I could not get in, while I was there, I did manage to discover the identities of the speakers. The Republican was Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents Florida. Ros-Lehtinen was a strong proponent of the NATO bombing of Libya. She has called for eliminating over a dozen State Department and foreign aid programs. Never ceasing in her support for Israel, she has also tried to halt US humanitarian aid to the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Ros-Lehtinen has established herself as an anti-UN crusader. In 2011, she introduced a bill to cut off US funding to any UN organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood (The Economist characterized the legislation as “a bad bill for everyone”). As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen even called for the US to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in protest of its criticism of Israel over its crimes against the occupied Palestinian people.

The Democrat speaking at the session was Congressman Ted Deutch, who also represents Florida. Deutch’s record is not quite as eventful, yet he has a clear commitment to maintaining undying US support for Israel, in spite of its constant violations of international humanitarian law. In 2013, he co-founded the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance. Deutch has also been honored by AIPAC for his commitment to the US-Israel “special relationship,” which he stresses is a “bipartisan effort.”

Representatives Deutch and and Ros-Lehtinen meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on 3 July

Representatives Deutch and and Ros-Lehtinen meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on 3 July

Together, both representatives authored the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, H.R. 938. The two politicians have also claimed that Iran is a “nuclear threat” that must be contained.

Mere days before Israel began its bombardment of Gaza, both congresspeople met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assuring their utmost support.

I was unable to get into the event to hear exactly what they had to say, and there was a complete media blackout about the seminar, but it was clear that its message was going to be about indefatigably backing Israel while it bombed Gaza.

Summer Seminar Series Session 3

One more installment was to be held in the AIPAC Summer Seminar Series. This time, it was to be a career fair.

AIPAC changed its website to reflect the new event, the first annual AIPAC Washington Career Fair. I archived this page as well, and a screenshot can be seen below:

aipac 2014 summar seminar series 3

The career fair featured hiring representatives from AIPAC, the US Department of State, the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, Jewish Federations of North America, Hillel, Teach for America, and more.

I registered two days before the event this time, to avoid once again being rejected. I also spoke with Ann Wright, a former US Army colonel and longtime State Department official who resigned in 2003, after decades of service, in protest of the illegal US invasion of Iraq. In the time since, Wright has become a committed peace activist, and is particularly critical of US policy in the Middle East.

Anticipating being barred from entry again, I asked Wright whether it was legal to have a career fair that refuses to let individuals in who are publicly critical of Israel with representatives from the Department of State, an equal-opportunity employer who may potentially be offering jobs. “It may be illegal,” she said, but, even if not, “it is problematic and ethically questionable.”

aipac career fair - smaller

On the warm evening of 22 July, I sauntered down 16th Street and made my way into DC’s luxurious Capital Hilton. Visible in the doorway, surrounded by posh furniture and ornate decorations, was a sign reading “Washington Career Fair Sponsored By AIPAC.” I would have liked to film the milieu, but it would have been too conspicuous; in lieu of video, I ergo decided to have the audio recorder application roll on the phone in my pocket, in case I encountered any hostility.

As soon as I walked in, I noticed a familiar-looking young man who worked for AIPAC. He was staring at me strangely. I figured it would be best to ignore him, and walked up the stairs to the registration desk.

I walked past a large red AIPAC sign depicting stars with a US and Israeli flag and approached the desk, which was staffed by young women who appeared to be interns. I told them I had already registered, but they asked me to fill out a form again, with similar information. After making a nametag, I parted, and began to walk down the hotel hallway.

aipac sign at career fair - smaller

Upon taking just a few steps down the hall, I was called back to the desk. A senior AIPAC representative was now standing there. He asked why I was at the event. I told him I was there to participate in the career fair. He did not believe me. The man claimed I was on AIPAC’s “list.” I asked what kind of list. He would not divulge its name.

I was asked to leave. I inquired as to why I was being kicked out. He said I was a potential “security threat.” I asked how I could in any way pose a “security threat.” The man simply repeated “You are on our list.” “I do not make the list,” he said, in a Kafkaesque attempt to shirk responsibility.

State Department representatives and senators were at the job fair, offering prospective employment. I mentioned this and said it was legally questionable to kick someone out of an event that offered such potential employment based on their political views. He ignored my point and once again said I was on the suspicious list and must leave. I asked to speak with someone who did make the list, or with a supervisor. He stated that that was not possible. I would have to email them. “Can you give me their email?” I asked. He agreed to give it to me.

I remained calm and courteous. He did as well, yet was clearly impatient. He called a bulky security guard over to escort me out. I agreed to quietly leave. While I walked away, I took out my phone to take photos. The security guard, who was following me, reached out to try to grab my phone. “You can’t take pictures here,” he uttered. I asked why I could not take pictures in a hotel that AIPC did not own. He claimed it was impermissible because it was a private event. The familiar-looking young AIPAC worker stared me down as I left. It appeared as though he took pleasure in it.

After stepping foot outside of the hotel, I took out my phone and stopped the audio recording I had captured of my brief sojourn in the event. I proceeded to log onto Twitter. Inside the career fair, I had heard that young participants were tweeting with the hashtag #Saban2014. With the ubiquity of social media, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hide large meetings, even secretive ones like this.

Florida congressman Mario Diaz-Balart tweeted from inside AIPAC’s Summer Saban Leadership Seminar, which concluded with the career fair.

Saban, which is more well-known and has a larger web presence, dovetailed with the end of the Summer Seminar Series. It is in its 25th year, and AIPAC said that “420 pro-Israel students” participated in 2014.

The Timing

I tried my best to get a more detailed look from inside AIPAC’s secret Summer Seminar Series. The organization’s opposition to journalists and transparency prevented me from doing so.

In all, I found the inhospitality to be particularly timely, coming at a moment while Israel was brutalizing Gaza with bombs and ravaging the West Bank with raids. With video of Israel gunning down four innocent children playing soccer on a Gaza beach; with one child in Gaza killed every hour, according to the UN; and with over 1,000 Palestinians already dead, the majority of them civilians, the furtive meetings and effusive leadership training sessions seemed grossly reprobate, even sadistic.

At a time of utmost despair and excruciating pain for the Palestinian people, I found secretive AIPAC sessions in government buildings in our nation’s capital that prevent outsiders and journalists from observing to be distasteful, to say the least.