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Telling the machers from the shnooks at AIPAC

There are many ways to understand the annual gathering in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). For some, it's evidence of a plot to undermine the national interest. For others, it's one of the great American rituals of political participation. But to really grasp how AIPAC's policy conference works, first familiarize yourself with the Yiddish word, “macher.”

A macher is a big shot. He's a man with connections, a man who gets things done, a somebody in a world of wannabes. His opposite is the shnook, the guy who doesn't know how great the machers have it. The shnook is content with his unspecial treatment because he doesn't know any better. Most Americans want to be a macher and fear the prospect that they are just a shnook.

For the 16,000 pro-Israel activists milling about the Washington convention center this week, what separates the shnooks from the machers is the color of their lanyards, the poly-cotton ropes that affix one's badge to one's neck.

If you're just a delegate to the convention, the kind of guy who flies coach and uses his stored-up miles to book hotel rooms, you have a plain white lanyard. For the big dinner Monday night with all the senators and congressmen, your table is probably so far away from the stage that you have to squint at one of the many monitors in the banquet hall to see what's going on. The white lanyards have to wait in line, sometimes for nearly an hour, to get into the main hall to hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or National Security Advisor Susan Rice address the crowd.

The experience is much different for the select few who wear the maroon lanyards. They are members of the “Minyan Club.” A minyan in Judaism is a 10-man prayer group. At AIPAC, Minyan Club members are people who have given at least $100,000 in the last year. That puts them at the top of AIPAC's macher pyramid.

Elizabeth Cutler, an artist in Bangor, Maine, and an officer of her family's charitable foundation, told me that every time an AIPAC staff member (denoted by orange lanyards) notices her just wandering around, “someone offers to help me.” Minyan club members don't wait in line anywhere. Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas at the Copa, they're ushered in past the metal detectors and shown to the front of the room as soon as they arrive. On Sunday night, the Minyan Club was invited to a lavish off-site dinner at the Polish embassy. For the annual dinner, Minyan Club members have the tables closest to the stage.

On the ground floor of AIPAC village, a massive room with different kiosks connected by a relief of a very Israeli-looking limestone facade, is also a special Minyan Club lounge. Now, the AIPAC village has many lounges: the regular concession where thousands of white lanyard shnooks line up to plunk down $14.50 for a soggy sandwich and a canned soda, or the Senate Club lounge where one can relax in cushy chairs and eat complimentary granola bars. But the Minyan Club lounge is first class all the way — fine wines, French-style rack of lamb, and six flat-screen TVs carrying the proceedings.

Not that I could see this for myself. When I stopped by, with my green journalist's lanyard, I had to lurk outside as AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr chatted with a few of the other machers inside.

Such concentric circles of perks and clubs make up the fabric of American civil society. The well-to-do may start off with a modest donation to a cause or a charity or a synagogue or a church, but over time the organization tells them they have an opportunity to be a “founder” or a “builder” or have their name etched on a brick for just a little more money.

In this sense, AIPAC is no different than the National Audubon Society, except it's selling not only what its members consider a good cause, but also the lure of being a Washington insider. Morris Amitay, who was AIPAC's executive director between 1974 and 1981, told me, “You have a good product that AIPAC sells, all the congressional initiatives favorable to Israel. But the other product is making someone feel important. You have a chance to say I told Senator so-and-so about how dangerous Iran is.”

For Elliot Schnitzer, a real-estate executive from Chevy Chase, the various levels at AIPAC play on a basic aspect of human nature. “When you see a game at the Verizon Center, where do you want to sit? The 400 level? The 100 level? Or courtside?,” he asked.

By that yardstick, Schnitzer’s is somewhere between the 400s and 100s — a member of the Washington Club (pink lanyard), which means he gave $1,800 to AIPAC last year. For that, he gets a conference call with Kohr once every couple of months and invitations to a few break-out sessions not on the regular agenda.

Schnitzer's friend, Jerry Leener, a former executive with PricewaterhouseCoopers, wears the yellow lanyard of the Senate Club, for those who have given $10,000 in a year. He told me this was his first AIPAC convention as a Senate Club member: Over the summer, during Israel's latest war with Gaza, he said, he grew “passionate about Israel's survival and I was looking for something other than a religious experience.” His Senate Club membership gets him a little closer to the stage for the big dinners and programs, he said, and every two years a chance to join an AIPAC delegation to Israel. At policy conferences, he gets invited to two exclusive dinners as well as special break-out sessions. This year, another Senate Club member told me, his club was invited to special sessions with the governor of Colorado and Lord William David Trimble, the Northern Ireland Ulster leader who made peace with the Irish Republican Army.

AIPAC wasn't always like this. Amitay told me that when he took over the organization, the lobby's annual budget was $150,000. He took a $40,000 annual salary and scrimped to make the case for the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress. But by the end of his tenure in 1981, he said, AIPAC's annual budget had quadrupled. AIPAC's latest tax return put its net assets in the 2012 fiscal year at $74.14 million.

In the old days, Amitay said, the annual conference drew about 600 delegates to the much smaller Washington Hilton. He said his biggest single donation in those years was $20,000. He declined to say who gave it.

Amitay said he was impressed by the modern AIPAC. While it went against some of his egalitarian instincts, he acknowledged that an organization of AIPAC's size needed to keep raising lots of money.

Not that the AIPAC of his day didn't do well, mind you. “Despite our relative lack of money,” Amitay told me, “I still think we were able to do much better in terms of influencing the administration because in my lifetime I don't think there has been a more negative White House than this one.”

In Amitay's day, the real machers at AIPAC were the people who had invested in relationships with politicians at the beginning of their careers. Known as “key contacts,” these are the people who can get a lawmaker on the phone in less than 24 hours because they knew the politician when he was just some shnook at the state legislature or on the city council. The “key contacts” raised money, sure. But the relationships forged over time provided a level of access and influence that money alone cannot buy.

Key contacts are still a major part of AIPAC today. But you wouldn't necessarily know it from their annual policy conference. The new machers are mainly the guys who write the biggest checks.

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