In a cavernous conference hall at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Downtown DC last week, over 18,000 delegates from across the US and Israel and around the world thundered with cheers over highly partisan addresses by an all-star roster of Trump administration-affiliated speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. During their speeches and others, the crowd gave standing ovations for mentions of President Donald Trump, while references to leading Democrats like Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Representative Ilhan Omar, and former President Barack Obama drew resounding boos.
This raucous gathering of pro-Republican, anti-Democrat activists wasn’t a Trump rally or a Republican nominating convention. It was instead the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse that has for its near 70-year history claimed “bipartisan support” as the cornerstone of its mission.
While this year’s gathering saw leadership double down on its bipartisan message, the delegation’s apparent shift right speaks volumes about the state of American politics and calls into question the viability of AIPAC’s “neutral” approach moving forward. This commitment to neutrality has resounded in recent years, especially as the Democrat base and mainstream platform have moved far left, and very quickly, particularly on Israel.
Indeed, the timing of the conference this year was politically significant, with day three taking place on Super Tuesday, which featured Democrat primaries in 14 key states, in the midst of a highly competitive race for the presidential nomination in a party whose base and platform have turned a sharp left in recent years – particularly on Israel.
The shift against Israel began under United Nations-beholden President Barack Obama, whose conflict-laden relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even the sycophantic New York Times described as one of “mutual contempt.” In the last months of his presidency, Obama went so far as to allow the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
Since 2016, in reaction to President Trump, the party has moved even further left, embracing an intersectional narrative that pits Israel as an aggressor against “oppressed minority” Palestinians, and embracing a globalist, socialist narrative that condemns its “imperialist” and “capitalist” influence in the region. Radical left, openly anti-Zionist Democrat Congress members like Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have joined Senator Bernie Sanders in full-throated opposition to the existence of a Jewish state, invoking anti-Semitic tropes. And as these far-left voices have seen their status soar on social media, the mainstream Democratic Party, including one-time moderates like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who were once stalwart supporters of Israel, have remained silent and failed to condemn their attacks.
The leftward shift among mainstream Democrats and the rising tide of anti-Zionism on the party platform were apparent in the roster of speakers at this year’s General Assembly. Addressing the General Assembly were 2020 primary candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who addressed the General Assembly, as did perennial speakers Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Representative Steny Hoyer. Notably, Klobuchar and Biden did not speak live, but rather addressed the crowd via pre-recorded video messages, in an apparent hedge between boycotting and supporting the event. Bloomberg was the only candidate to appear live.
Notably absent from this year’s conference was Democrat Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, a onetime frontrunner in the race whose newfound, far-left platform precluded her involvement with AIPAC; and Bernie Sanders, who is still locked in battle with Biden for the nomination. Sanders announced on the Sunday before the conference that he would not attend (= boycott), citing his concerns that AIPAC provides leaders “a platform to express bigotry” and “oppose basic Palestinian rights.” These remarks were only the latest in a career-long attack against Israel’s sovereignty.
Despite Sanders’ and his allies’ attacks on Israel and increasingly open use of anti-Semitic rhetoric, the Democrat speakers at AIPAC stayed mum.
Of all the Democrat powerbrokers and presidential hopefuls touting their pro-Israel bona fides, only one, Bloomberg, called out his anti-Israel Democrat peers by name. “Unfortunately, not all of my fellow Democrats in this race have attended an AIPAC conference,” said Bloomberg. “One of them, Senator Sanders, has spent 30 years boycotting this event. And as you’ve heard by now, he called AIPAC a racist platform. Well, let me tell you, he’s dead wrong… Calling it a racist platform is an attempt to…weaken the US-Israel relationship.” Bloomberg also denounced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a favorite of Omar and Sanders, and criticized the “double standard” to which the United Nations holds Israel. Bloomberg’s remarks at AIPAC were perhaps his most celebrated moment in an otherwise flailing campaign.
Schumer, too, failed to call out Sanders or Omar. Though he has called Trump a racist and far worse on countless occasions over imagined and invented crimes, he was not able to muster the same indignation for open anti-Semites. “When someone says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you’re not loyal to America, we must call it out,” he charged, but declined to name Omar as the person who made that comparison.
Sanders and his smears also got a pass from AIPAC leadership, which has historically failed to denounce anti-Israel Democrats by name or even repudiate their slurs directly. Though promising to “say this plainly,” AIPAC’s CEO Howard Kohr mustered only a vague reference to Sanders’ anti-Israel platform without naming the socialist directly. “Any leader who energizes their political movement by demonizing Israel is not a friend of Israel… The pro-Israel community will work to defeat those who try to harm our friends, and those who try to harm the US-Israel relationship.”
Kohr and the Democratic speakers were met with polite applause as fitting of their safe, milquetoast message. But every time Trump administration bigwigs stepped up to the podium and spoke candidly, whether openly pro-Trump or openly anti-left, the crowd went wild, signaling a groundswell of very partisan sentiment inside the delegation.
Pence, this year’s keynote speaker, drew multiple rounds of cheers as he touted Trump’s hugely successful record on Israel, including leaving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, cutting off funding for the Palestinians, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights – all drawing multiple instances of cheers and applause. He then earned a standing ovation with his call to reelect President Trump. “The most pro-Israel president in history must not be replaced by one who would be the most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation,” Pence said, referring to Sanders. “That’s why you need four more years of President Trump in the White House.” By AIPAC leadership’s standards, a direct call for the election of any candidate is bad form, but the delegates loved it.
He went on to confront the fallacy implicit in AIPAC’s bipartisan stance, and to call out the dangerous direction the Democratic Party has taken. “The bipartisan consensus that has once supported our most cherished ally and has been so nobly and ably championed by you here at AIPAC is actually beginning to erode in one of America’s two major political parties. Today, the leading candidate for the presidential nomination of the party of Harry S. Truman openly and repeatedly attacks Israel as a racist state, and defames AIPAC as, of all things, as he said, a, quote, platform for ‘bigotry.’ Even more troubling, when Bernie Sanders smeared Israel at last week’s debate, not a single candidate on that stage stood up to challenge him.” He also charged that the Democratic Party had been “co-opted by people who promote rank anti-Semitic rhetoric.” His direct calling-out of Sanders, and this open rebuke of the Democratic Party’s failure to condemn him, elicited huge support from the crowd. “Support for Israel…has been a long, bipartisan tradition in the Congress, spanning generations,” Pence said. “But how things have changed!”
Another Republican to earn boisterous support for his partisan messaging was McCarthy, who also brought Sanders’ and Omar’s names front and center as he warned against rising anti-Semitism on the mainstream left. “The United States is on the cusp of an anti-Israel movement gaining real political power,” he warned. “While we are here defending democracy, Bernie Sanders is boycotting AIPAC… Instead of standing with Israel, he [Sanders] is campaigning with Congress’ most vocal supporters of the vile BDS movement. You may know her as Congresswoman Omar.” The mention of Omar’s name drew loud boos from the assembly.
Pompeo echoed Pence’s Trump shout-out, celebrating the President’s recognition of the Golan Heights as part of sovereign Israel alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House earlier that day. “What a truly great two days for two great nations,” he said to cheers. He also used the opportunity to attack the Democratic platform’s shift away from support for the Jewish state.
Eliciting by far the most enthusiastic response from the crowd was US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who gave a highly partisan speech excoriating the left for opposing President Trump’s successes with Israel and Middle East peace. “To my friends on the left: Hating Donald Trump is not an Israel policy,” he said. “If the only reason you don’t like our policy and Israel is that you don’t like our president, regrettably, we will remain unnecessarily, endlessly divided and potentially miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Friedman went on to compare a laundry list of Trump’s accomplishments in Israel to a litany of Obama’s bungled and sometimes downright hostile policies on the nation. In particular, he chided the Obama administration for allowing the passage of a UN Security Council resolution against Israel in 2016, calling the move a “betrayal.” Friedman also blasted a Democrat-backed plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from the West Bank. “Under the Trump administration, the Biblical heartland of Israel, Judea and Samaria, will never be ‘Judenrein,’” he said, invoking the Nazi term for areas “cleansed of Jews.”
He urged AIPAC delegates and government officials alike to give the current administration credit where credit is due. “Had President Obama – with whom I had profound disagreements – had he moved our embassy to Jerusalem, had he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, had he restored tough sanctions on Iran, and authored President Trump’s vision for peace, I would have been the first to applaud, and I’d still be applauding today,” he said. “Of course, none of these things were done by President Obama. In fact, they were all achieved by President Donald J. Trump. And for that we should all be the first to be applauding today.”
The crowd heartily obliged. Whether they’ll continue to support an organization that hasn’t stood up to openly anti-Semitic Democrat leaders remains to be seen.
By Emily Cohen