“Bipartisanship” was the word of the day at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference early this week, with speakers and organization leadership doubling down on the notion that support for Israel requires support from both Democrats and Republicans, that it is an across-the-aisle issue; but the mood among many delegates was worry, as the sharp spike in anti-Zionist rhetoric and policy on the Democratic Party as its breakout presidential candidates tack to the hard left and the base is pulled along with it.
Over 18,000 activists convened in the gargantuan Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, from Sunday to Tuesday for AIPAC’s annual policy conference, where Democratic and Republican heads of state, Congress people, Israeli elected officials, and myriad other speakers of the need for continued bipartisan support for Israel, the importance of American-Israeli relations, and the fundamental right of the Jewish people to inhabit their biblical and historic homeland.
Mort Fridman, AIPAC’s president, opened the general assembly with a promise that AIPAC would never allow American support of Israel to be silenced. “None of us are willing to be silenced or intimidated,” he said.
A string of other speakers, mostly Democrats, echoed his ideal of bipartisan support for Israel, in both general assemblies and breakout sessions over the course of the three-day conference. They vaguely alluded to a number of anti-Semitic statements made in the last few months by leaders like Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), but declined to bring her or her colleagues to task.
In one incident just weeks before the conference, Omar accused American Jews who support Israel of “dual allegiance” to a foreign country; months earlier, she tweeted that AIPAC’s influence over the US government was “all about the Benjamins,” and that Israel had “hypnotized the world” into sympathizing with its cause.
But Omar’s name was never mentioned by AIPAC Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also spoke broadly against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments, but declined to refer to specific individuals or to let on that the problem lies with his own party members.
“Those who seek to use Israel as a means to scoring political points do a disservice to both Israel and the United States,” he said. “When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to ‘buy’ or ‘steal’ our elections, we must call it out. When someone says that being Jewish and supporting Israel means you’re not loyal to [the US].”
Also staying on-brand for AIPAC was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who alluded to recent controversies but refused to name names. “I stand with Israel, proudly and unapologetically,” he said, “So, when someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: Accuse me. I am part of a large, bipartisan coalition in Congress supporting Israel. I tell Israel’s detractors: Accuse us.”
The only speakers to openly confront the diminishing support for Israel within the Democratic Party were a handful of conservative Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke from Israel via satellite.
Pence described the Democratic Party as having been “co-opted” by anti-Semites. “The party of Harry Truman, which did so much to create the State of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank anti-Semitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
Pence went further, addressing Democratic Party leaders’ recent failure to pass a resolution condemning the BDS movement. “Anyone who aspires to the highest office in the land should not be afraid to stand with the strongest supporters of Israel in America. It is wrong to boycott Israel and it is wrong to boycott AIPAC,” he said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Netanyahu also took on Omar’s comments head-on. “Take it from this Benjamin,” he quipped. “It’s not about the Benjamins… American-Israel Public Affairs Committee [US support for Israel] is not because they want our money; it’s because they share our values.”
Continuing, he vowed that “those who seek to undermine American support for Israel must be confronted… [They] spew venom that has long been directed at the Jewish people… To all the anti-Semites out there – we stand up, we fight, and we win.”
These targeted comments against specific anti-Zionist Democrats were the exception in three-days of reiterated commitments to bipartisanship.
The refusal of AIPAC leadership, as represented by these mostly Democratic speakers, to take the increasingly vocal anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist wing of the party to task represents a growing threat to the organization’s very purpose. By failing to unequivocally condemn the vocal and growing radical anti-Zionist faction of the Democratic Party, AIPAC could watch the party’s base move left to meet the demands of a few visible radicals and, as a result, erode the grassroots pro-Israel support that has always been a bulwark of the mainstream Democratic Party platform.
This fear – that AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisan passivity at the expense of rooting out vocal anti-Semites within the Democratic Party before they gain more traction – was looming heavily on the minds of many of this year’s delegates.
Albert Linder, a Holocaust survivor, felt that he could no longer support the Democratic Party himself and hoped that AIPAC would take a more vocal role in setting the party straight. “I was a lifelong Democrat, but after what the House did last week [refusing to pass a resolution that specifically denounced anti-Semitism and its recent purveyor, Ilhan Omar], I will not be a Democrat anymore. I worry about the Democratic Party being overtaken; AIPAC should speak out.”
Michelle, from Lake Tahoe, California, shared her fears. “The far Left used to be pro-Israel but is now fascist. People are calling themselves liberals… liberals should be for rights for everyone, and now Democrats are not. The Democratic Party no longer supports the rights of Israel.”
Francine Lipstein, of Merion Station, Pennsylvania, echoed their fear of the Democratic Party’s move left, and warned AIPAC to step up against radical Leftists. The Jewish people aren’t safe. Identity politics is the worst thing for the Jewish people, because what you’re doing is categorizing people by race and type. As soon as you’re dividing people up into groups, Jews suffer. I’d like to see AIPAC be vocal in its condemnation of these policies.”
Offering the most constructive plan for AIPAC’s direction was speaker and attorney Eboni Williams, formerly of Fox News and WABC Radio. “The new base of the Democratic Party, they’re not here,” she said, “and I think that AIPAC has to ask itself why. There needs to be a deeper level of acceptance that there’s a real problem here.”
By Emily Cohen