US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019.
(photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – AIPAC’s annual policy conference has always been a bipartisan show of force for the pro-Israeli lobby group. The word “bipartisan” is sacred in AIPAC’s vocabulary.
On the surface, this year’s conference was no different: leaders of both the Democrats and Republicans took the stage to oppose BDS, support Israel’s right to defend herself and speak out against antisemitism.
Similarly, Israeli politicians from the Labor Party to the Likud – as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his primary challenger, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz – all lobbied the conference to preserve the historic alliance between US and Israel as a bipartisan issue.
But beneath the surface, one could spot how Washington’s hyper-partisan reality has seeped into many of the speeches. Two recent trends troubling the Jewish community are the surge of antisemitism and the erosion of bipartisan support for Israel. Thus, politicians from both US parties used the policy conference to build the case that their party is pro-Israel, and their opponent has a problem speaking against antisemitism.
Take, for example, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell. Both left their fight over the Mueller Report on Capitol Hill just to have another one at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. While they didn’t speak on the same day, it was hard not to note the crossing arrows.
“It may be that antisemitic views are limited to a small fringe today,” said Senate Majority Leader McConnell at Tuesday’s closing session of the conference. “But if ancient slurs and slanders are left unchallenged, they will be normalized anew.”
He referred to the latest remarks by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and the House resolution that condemned all types of racism, and said: “I am troubled that leading Democrats seem to have some difficulty plainly calling out antisemitism within their own ranks. And I am troubled that many of the declared Democrat presidential candidates seem to be avoiding AIPAC this year.”
Just 14 hours earlier, Senate Minority Leader Schumer spoke at the conference and expressed what appeared to be the official line of Democratic officials: “If you only care about antisemitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to fighting antisemitism,” he told the crowd.
In an apparent reference to past comments made by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Omar and US President Donald Trump, Schumer added: “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 are not loyal to America, we must call it out. When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company, we must call it out.”
Vice President Mike Pence, from his end, criticized Democratic presidential hopefuls for “boycotting” the conference, and said: “All but one Democrat running for president voted against the BDS act in Senate and while I am standing here today, eight Democratic candidates are boycotting this conference. Let me be clear: Anyone who aspires to the highest office of 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.”
Pence called for the removal of Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, without calling her by name. “Antisemitism has no place in the Congress of the United States of America. And at the minimum, anyone who slanders this historic alliance between the United States and Israel should never have a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.”
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez defended his party and told the crowd at the closing speech of the conference: “I cannot stay silent when the entire Democratic Party is castigated as Jew-haters. What we really need is leadership that unites this nation and the world against rise of antisemitism, hatred and white supremacy across the globe.
“This isn’t about playing politics with antisemitism or blaming any politician for its rise. When you imply that money is the only driving factor of a strong US-Israel relationship, you are fanning those flames and just the same, when you accuse Jews of funding caravans of asylum-seekers on our southern border or fail to call out and condemn the rise of white supremacy at home and abroad, you are fanning those flames.”
Gregory Sholom, owner of a commercial real estate brokerage company from New Jersey, told The Jerusalem Post he was saddened to see this blame game unfolding.
“I’m very disturbed by that. I feel that it is in Israel’s best interest to have a bipartisan level of support, and I am very distressed when I see politicians from either party using Israel as a bludgeon to attack members of the other party. I think that’s not good for American democracy. And I certainly think it’s not good for the interest of the state of Israel.”
When asked at the sidelines of the convention center if he still believes that support for Israel can remain a bipartisan issue, he said he hopes so.
“All of the politicians seem to indicate a preference to keep it that way. Some of them have made statements that lead me to believe that perhaps they’re not as sincere in their level of bipartisanship as they professed. I think both sides have been guilty of using Israel to find fault with the other party, and I’m distressed when I hear it.”
AIPAC’s conference remains one of the last places in Washington where bipartisanship is still on display. The question for the organization ahead of the 2020 election that will probably break all previous records of anger and divisiveness, is how long its model can exist in the current political atmosphere.
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