U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) knew how to bring a crowd of 3,000 dovish pro-Israel activists to their feet as he spoke Monday at J Street’s 10th annual policy conference. He went after the current administration.
“Despite what the Congress thinks and what the president thinks, the power is with the people,” he said as he took to the podium at J Street’s 10th anniversary conference inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington.
It was a reconciliation of sorts for Cardin — who in 2015 had opposed the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers — and J Street, which had vigorously supported the deal. J Street reportedly spent $245,000 in the Baltimore market where Cardin lives to run a pro-Iran deal television spot.
Despite his opposition to the deal, Cardin on Monday criticized Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his 2015 speech urging Congress to vote against it, saying it “created a partisan division in our own country.” He said he now agrees with former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who had told the J Street audience that it would be a mistake for the United States to abandon the agreement.
The J Street conference styled its participants as the loyal opposition: opponents to Trump and Netanyahu, and carrying the standard of liberal democracy.
“All across the globe liberal democracy is in retreat,” Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s president, said Saturday as the conference opened. “J Street proudly opposes these trends, and we couldn’t be clearer in the threat President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu pose.”
“It’s great to see so many people supporting Israel, supporting peace, supporting a two-state solution, supporting democracy and supporting our liberal values,” former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday.
Livni, a leader of the opposition Zionist Union, said those values include religious freedom and an end to the “monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel,” and equal rights for all Israelis. “This is the definition of a Jewish democratic state,” she said.
From that perspective, Cardin fit in. He reiterated his support for a two-state solution and criticized Trump’s executive actions banning immigrants from Muslim- majority countries, as well as Netanyahu’s reversal of an agreement to accept some 16,000 African migrants into Israel.
Cardin also expressed concern about the global rise of anti-Semitism, placing much of the blame on Trump issuing mixed messages after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August.
He condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, an economic effort against Israel that J Street also opposes. (Some panelists at the conference nevertheless advocated for BDS.) He reminded the audience that he co-authored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act last year that would punish American companies that comply with international efforts to boycott Israel.
“You may have heard about it, it’s had some controversy,” Cardin said of his bill.
J Street opposes the legislation on the grounds that it does not adequately distinguish between Israel and its settlements. The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the bill on the grounds that it violated free speech — an argument that Cardin refuted Monday.
“I can tell you that I have spent my entire political career defending First Amendment rights. Anyone who wants to criticize Israel or boycott Israel … I think you’re wrong. But you have your constitutional right to do that,” he said. “Let us work together to figure out a way to protect the freedom of speech, but also protect American businesses from being bullied into boycotting Israel.”
Cardin assured the J Street crowd that his bill would not change American foreign policy of opposing Israel’s settlements.
“I believe that we should not take sides against how settlements have been unhelpful for Israel’s long term-survival,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t do anything in this bill that would compromise the traditional view of this country in regards to Israel’s settlements.”
Cardin came to the conference amid challenges from his left flank. On Monday, five activists from the anti-occupation group If Not Now were arrested for blockading his Senate office because he has not commented on the recent deadly protests in Gaza.
And Jerome Segal, founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby, who is challenging Cardin in the June Democratic primary, was handing out leaflets asking if J Street had lost its way by inviting Cardin, who he identified with the more bipartisan AIPAC. He referred to Cardin’s speech as the “kosherization” of J Street, Al-Monitor reported.
Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also spoke Monday, criticizing Israel’s military response to Palestinian protestors on the Gaza border, calling on Israel to cease building settlements in the West Bank and criticizing Trump’s Middle East policies.
But it was Sanders’ excoriation of Netanyahu’s government that received the biggest applause from the audience that sees itself as the loyal opposition.
“As someone who, as a young man lived in Israel for a number of months, and is very proud of his Jewish heritage,” Sanders said, “as someone who is deeply concerned about the global rise of anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu does not make us anti-Israel.”