By Ron Kampeas | JTA and JT Staff
Joe Biden made an appearance via video, and Mike Bloomberg turned up in person. So did Mike Pence. Even the coronavirus got a shoutout.
Despite threats of a boycott by Democrats and anxieties about communicable diseases, this year’s annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was a busy, bustling, and bipartisan affair.
“You saw Democrats and Republicans together, compliment one another about working together to ensure the security of Israel,” said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who attended the conference. He noted that, every four years, the presidential election overlays the event.
This year, the names that loomed largest at AIPAC were the ones that did not make an appearance: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Sanders, the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, had announced that he would boycott the AIPAC conference, saying the organization provides a platform for “leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
Following Sanders’ scorched earth statement, there was a rush of announcements from moderate Democratic candidates that they would attend or speak at the conference. Bloomberg spoke at the conference. Biden, the former vice president, addressed the throng by video, as did Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who dropped out of the presidential race March 2. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was set to deliver a video address but dropped out of the race before his scheduled remarks. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, had already said she would not attend.
Trump has snubbed AIPAC since 2016, when its leadership rebuked the then-presidential candidate because he had directly attacked President Barack Obama in his speech. Attacking a sitting president is a major no-no for a lobby that makes bipartisanship and a willingness to work with all administrations its brand.
Their absences this week underscore the increasing threat to the viability of a pro-Israel posture that depends on bipartisanship. Trump, who has probably had the closest relationship of any president with an Israeli government, does not need to appear at AIPAC to burnish his pro-Israel credentials. And Sanders is nurturing a wing of the Democratic Party willing to redefine the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways antithetical to traditional pro-Israel postures.
AIPAC President Betsy Berns Korn, in an opening speech that praised Trump for his Israel-related moves, thanked the administration for “releasing a peace proposal that was developed in consultation with the leaders of Israel’s two major political parties” — phrasing that lauded the process and elided over the plan’s content.
AIPAC always asks conference participants — an estimated 18,000 this year — to keep it civil. But this year, in addition to the recorded requests at the outset of plenary sessions, two top board members took to the stage and pleaded for comity.
One was Amy Friedkin of San Francisco, a past president who is close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The other, Alan Franco of New Orleans, has been a major giver to Republican campaigns.
“The best way to persuade us is with facts, not fire,” is what Friedkin said AIPAC had told its speakers, and she and Franco urged activists to refrain from cheering those who attacked political rivals.
Fire at times overwhelmed the facts.
Pence listed Trump’s Israel-related moves — moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, cutting funding for Palestinians, and leaving the Iran nuclear deal — and accused Sanders of “openly and repeatedly attack[ing] Israel as a racist state.” Sanders has said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a racist, but has never said Israel is a racist state. The Jewish lawmaker said recently that denying Jews the right to self-determination is itself racist.
Pence culminated his speech with a call to reelect 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. “That’s why you need four more years of President Trump in the White House.”
The call for Trump’s reelection earned Pence a standing ovation — a display that was likely to unsettle the leadership of a lobby that cultivates a careful distance from direct politicking at its events.
But Trump also found himself on the wrong side of an applause line from Bloomberg, at that point still a Democratic presidential hopeful (he dropped out of the race March 4).
Anti-Semitism “can be found both on the right and the left,” the former New York mayor said, “but there is one fact that we cannot ignore: presidential leadership matters. It sets a tone. It is either inclusive or exclusive, divisive or uniting, incendiary or calming.”
Throughout the passage — clearly meant as a swipe at Trump — the crowd applauded.
There were some moments that bolstered AIPAC’s efforts to navigate a bipartisan path in a time of profound division. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) who dropped out of the presidential stakes last year, got what was until that point the most extended applause for a barnstorming speech upholding U.S.-Israel ties.
“I see it as my duty to protect the bipartisan nature of this relationship of Israel with the United States,” said Booker, who peppered his speech with Hebrew phrases. “As long as the people of Israel have to live under the threat of indiscriminate violence … we must always as a matter of human values stand for Israel’s security and defense.”
Attendees from the Baltimore area noted how the conference brought together Jews of varying beliefs and backgrounds.
“What continues to inspire me is the very fact that 18,000 people come from all across the country simply to show their support for Israel,” Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg said in an email. “Even nicer is the fact that the audience is made up of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Jews and Christians, blacks and whites. AIPAC is the only place I know of that brings us all together.
Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, head of school at Krieger Schechter Day School, expressed a similar sentiment. He also noted that more than 4,000 college students attended. The fight against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and anti-Semitism must include college campuses, he said.
“I sat in a row of Democrats and Republicans, supporters of our president and those who will vote for anyone but Trump,” Schwartz said in an email. “Yet all of us share a love and commitment for support of the State of Israel. There were sessions where Democrats and Republicans shared the stage, some where leaders of both parties spoke together.” JT
This story includes additional reporting by JT staff writer Carolyn Conte.