Washington, D.C. — When Amy Friedkin, former chair of the AIPAC board, introduced herself to the AIPAC Policy Conference here this week as a Democrat, she received faint applause from the approximately 18,000 attendees. When Alan Franco, a current AIPAC board member, introduced himself as a Republican, the cheering grew louder.
And so began an AIPAC conference filled with appeals to bipartisanship that alternated with plainly partisan speeches, mostly attacking Democrats.
From the moment the three-day conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby began on Sunday with a request for participants not to cheer for partisan attacks and to grant their applause as a reward for bipartisanship instead, the increasing shakiness of AIPAC’s bipartisan foundations was apparent. Even before Sen. Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, went so far as to accuse the lobby of offering a platform to “bigotry,” the event was shaping up as a political lightning rod.
“There’s no doubt that because we’re meeting during Israeli elections and Super Tuesday, there’s a lot of political buzz,” said Dov Ben-Shimon,
executive vice president/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey.
The decision by all the Democratic candidates for president, save for Mike Bloomberg, to skip the conference was put under close scrutiny, even though it happened to coincide with the run-up to this week’s pivotal Super Tuesday primary contest in 14 states.
With the Democratic primary field winnowing down and Sanders emerging as the candidate to beat, AIPACers expressed fear of a potential nominee who has called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” and spoken of leveraging U.S. aid to Israel to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the table.
The U.S. aid package is sacrosanct to AIPAC, which has long touted support for it and Israel’s other security needs; the organization maintains the aid package draws wide and deep backing from both sides of the aisle. And while the conference still drew a parade of Republicans and Democrats, a lobby that often enthusiastically defends a right-wing Israeli government is deeply concerned by criticism from the Democrats’ progressive wing.
During plenary sessions at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Sanders was invoked again and again by speakers. In an opening speech on Sunday morning, Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, seemed to place the blame for degrading bipartisanship on Democrats, and specifically the Sanders wing of the party. “Today, I must sound an alarm,” said Kohr, appearing to speak about Sanders. “A growing, highly vocal and energized part of the electorate fundamentally rejects the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance. It is no longer on the margins — but instead has taken the spotlight of our political life. Its most radical views are bending the political conversation and commanding attention. And this movement has national ambitions.”
AIPAC’s new president, Betsy Berns Korn, echoed Kohr in her inaugural address to the conference. “We need to see this moment for what it is. We’re in a fight,” she said. Korn warned AIPAC’s adversaries that the lobby will not hesitate to deploy its resources to fight them. “Our friends in Congress — Democrats and Republicans — must know that members of the pro-Israel community will help them,” said Korn. “And those who stand against the U.S.-Israel relationship must know: The pro-Israel community will work to defeat them.”
Korn’s threat comes after Democratic Majority For Israel, a pro-Israel PAC ideologically aligned to AIPAC, ran ads attacking Sanders in Iowa and Nevada leading up to those states’ primaries.
Ed Zinbarg of Short Hills, a longtime supporter of federation and member of its pluralism committee, has attended many AIPAC conferences with his wife Barbara. He was livid while discussing Sanders, “a nutjob,” and his followers, a “fringe element” that “does not understand anything about Israel.”
“To denounce AIPAC as an organization for bigotry is outrageous and he won’t win the votes of the people here,” he said.
AIPAC ran advertisements on Facebook just a few weeks before the conference targeting some Democrats and calling them “maybe more sinister” than ISIS and other terrorist groups. The lobby was criticized for running the ads and quickly apologized and removed them, but the episode fueled outrage at AIPAC among some Democrats.
When it came to speeches from members of the Trump administration at the conference, the attacks on Democrats were more wide-ranging and less veiled. Speaking on Monday morning, Vice President Mike Pence made an explicit appeal to re-elect Donald Trump and denigrated the Democratic candidates. “When Bernie Sanders smeared Israel at last week’s debate, not a single candidate on that stage stood up to challenge him,” said Pence.
In a speech in the afternoon, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman touted Trump’s moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and a new State Department policy saying Israeli settlements do not violate international law. He drew loud cheers from the crowd.
“When Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo issued his opinion on settlements, hysteria overcame the progressive left. My friends, this just tells us how far the goal posts moved against Israel during the previous administration,” said Friedman, referring to President Barack Obama. “I have been wanting to say this to my friends on the left for some time: Hating Donald Trump is not an Israel policy.”
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and the only Democratic candidate for president to speak at AIPAC in person, received a standing ovation when he declared that he would never impose conditions on aid to Israel. “Israel should never be a football that American politicians kick around in an effort to score points,” he told the audience. And he joined the attacks on Sanders when he referenced his opponent’s comments about AIPAC giving a platform to bigotry: “Let me tell you, he’s dead wrong!”
Bloomberg’s visit to the conference impressed Miriam Bash, a 15-year-old from Livingston who attended the conference with a delegation from the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, where she is a sophomore. “It shows how dedicated he is to U.S.-Israeli relations that he came in person,” she told NJJN.
Many conference attendees insisted that AIPAC should remain bipartisan, though some placed the blame for diminishing bipartisanship on the Democrats.
“This conference feels very different because of the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party,” said Ed Zinbarg.
But Barbara Zinbarg appreciated the attempts to remain bipartisan. “We heard from both sides of the aisle, and you could make up your own mind,” she said. Still, she said that perhaps Sanders’ decision not to attend was mentioned too often. “I feel bad about that.”
Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. NJJN senior writer Johanna Ginsberg contributed reporting.