April 24, 2024
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April 24, 2024
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AIPAC and the Gorilla in the Room

It’s been two weeks since the AIPAC Policy Conference, but I still can’t get the uneasy feeling out of my mind. Keep in mind that AIPAC is my favorite conference. Period.

I’ve seen over the years the critical importance of the Israel-American connection. And I’ve learned a great deal at AIPAC about everything from Iran’s enrichment of military-grade nuclear weapons to how to work with high school students on lobbying Capitol Hill.

This year there was a clear show of bipartisan support for Israel. But this time around, I felt there was something different in the room. It was, please forgive me, the 18,000-person gorilla in the room.

It was the first time I’ve ever felt a division, at AIPAC, between Democrats and Republican Jews. It had nothing to do with AIPAC’s programming. The timing, however, was difficult and suggested a crack in the foundation of the American Jewish voter, especially the Democrats, as we move away from the midterm elections into election season.

The issue was that there weren’t any overt changes. There was a noticeable absence of pro-BDS, anti-Israel rhetoric coming from the mouths of Reps. Omar and Tlaib. The Democratic presidential candidates, especially the ones who have been so critical of Israel, were not invited and most weren’t to be found. Make no mistake: Every speaker at AIPAC was effusive in support for the American-Israel relationship and wanted to see it get stronger.

But if there was a signal of what the American Jewish community could be processing in the coming year, it was in the standing ovations, half standing, not quite getting out of one’s seat or defiantly deciding to sit.

I saw this especially when Vice President Mike Pence spoke. He received a thunderous ovation, but not all the Dems in the room stood. Conversely, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke, she was awarded with warm applause; but standers, not so much.

But Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Whip; David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Nikki Haley, the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and even New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez all were given loud, standing ovations.

In a Russell Senate Office Building conference room, the stress of all this came to a head by the audience reaction to the two Maryland U.S. senators. Where Sen. Ben Cardin spoke eloquently about the continuing need for a strong Israel-U.S. relationship, junior Sen. Chris Van Hollen sucked the air out of the room when he said he thought BDS was “bad” but he felt being pro-BDS was a First Amendment issue.

Where I was sitting back at the Convention Center, people in red and white Make America Great Again hats were boisterous in their standing ovations, much to the chagrin of some others in the audience with their arms crossed.

For those sitting on the fence as we head toward 2020, there is the conversation that recognizes what President Donald Trump has done for Israel. And for many Democrats, it’s difficult to dispute that Jerusalem is recognized by the U.S. as Israel’s capital. Add to that on the very Monday we were at AIPAC, the Trump administration recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Did we mention the embassy move to Jerusalem or the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuke deal?

Yes, the president has said that the Democratic Party hates the Jews. He’s recently added at the Republican Jewish Coalition that Benjamin Netanyahu is “your” prime minister.

By the time AIPAC rolls around next March, it will be interesting to see who of the Democratic candidates will show. It will be critical to know how the party will look at the 2020 convention platform when it comes to Israel.

Fortunately, AIPAC is one of the few places where American Jews will be able to come together to celebrate the American-Israeli friendship. When the conference is over, I wonder if the cracks in the Democratic Jewish support for Israel turn into fissures and then crevices.

The pro-BDS, anti-Israel rhetoric from higher and higher in the government seems to be a focus these days.

For me, though, the Jewish state is the issue. It’s the figurative canary in the coal mine when testing the Democratic Party.

I don’t like the way I’m seeing the Democratic Party these days, especially when, according to AIPAC, Israel is the most important diplomatic relationship the United States has in this world. Period.

By Phil Jacobs


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