At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual gathering, members of both parties attend to show their support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. If you sit through 2½ days of speeches, there is a sameness to the remarks. It’s difficult to stand out, especially toward the middle or end of the program.
Occasionally, as Vice President Pence did on Monday, a politician is tempted to air partisan grievances — much to the dismay of AIPAC organizers. Pence called out a “Democratic congresswoman,” quoting Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) statements, while also urging that she be removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee and falsely accusing Democratic presidential candidates of “boycotting” the gathering. Since a large number of AIPAC’s members are Democrats, many attendees were still grumbling about and lamenting the vice president’s remarks into late in the afternoon. His flat-out lie about a Democratic boycott was especially grating and revealed to be preposterous when, for example, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who had not been invited, proudly touted her support for Israel and a photo of her meeting with AIPAC members who visited her office.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is a regular at these gatherings and has always been warmly received. This year, however, he delivered his best and most rousing AIPAC speech (perhaps the best of his career), setting off a torrent of emotion that we hadn’t seen this year. It was as though the audience finally got to channel its righteous anger.
He talked about his Jewish family, the importance of educating youth about the threats Israel faces and then he got to the heart of the speech. “My friends, to do all of this we must keep the U.S.-Israel relationship bipartisan. Yes, bipartisan. Both parties, side by side," he said. “We can only hope to defend Israel from these threats so long as we maintain a united front, Democrats and Republicans together. This has been a mission for me. I’m proud that the overwhelming majority of Democrats are pro-Israel — and always have been.” He continued, “Not only is it demonstrably false to say Democrats are anti-Israel; it also hurts the U.S.-Israel relationship. Plain and simple, the Democratic Party supports Israel and we will continue to do so. And we will maintain that bipartisan relationship through thick and thin. Israel depends on it.”
Those who seek to use Israel as a means of scoring political points do a disservice to both Israel and the United States. Our politics may be more polarized than ever, but it is incumbent upon all of us who care about the U.S-Israel relationship to keep it bipartisan we must pledge to one another that we will keep the polarization from Washington away from poisoning the bipartisan support that Israel has always enjoyed.
This was a rebuttal to President Trump’s outlandish comments that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, a perfect example of using Israel to try to burnish his credentials with his evangelical base at the expense of the essential bipartisan relationship with Israel. (“Those who seek to use Israel as a means of scoring political points do a disservice to both Israel and the United States. Our politics may be more polarized than ever, but it is incumbent upon all of us who care about the U.S-Israel relationship to keep it bipartisan, to keep our polarization from poisoning the bipartisan support that Israel has always enjoyed.”)
Schumer decried the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, reminding the audience that the Arab boycott predates the Six-Day War and that its founders are unwilling to accept any sort of Jewish state. When he got to the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence in the United States, he declared:
When we see or hear anti-Semitism, we have a solemn obligation not to hold our tongues or parse our language, but to call it out with courage, with clarity.
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;
When someone suggests that money drives support for Israel, we must call it out.
We are here because we support the only Jewish state in the world — and because it is in America’s interest to support Israel.
Any suggestion to the contrary — whether made out of malice or ignorance — is hurtful, it is wrong. And we cannot be afraid to say that it is hurtful and wrong.
But even more than that, these age-old anti-Semitic tropes are false and we must renounce them.
You can be a Jew and care about Israel and it does not make you any less of an American!
You can be a Jew and lobby for Israel and it doesn’t make us any less of an American, it makes you a better American!
You can be, all at once my friends, completely Jewish, completely pro-Israel, and completely American! And we are!
It was a powerful and emotion-filled moment, all the more so because Schumer was condemning remarks that politicians in both parties have made. In case anyone missed the point, he reiterated, “So we must call out anti-Semitism whenever we hear it, from wherever it arises. It has become too prevalent in our politics to identify anti-Semitism only when it comes from political opponents.” He added, “It will always be wrong to use anti-Semitism as a political weapon. Always. And let me tell you: if you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, then you are not fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism!”
Unfortunately, support for Israel has not escaped the tribal wars. Trump and his supporters see Israel as only one more way to bond with their evangelical base and to divide the country. The far left seeks to make opposition to Israel into its own purity test. The far right feels emboldened by the president’s rhetoric to show its ugly face and — for some unstable, warped individuals — to justify violence.
The relationship between American Jews and Israel has been further frayed by the actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in aligning with the racist right (a move AIPAC publicly condemned) and in suggesting Israel is “only for the Jewish people” (a remark for which he later apologized). The diaspora feels the religious right in Israel aims to write off non-Orthodox Jews and to create new points of contention including segregation of women praying at the Western Wall. A younger generation of Jews feels less connected to Israel. In other words, there is plenty to fight about.
So where does all of this acrimony leave us? On one level, why should we expect support for Israel to evade the toxic partisanship that afflicts every other issue? And yet it is imperative that pro-Israel Democrats and pro-Israel Republicans, alongside Jews and non-Jews who profess love of Israel, as well as politically progressive and politically conservative Jews, figure out a way to make common cause. Support for Israel cannot be dictated by which party holds the White House, or by the identity of the Israeli prime minister. It has and must continue to rest on shared interests and shared values.
Israel needs all the friends it can get these days and cannot afford to write off any party, ideological movement or generation. There’s a lot of bridge-building to be done, and there is a lot of self-restraint needed. Neither is in large supply these days.