Republicans, Democrats snipe over 'anti-Semitism' at AIPAC conference

The conference provided a platform for politicians to try to outdo each other in their support for Israel.
Tuesday 26/03/2019
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, Tuesday, March 26. (AP)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, Tuesday, March 26. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Both Democrats and Republicans, speaking at a gathering of a major pro-Israel group, made clear that the United States would continue to stand behind Israel and push back against Iran but also introduced new talking points for the 2020 presidential elections.

Republican politicians, many of them evangelical Christians, aimed at Democrats, calling them anti-Semites for refusing to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington.

“Let me go on the record,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said March 25: “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

Pompeo blamed journalists, college professors and politicians for the “rise in anti-Semitism,” which he equated to support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which demands Israel meet its “obligations under international law.”

US Vice-President Mike Pence earlier claimed that Democrats had been “co-opted by people who promote anti-Semitic rhetoric but US Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York and the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, hit back as the AIPAC session ended.

“Let me tell you, if you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to fighting anti-Semitism,” he said.

He lashed out against Muslim Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, who has made comments considered anti-Semitic, as well as US President Donald Trump.

“When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out,” Schumer said. “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.”

The conference provided a platform for politicians to try to outdo each other in their support for Israel while insisting that the issue remain non-partisan.

An expected address to the group by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was cancelled when Hamas fired a missile into Tel Aviv that hit the home of a family of seven. Netanyahu immediately returned to Israel and several speakers used the attack to call for unity behind Israel.

Trump, with Netanyahu at his side March 25, signed an executive order recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“Allow me to bring greetings from a friend of mine,” Pence said to the thousands-strong AIPAC audience, adding that Trump is the greatest friend of Israel and that he would continue to support Israel in every way.

Pence’s words ended speculation that Trump’s feelings might have changed after reports that a lengthy special counsel investigation said it found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

Investigators said there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude there was collusion. US Attorney General William Barr wrote in a summary of the investigation that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” on accusations of obstruction of justice.

Pence turned to the 2020 election, laying ground to continue accusing Democrats, including Jewish Americans, of anti-Semitism based on support of BDS or for promoting a two-state solution. Pence is an evangelical Christian.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America denounced his comments, posting on social media: “As VP Pence falsely claims that Dem candidates are boycotting AIPAC, we want to remind him and [Trump] to stop politicising Israel and treating Jews as political pawns.”

Several Democrats running for president, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Obama cabinet member Julian Castro, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said they would skip AIPAC because of the push against a two-party solution for Israel and Palestine.

“Anyone who aspires to the highest office in the land should not be afraid to stand with the strongest supporters of Israel in America,” Pence said. “It is wrong to boycott Israel and it is wrong to boycott AIPAC.”

Trump, speaking March 22, said: “I don’t know what’s happened to them but they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.”

The liberal US policy group MoveOn.org advised presidential candidates to boycott the event.

“AIPAC is clearly a partisan lobbying group that has undermined diplomatic efforts,” said Iram Ali, campaign director for MoveOn’s political action committee, in a post on the group’s website. “It’s no secret that AIPAC has worked to hinder diplomatic efforts like the Iran deal, is undermining Palestinian self-determination and inviting figures actively involved in human rights violations to its stage.”

Israeli Blue and White alliance candidate General Benjamin Gantz also spoke of party differences at AIPAC.

“Let me tell you, my friends, the divisive dialogue is tearing us and tearing our nation apart,” he said. “It may serve, I doubt it, but it may serve political purposes. But it is shredding the fabric that holds us together.”

He called for unity within the country as it heads into elections April 9.

“In Bergen-Belsen, no one asked who is Reform, who is Conservative, who is Orthodox or who is secular,” he said, referring to a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. “Before going into battle, I never checked to see who had kippah under their helmets. As a proud owner of the red beret worn by the liberator of the Kotel, I can tell you with confidence that the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone, everyone.”

Gantz attacked Netanyahu for allowing an anti-Arab extremist into the right-wing alliance: “There will be no radicals, from either side of the political map,” he said. “There will be no Kahanists running our country.”

He praised the 1978 Middle East peace talks and said he hoped for peace.

“I truly know that the children of Tehran and the children of Jerusalem are born free of hate,” he said. “I know the Iranian people are waiting for a new dawn, one I hope we all see in our lifetime.”

He said his government would “extend our hand in peace and we will strive for peace with any honest and willing Arab leader.”

Gantz praised Trump for recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and for recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said the Jordan Valley would always remain Israel’s “eastern security border.”

“Let Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and [the Islamic State] ISIS know: We’ve met before on the battlefield,” he said. “You know the result.”

He praised Netanyahu for returning to Israel to tend the country after the rocket attack and said he would also return to Israel.