The Presidential Candidates Stake Out Their Israel Positions : AIPAC Policy Conference 2016


Attending my second-ever AIPAC conference, I was privy to a different view this time around. In 2014, I attended as a delegate; this time, I asked AIPAC for – and received – a Where What When press credential to cover the annual major event. As it turns out, members of the press were somewhat excluded from the off-the-record breakout sessions of the conference, but it was very interesting to speak to members of the press – many of whom were Israeli and many of whom were also Orthodox Jews. Journalism is no longer strictly “old media” but now includes prominent online bloggers, talk-show hosts, even people broadcasting and/or publishing their own media.

This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference brought together 18,700 Israel supporters from varying and diverse backgrounds. Present among the huge crowd at the Verizon Center (the conference continues to outgrow its venues) were many minorities: members of the Christian community, labor union leaders, and many politicians, both Israeli and American. Additionally, AIPAC made note (often, and to rousing applause) of the 4,000 youth leaders in attendance, many of them campus activists fighting the good fight against the terrible, growing, on-campus evil of anti-Israel and, in many ways, anti-Semitic radicalism. There was obvious special interest at this year’s conference because of the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and the in-person attendance and speeches of four of the remaining five candidates, with the very notable exception of democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders.

As I sat in the “press filing room” halfway through the conference, and having my first chance to collect my thoughts on paper – after Hillary Clinton’s address but before those of the Republican candidates – it struck me that there were two issues that stood out of great interest. First was – as many of you know – the Donald Trump speech (which we’ll discuss later in this piece in depth). As the leading Republican candidate, certainly his comments would garner much interest, particularly as he has made certain statements that have left (among others) many Jews feeling uneasy. Supporters of Israel worry over Trump’s pre-convention comments that he would remain “neutral” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, foreshadowing a similar approach that President Obama took as he entered office in 2008. This approach has proven to be very damaging to Israel and to the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as changed the dynamic of traditional U.S./Israel/Mideast alliances, including those with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Other Jews worry about harsh or otherwise shadowy rhetoric used by Trump against Muslims, Mexicans, women, and other minorities (including his mocking of someone with physical disabilities). Jews are also leery of the Trump endorsement from former KKK head David Duke and Trump’s slow and questionable response to said endorsement. Jews, mindful of history, certainly fear for language they associate with fascism or nationalism. Indeed, many Jews see their role in the world as canaries in the coal mine of hate, and feel that if they don’t stand against oppression of Muslims (or other minorities), then no one would or should stand for them. There has been much talk of protest to Trump’s speech. We shall see.

But what caught my attention at this mid-point in the convention was a story that has received far less attention from the national media: the decision of a leading presidential candidate to decline an invitation to speak at the Policy Conference in an election year. This development is highly unusual, as it has always been a given for candidates to address the conference. What makes this story more unusual is the fact that the candidate is Jewish, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has advanced further than any other Jew as a presidential candidate.

Sanders is on record as saying that his only real connection to Judaism is through the Holocaust, as parts of his family were “wiped out.” Sanders has mentioned the Holocaust in vilifying the questionable language of Donald Trump.

So why did Sanders decide to skip AIPAC? The answer lies in the changing face of the Democratic Party, a political party at increasing odds with Israel and pro-Israel sentiments. Max Blumenthal (whom we will discuss later), the noted Jewish anti-Israel personality, started a petition that Sanders should not attend AIPAC, which garnered more than 5,000 signatures, including that of vehemently anti-Israel rock star Roger Waters. Sanders, when asked about his plans for a Secretary of Defense, said this: “We talked to people like Jim Zogby, talked to the people on J Street, to get a broad perspective of the Middle East.” Yikes. J Street, while claiming it is pro-Israel, has most often taken approaches that prove quite otherwise, and Zogby is a pollster of Arab background who is a supporter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel, calling it “a legitimate and moral response.” Sanders has also been advised by other Israel-haters. Sanders, for his part, claims that the U.S. should be an equal friend to the Palestinians, and did not sign a 2014 Senate resolution placing the blame for the Gaza war on Hamas. From a recent Haaretz piece on Bernie Sanders:

“Sanders has stayed far away from organized American Jewish life both personally and professionally, and the U.S. Jewish establishment in turn had a hard time regarding as one of its own a secular socialist congressional iconoclast who has never belonged to a synagogue, never appeared at pro-Israel rallies or AIPAC events, and has refrained from returning to the Jewish state since his now-infamous kibbutz stint in the 1960s.”

So, clearly, Sanders would not be “at home” at the fiercely pro-Israel AIPAC Policy Conference. Still, his absence is a blow to both the Democratic Party and to AIPAC, which has long used a non-partisan approach to its bedrock of building support for Israel, an approach which has been extremely successful over the years. It says something about the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the fact that this wing is made up of young Democrats. In those circles, Israel is viewed with animosity, and AIPAC is considered an evil, imperialist organization that supports all the things that are, in their minds, wrong with the world. This is dangerous for AIPAC, American Jews, and Americans collectively, as this young demographic will potentially lead the party in the coming years. Sanders claimed he could not attend due to campaigning out West, but this was a notable and hurtful snub to AIPAC, Israel, and the Jewish people.

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In her speech to AIPAC Monday morning, Hillary Clinton attacked the recent flip-flop by Trump, saying “We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who-knows-what on Wednesday, because everything is negotiable. Well, my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable!” Clinton had the unenviable task of having to distance herself from three positions:

1) Trump’s “neutrality” on Israel (at least until his speech that night).

2) The Obama administration’s unfriendly and even spiteful policies toward Israel, to which she was directly tied as Secretary of State.

3) Her own history. This includes, first, Secretary of State Clinton’s 45-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, in which she apparently berated him and Israel, after it was announced that Israel would add 1,600 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem. Michael Oren, the then-Israeli ambassador to the United States, said it was the worst-ever point in 35 years for U.S.-Israel relations. Second, there was First Lady Clinton’s kiss to Yasser Arafat’s wife Suha, in 1999, after a speech Suha Arafat gave (in Arabic, while Ms. Clinton listened in to a translator). In that speech, Suha accused Israelis of ancient blood libels and poisoning the water of the Palestinians. Third, there are Hillary’s ties to notorious Israel-basher, her (Jewish) adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Sidney’s son is the aforementioned Max Blumenthal, a virulently anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, writer and supporter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. After many of Hillary’s emails became public, included was a large trove of shocking emails from her adviser Sid Blumenthal, many forwarding his son’s ramblings of Israel hatred. In one specific piece, Max spoke of how the far-right in Europe “richly enjoy when Israel mows down Arab Muslims by the dozens and tells the world to go to hell; they admire Israel’s settler culture.” Hillary’s response? “A very smart piece, as usual.” Fourth, and perhaps her greatest issue, is her ties to an Obama administration that forced through an Iran Deal seen as a great disaster for Israel (which AIPAC lobbied tirelessly against), among many other instances of open hostility towards Israel.

With all that in mind, this was still a very strong, pro-Israel speech by Hillary at the Monday morning plenary. She was enthusiastically received, confirming both that AIPAC comprises primarily (but perhaps decreasing) Democratic participants and that bipartisanship is still, at least in practice, the overwhelming norm. But the Sanders progressive wing of the Democratic Party is, to many, the future of the party. This is the wing that not only is not supportive of Israel but in fact demonizes it and typically backs the BDS movement against it. Pew polls show growing support in the Democratic Party for these ideals among the under-40 demographic that is the base of the Party. The strongly-pro-Israel wing of Democratics is graying – and fast – which will lead to quite the conundrum for the future of the AIPAC bipartisan mantra.  

Some of you might remember the Democratic National Convention of 2012, when convention chairman Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for vote on reinserting into the party platform the word G-d and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. After a deeply divided voice vote (three times), the mayor claimed that two-thirds majority was achieved and passed the reinsertion to a loud chorus of boos.

This ain’t your Bubby and Zaidy’s Democratic Party.

Still, I found it very interesting that – at least at the moment after Clinton spoke and before Trump spoke – we now appeared to have a situation in which the likely Democratic nominee (Clinton) is outwardly stronger on Israel than the likely Republican nominee (Trump), quite the opposite of what polling in their respective parties would support. Trump’s speech that night laid some of those fears to rest, but we are still left wondering what either Trump or Clinton really stand for pertaining to Israel.

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Ohio Governor John Kasich spoke first at the Monday evening plenary, and in a unique move in an election year where being a “Washington insider” is a death knell to campaigns, Kasich spoke at length of his decades-long commitment as a defender and friend to Israel. A line I found interesting was when Kasich said the Palestinians have a “culture of death,” a line not typically uttered in American politics, where excuses are made for Palestinian terrorism to support the now-seemingly-distant “two state” peace program. But for any change to occur in future generations, Palestinians must obviously stop educating their children from birth with blood libels and ancient anti-Semitic visuals and teachings that Jews are inherently evil and inhuman. Kasich received a standing ovation for this important statement. Still, much of Kasich’s speech seemed rushed and unnatural as he read mostly from his notes and was often looking down at the lectern. Kasich, a “middle-of-the-road,” moderate Republican, just seems out of sorts next to firebrands Trump and Cruz. But Kasich was betting that his long-standing experience would set him apart from an untested novice like Trump. In another year, perhaps Kasich, who entered and exited to very strong applause, would have made a bigger splash.

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Trump’s speech was the obvious big-ticket draw of the Monday night plenary – mostly due to his general celebrity but also because of his heretofore conflicting positions on Israel. On the very same day that Donald Trump was to give what turned out to be a strongly pro-Israel (scripted, for the first time) speech at AIPAC Policy Conference, he sat and did an unscripted and on-the-record interview with The Washington Post. In it, he rambled, at times, presenting himself as both an isolationist and as willing to expand the footprint of the U.S. in the world, and even told a young Washington Post staffer she was “beautiful” after she asked him a policy question. But it seems that this shoot-from-the-hip, uncensored, and blustery talk from Trump is what fuels his rise among people who want a non-politician, are energized by his demagoguery, or are transfixed by his TV-star celebrity status.

At AIPAC, he hit every single talking point the crowd wanted to hear. He tore into the Obama Iran Deal, even mocking the President, which we’ll get to in a moment. He made the traditional presidential candidate promise (less common nowadays) to move the American embassy to “the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” He said (separating himself from an infamous Obama comment) that there would be “no daylight” between the U.S. and “our most reliable ally, Israel.”

Perhaps this was an attempt by Trump to begin to moderate his anti-establishment campaign into something more presidential and acceptable to centrist Republican voters, who are fearful of what a seemingly all-over-the-place President Trump might do (or not do). Many Republican voters speak of pulling the lever for Hillary if they were to face each other in a general election, something they would have never thought imaginable in the past.

There was much pre-conference talk about possible protests of Trump’s speech, but the reality presented was different. While there was some protesting outside, and a group of mostly Reform rabbis who protested in the hallways of the Verizon Center (and one Orthodox rabbi who was escorted out of the Verizon Center after shouting about the evils of Trump – which from my seat way up in the press box was not apparent), the thousands in the stands showed no sign of protest.

As a comparative note, there was no pre-conference talk of protest over Hillary’s speech – the same Hillary Clinton with her Israel baggage and mixed Israel record. Quite the opposite ensued. She brought a thunderously pro-Israel and hawkish approach to the Policy Conference, revving up the AIPAC crowd and certainly alienating some in her group of foreign policy advisers who want to continue the current Obama administration’s policy of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel.

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Following Donald Trump at the night’s plenary, Senator Ted Cruz had the tough task of following that circus. There was a palpable electricity in the air preceding, during, and after Trump spoke. By the time Cruz hit the stage, it was as if much of the air was let out of the tire. It appeared to me that AIPAC made the very wise decision to only announce the candidates over the PA system, rather than having speakers introduce them, in order to avoid giving accolades to the controversial Donald Trump, as they normally would with any other keynote speaker. Between each speaker, AIPAC ran a short video, highlighting humanitarian or technological feel-good highlights of the State of Israel. With this gap, it was noticeable in the press box that many journalists were there just to cover the Trump speech, as they began packing up their belongings.

With all this said, Cruz gave a very strong and pro-Israel speech. As you might imagine, all the candidates did. That’s what candidates do; they tell crowds what they want to hear. Ted Cruz himself – and, before he dropped out, Senator Marco Rubio – probably have the strongest history of consistently pro-Israel statements. In fact, in a speech 18 months ago to a group seeking to defend the rights of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, and made up of primarily Arab Christians, billing itself as “In Defense of Christians,” Ted Cruz spoke about the importance of the alliance between Christians and Jews and between the U.S. and Israel.

“ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and their state sponsors like Syria and Iran are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East,” Cruz said. “Sometimes we are told not to lump these groups together, but we have to understand their so-called nuances and differences.... In 1948, Jews throughout the Middle East faced murder and extermination and fled to the nation of Israel. And today, Christians have no better ally than the Jewish state.” Immediately, the boos and catcalls began. Cruz continued, saying, “Let me say this: Those who hate Israel hate America. And those who hate Jews hate Christians.” Cruz could not continue as the booing got even louder. After trying to continue among the boos and hissing, Cruz said “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you. Thank you and G-d bless you.” He then turned and walked off the stage.

To me, this is indicative of a man who has always been consistent in his long-time defense of Israel. Still, Cruz often speaks of his Christianity, and Jews are rightfully nervous about Bible-thumping by politicians, as, historically, such leaders have been “bad for the Jews.” But perhaps this is a new era, and it should be noted that there is consistently strong support from evangelical Christians for the State of Israel – including from former President George W. Bush.

In his AIPAC speech, Cruz also said he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem, following with this declaration: “I recognize that, for years, a whole lot of presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, have said that. Indeed, I recognize some candidates have said that standing here today. Here’s the difference: I will do it.” At one point he criticized Hillary Clinton for her remark that Hamas puts missiles in schools because it is small and densely populated. “Well, Madam Secretary, with all due respect, the reason the missiles are in schools is not because Gaza is small,” said Cruz. “The reason the missiles are in schools is because Hamas are terrorist monsters using children as human shields. Cruz left the stage to very strong applause, as did all the candidates that day.

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Another unplanned incident of great interest occurred on Tuesday morning, when new AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus took to the main stage, joined by other AIPAC board members, to issue a formal apology for Trump’s words and for the enthusiastically positive reaction to them by many AIPAC delegates the previous night. She read the following statement, one to which she seemed emotionally attached: “We are deeply disappointed,” she said, “that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”

The Trump comment in question? “With President Obama in his final year – yay!” as Trump briefly and clearly went off-script, “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel; believe me, believe me. And you know it, and you know it better than anybody.” Trump continued to punctuate his scripted speech with the non-scripted enunciation of “Believe me.” (I’ve learned that people who are consistently telling you to believe them are most likely not to be believed.)

According to people I spoke with this week, minorities from both the African-American and Hispanic communities were upset with the potshot taken at the first African-American president – particularly since AIPAC speeches are supposed to be about outlining non-partisan support for Israel. AIPAC has gone to great lengths in recent years to build support for Israel among minorities, and Trump’s comment – indeed, even his invitation to speak at AIPAC – was viewed by some as doing great damage to that outreach.

In my opinion, there’s no discussion about whether Trump should have been invited. AIPAC has long invited all presidential candidates to speak in an election year, and it follows AIPAC’s non-partisan approach to allow Trump equal time and billing. As I said earlier, it says more about Bernie Sanders and his supporters that he chose not to attend. Additionally, Hillary Clinton took partisan shots at both Donald Trump and the sitting president – although they were done more obliquely.

I’m not sure if AIPAC opened a can of worms by apologizing for Trump’s speech. There was certainly reason to issue such a statement, as AIPAC received much condemnation for even allowing Trump to speak, and when he did speak, for the notable support he received even with his recent history of demagoguery. My worry is that AIPAC is doing what they despise: politicizing a candidate’s words and making this a partisan issue. Now, obviously, Trump is the one who lobbed the first grenade, but I believe AIPAC should have apologized privately (and effusively) to its minority supporters while publicly espousing its bedrock principle of non-partisanship and the right of candidates to say what they want. Still, this is a very sensitive issue for AIPAC. The future of AIPAC will be strengthened by its continuing fight to remain neutral and unattached to all politics other than support for the Israel-United States relationship.

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Many in the Orthodox Jewish community are beginning to take up the mantle of Israel advocacy, a reality that is apparent from the number of yarmulkes and sheitels you now see at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. All 18,700 participants are offered kosher-only food in the central “Village” – a stark contrast to the left-wing, self-proclaimed “pro-Israel” group J Street, which does not even offer kosher options at its national event. The appointment of our local Howard Tzvi Friedman as AIPAC president in 2011 cemented this commitment. Yehuda Neuberger is another prominent AIPAC lay leader from Baltimore. The OU, too, has made it a priority to increase OU-member shuls’ activism on behalf of Israel. Activism, in general, has become far more prominent in the Orthodox community, and the importance of activism on behalf of Israel by the frum community should not be understated. According to the Pew study, changing demographics reveal that Orthodoxy is easily the segment growing most rapidly in the Jewish international community. It is only natural that interests of this demographic be supported. I’m proud to say that there were very large contingencies from some of our local shuls in attendance at AIPAC Policy Conference, including local rabbanim. This trend is only growing as it rightfully should.

All in all, at the time of my writing, much of the political landscape for the coming election is still undecided. You can bet that AIPAC’s voice will remain strong and influential in the halls of Washington, D.C. It is imperative that we, as Orthodox Jews, continue to grow in our activism on behalf of the Jewish community and on behalf of Eretz Yisrael.



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