Rona Kaufman had never before been to an AIPAC Policy Conference. But for the Duquesne University School of Law professor, this was an important year to travel to the nation’s capital and be among 18,000 other supporters of the bipartisan, pro-Israel lobbying group.
“I’m aware, especially right now, that there is a little bit more controversy about Israel than I recognized or noticed in the past,” said Kaufman. “So to the extent that it is more important that we are showing that we want a continued positive relationship between the U.S. and Israel, I wanted to be here for that. And, being a Democrat, it’s really important to me to represent that perspective in Washington, D.C.”
With a faction of the Democratic party now distancing itself from unconditional support of Israel, “bipartisanship” became a recurring refrain throughout the three-day conference. Speakers such as presidential candidate Joe Biden (via video) and Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) were emphatic that mainstream Democratic support of Israel is secure, while AIPAC leaders declared in no uncertain terms that bipartisanship was being threatened and that they were ready for “a fight.”
Seconds after Betsy Berns Korn, the newly installed president of AIPAC, took the podium Sunday night, she unequivocally announced that “the U.S.-Israel relationship as we know it, is under attack,” despite its long history of bipartisan support.
Korn was echoing the words spoken that morning by AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr, who sounded “an alarm” of an emerging threat to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. due to a “growing, highly vocal, and energized part of the electorate” that fundamentally rejects the value of the alliance between the two countries.
“In their political utterances, the leaders of this movement repeatedly and reflexively disparage Israel’s democracy and lump her in with nations hostile to American interests and American values,” Kohr said. “Again, these are not the things a friend would say or do. These political leaders have chosen to deploy several surrogates who have long records of hostility to the Jewish state.”
Kohr’s words seemed to be aimed at Vermont senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who has aligned politically with anti-Israel notables like former Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour. Sanders chose not to attend AIPAC’s conference, he said, because he was “concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
Kaufman disagreed with Sanders’ assessment.
“I do not believe that this conference in any way gave a platform for bigotry,” said the Pittsburgher. “I think the single mission of the organization is respectable and reasonable, and especially in a time when our country feels so polarized, the idea that we can have an organization that is working for bipartisan support and is doing so from a bipartisan place is beautiful.”
Sanders’ disparagement of AIPAC saddened Kaufman, she said, “especially because, otherwise, Bernie represents so many of the liberal values that I hold so dear. So I feel kind of betrayed, and I wish he just wouldn’t have said anything, or would have come.”
In addition to Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also skipped AIPAC this year.
The only presidential candidate remaining in the race who spoke live at the conference was former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also attacked Sanders for boycotting the event, drawing loud applause, on Monday.
“Sen. Sanders has spent 30 years boycotting this event,” Bloomberg said. “And as you’ve heard by now, he called AIPAC a racist platform. Well, he’s dead wrong.”
Bloomberg also said he would “never impose conditions on military aid” to Israel “no matter what government is in power.” That appeared to be a reference to pledges by Sanders and Warren, who have said they would condition aid.
Bloomberg alluded to but did not name President Donald Trump toward the end of his speech when he referred to the dangers in the rise of anti-Semitism and other bigotries, and noted that the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre hit close to home for him because his sister had attended Tree of Life Congregation when she lived in Pittsburgh years ago.
Anti-Semitism “can be found both on the right and the left,” Bloomberg said, “but there is one fact that we cannot ignore: Presidential leadership matters. It sets a tone. It is either inclusive or exclusive, divisive or uniting, incendiary or calming.”
Those remarks also drew extended applause.
Vice President Mike Pence also spoke live at the conference on Monday, calling for the reelection of President Donald Trump, which earned cheers from the crowd.
“The most pro-Israel president in history must not be replaced by one who would be the most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation,” Pence said, referring to Sanders. “That’s why you need four more years of President Trump in the White House.”
Pence listed the multiple Israel-related steps that Trump has taken, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights and leaving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, drawing multiple instances of cheers and applause.
The vice president also stressed Trump’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, referencing the attack at the Tree of Life building and noting that following that massacre, Trump “said America would seek the destruction of those who seek the destruction of the Jews.”
Sixty Pittsburghers attended the conference this year, including many college students and a dozen students from Hillel Academy.
This was the first time Benjamin Marcus, a Hillel Academy senior, had come to AIPAC. He was inspired by the experience, he said.
Marcus agreed with the proposition that a faction of one political party was “moving away from bipartisanship” but believes education could help, including taking members of Congress to visit the Jewish state.
Still, he said he was surprised by “how bipartisan AIPAC still is.”
“I was expecting it to be more Republican, because that is where it has been leading,” Marcus said. “But there are so many people from every walk of life here. It is really good.”
For Lauren Turner, a University of Pittsburgh student, and her sister Lindsey Turner, a Hampton High School senior who will be attending Seton Hill University in the fall, this year marked their second AIPAC conference.
Both women were inspired by AIPAC to start chapters of Students Supporting Israel, an international pro-Israel movement, at their universities next year as a result of attending the conference. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at