By Jesse Bernstein, Toby Tabachnick and JTA
Rabbi Batya Glazer, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, has been to more than her fair share of AIPAC Policy Conferences over the years. There’s one thing she never tires of, especially as the attendance grows each year.
“The energy of the entire city of Washington, D.C., during AIPAC is identifiable,” she said on the phone from the conference. “The atmosphere in the entire downtown of the city changes. There are 18,000 people here today.”
Glazer was one of many Philadelphians who made the trip to the nation’s capital for the annual conference. Attendees spent each morning on March 1-3 attending general sessions headlined by big-ticket speakers, and spent the rest of the day bouncing from breakout session to breakout session. On March 3, those who were able to stay lobbied their local and state representatives on behalf of AIPAC.
With a faction of the Democratic Party now distancing itself from unconditional support of Israel, “bipartisanship” became a recurring refrain throughout the conference. Speakers such as presidential candidate Joe Biden (via video) and Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) 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.”
AIPAC, Glazer said, still seems to remain as committed as ever to bipartisanship, something Glazer believes is severely lacking in other parts of the political arena. “And that is both a constant, and it is a part of this year’s conference, which is a message that’s hard to find,” she added.
Seconds after Betsy Berns Korn, the newly installed president of AIPAC, took the podium March 1, she unequivocally announced that “the U.S.-Israel relationship as we know it, is under attack.”
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.”
In addition to Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also skipped AIPAC.
The only Democratic presidential candidate 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 March 2.
“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 spoke live at the conference on March 2, calling for the reelection of 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 withdrawing from 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.”
Sophia Shapiro, a senior at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, was at her third policy conference. She said that she’s able to understand much more of what’s going on at this point. Having spent her high school years at Barrack and on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, she believes she’s gained a greater sense of the background the contemporary political issues discussed by the conference’s many speakers.
And in times of political polarization, she found it refreshing to find common ground with others she may not agree with, even if some partisan divides are undeniably present.
“It’s nice to have a conference where I can be sitting next to someone who has a completely different political ideology than me on every issue, but on Israel we’re very similar.”
Jeri Zimmerman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley, called the presence of thousands of students at the conference a “remarkable” development. She especially enjoyed Kohr’s speech for the plenary session on March 1.
[email protected]; 215-832-0740
Toby Tabachnick is the senior staff writer of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication. JTA.org contributed to this article.