Walking into the semi darkness of the large conference hall in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the delegates felt it immediately. That connection, that bond, that love was palpable. Everyone was there to celebrate the everlasting link between the U.S. and Israel. It was time for the 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference.
Thousands of delegates filed into the room, wearing black hats, kippot or bare-headed; sheitels or not; skirts and pants; Jewish, Christian and Muslim; all levels of religiosity; all walks of life; all ages and all political affiliations. The conference was one place that transcended differences and crossed party lines. The bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship was evident, it was strong, and in these unfortunately divisive times, it was necessary.
When Howard Kohr, AIPAC CEO, walked onstage, he immediately launched into a powerful speech that highlighted the importance of that bipartisan support, not just among the delegates, but in Congress.
“The pro-Israel community stands with its friends in both parties and they stand with us,” Kohr stated. “We will remain committed to building bipartisan support in both houses… Our issue is bigger than what divides us.”
He reminded the delegates that they were “activists from across the spectrum,” and that “what unites us is strengthening the pro-Israel movement.”
To wrap up the first morning, AIPAC hosted an inspirational performance by Koolulam. Continuing the theme of unity, the group invited full audience participation as it recorded a song written just for the occasion, titled “Free the Music.” Amid choreographed hand waving and clapping, the 18,000 strong AIPAC community, together with thousands singing in Israel via satellite, sang about togetherness. The performance cannot be adequately described with mere words. Look it up online. It was not to be believed.
The excitement ramped up that evening as the speakers immediately focused on AIPAC’s bipartisan mission. After a brief video highlighting differences that disappear under the AIPAC umbrella, the delegates were treated to a powerful speech by AIPAC President Dr. Mort Fridman of Teaneck, reminding them how this year’s policy conference differs from that of prior years.
Dr. Fridman remarked that America’s support of Israel and our support of the U.S. is being tested and challenged, but “the one thing we cannot allow, the one thing we must never allow, is for detractors to become distractions. Our detractors don’t know our focus or our commitment.”
“We all have stories that brought us here. We are all different. But none of us are willing to be silenced or intimidated… Let’s remember what true success looks like. Success is America and Israel standing together. Today. Tomorrow. Forever,” Fridman added. Regardless of our differences, “we are all united in our unwavering support for America’s relationship with Israel.”
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer spoke of the impending recognition by President Trump of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which officially occurred the very next day. This was an issue on which all in attendance could agree.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) passionately stated, “I stand with Israel proudly and unapologetically… I am a part of a large bipartisan coalition in Congress supporting Israel. Millions of Americans...stand with Israel.”
Hoyer received significant applause when he remarked that there are 62 freshmen Democrats in the House, “not 63,” in a not-so-subtle rebuke of freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and concluded by again emphasizing the bipartisan support of Israel in Congress.
The late Republican Senator John McCain’s daughter, Meghan, and his close friend, former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), then spoke together about the need “to ensure that Israel and the U.S. always support each other.” Together they reminded the delegates of McCain’s lifelong support of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The Monday morning session began amid heightened security, as Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to speak. The session opened with an announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had returned to Israel, due to a rocket attack that demanded his full and immediate attention.
The Honorable Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, highlighted why he, a progressive, supports Israel. “The Jewish people cannot be safe without the State of Israel,” he said. “I have some issues with the current Israeli government. I imagine some of you do, too, but that should not detract from our support of Israel… America must always protect the State of Israel.”
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, addressed the crowd about the importance of bipartisanship. “The secret of our strength is based upon our ability to stay together. Unity is the secret weapon of the Jewish nation… In Bergen-Belsen, no one asked who is Reform and who is Conservative, who is Orthodox and who is secular. Before going into battle, I never checked to see who had a kippah under their helmet.”
He continued, “The Jewish people are strong, but we cannot do it alone. We must recognize our strongest ally: the United States. President Trump, a true partner and an ally of Israel...we are thankful for your strategic partnership and we want all of America, Republicans and Democrats, to move forward with us in the spirit of true bipartisanship that has served us so well in the past.”
Rabbi Daniel Goldberg, assistant rabbi of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah, emphasizing the importance of setting aside differences and working together for the benefit of the U.S.-Israel relationship, spoke about how “AIPAC engages the next generation of pulpit rabbis across all denominations.”
Teaneck’s Dr. Fridman took the stage again, this time to introduce Vice President Pence, who touted the Trump administration’s strong support of Israel.
“We stand with Israel today for the same reasons the American people have always stood with Israel… Her values are our values and her fight is our fight,” he said. “We stand with Israel today, tomorrow and we always will. The United States of America will never compromise the safety and security of the State of Israel.”
To vigorous applause, he firmly stated, “Anti-Semitism has no place in the Congress of the United States of America,” in a veiled admonishment of Rep. Omar.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley entered the stage to applause so thunderous that she was unable to begin speaking for several minutes. She spoke about the U.S. accomplishments in the U.N. during her two-year tenure, and then added, “The way the political atmosphere is right now is so toxic. Political parties now see each other as evil, and they’re not evil. What we have are issues. It’s just policy. On our worst day, America has so much to feel blessed for. Every one of us should feel blessed. Stop the finger pointing and stop the fighting and let’s get some things done.”
On Monday afternoon, a parade of congressmen and women, on both sides of the aisle, expressed support for Israel and its relationship with the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed, adding his voice to the dozens that had come before him.
Sec. Pompeo voiced his support for the strong relationship between the two nations, stating, “This relationship, from Truman to Trump, this is about supporting that relationship between the United States and Israel.” It is interesting to note, in the interest of bipartisanship, that President Truman was a Democrat and President Trump a Republican, and the presidents in between have criss-crossed the political divide, united in one important way: their support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Pompeo went on to address anti-Semitism, now masquerading as anti-Zionism. “Criticizing Israel’s policies is a basic right. But criticizing Israel’s basic right to exist is not acceptable. Anti-Zionism denies the very legitimacy of the Jewish state. So friends, let me go on record: anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
After strong and vocal support for our common bond with Israel by House Republican Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took the stage and echoed Rep. McCarthy’s sentiments. Perhaps one of the most significant moments of the conference was hearing these leaders of the House and the Senate, from both political parties, affirm their staunch support for Israel. It afforded the delegates some hope that Israel will continue to be a bipartisan issue, even in these extremely partisan times.
The final morning began with Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), speaker of the House of Representatives, stating, “In this Congress, support for Israel remains ironclad and bipartisan.”
David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel, began by speaking about the Hamas rockets that had been fired into central Israel the previous day. He noted that the attack was not intended for Sephardic Jews or Ashkenazic Jews, or Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jews: it was simply intended for Jews. In that vein, he continued, we should not focus on our differences, but rather our common support of Israel.
In an apparent shot at Rep. Omar, he said that the Trump administration will always be there, and “not for the Benjamins,” but rather for the Davids, the Abrahams...Sarahs...Christophers...Marys…” and went on to include several ethnic names, in a strong statement of inclusiveness and unity.
PM Netanyahu then spoke via an on-again-off-again satellite feed, praising President Trump, the strong bond between the United States and Israel, and the existence of AIPAC.
As in past years, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) closed out the sessions, speaking with power and passion. “The U.S.-Israel relationship is strong because you make it strong,” he said directly to the delegates, continuing, “These days, when it seems that bipartisanship is in short supply, there is no disagreement” regarding the U.S. bond with Israel. “Our alliance with Israel is everlasting.”
As the morning session drew to a close, delegates were invited to Capitol Hill to lobby their congressmen and women using specific talking points. The delegation from New Jersey was fortunate that Junior Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) was on hand to address them personally.
Introduced warmly by Dr. Fridman, Sen. Booker expressed his unwavering support for the land and people of Israel, peppering his speech with Torah references and Hebrew phrases. He addressed two of the talking points, apparently to the satisfaction of those in attendance, who applauded in recognition of his words. Like many who had spoken during the conference, he emphasized bipartisanship as vital to the strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
The takeaway from the 2019 policy conference? The U.S. and Israel are “connected for good,” and never more strongly than when bipartisanship prevails.
By Jill Kirsch