In the weeks leading up to their annual policy conference, AIPAC made headlines with its controversial ad attacking “radical” Democrats and Bernie Sanders’s public boycott of the conference. #BoycottAIPAC trended on Twitter as many on the left defended Sanders’s claim that AIPAC gives voice to “bigotry.” But for Jewish Political Voices Project participants attending the conference, AIPAC is more bipartisan than the public perception. Alma Hernandez, a Democrat from Arizona says that she’s “never been involved with an AIPAC event or project that is advertising or promoting hate or discrimination against anyone. It’s frustrating to see how we were all categorized as bigots.” Ohio Republican Andrew Smith partially attributes the negative perception of AIPAC to Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as Israel’s Prime Minister: “AIPAC tends to support the Israeli government. Because of that, people associate AIPAC with Netanyahu, and if you feel ill will toward Netanyahu you get a little unhappy with AIPAC.”
Our voters attend AIPAC for a variety of reasons: Democrat Lavea Brachman from Ohio says she comes to “moderate and check to see if there are ways the organization can stay in a more centrist, modern direction,” while Felipe Goodman, a Democrat from Nevada, comes for the lobbying and chance to meet face-to-face with his elected officials. However, they all strongly disagree with Sanders’s statement, with Goodman now saying that “if Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee for the Democratic Party, I’m going to vote for Trump. And I’m gonna do it proudly.”
We checked in with these and other JPVP participants at the conference to get their views on the increasing polarization of Israel, this year’s policy conference, the speakers and more. Here’s what they had to say:
Do you think the conference has become more polarizing over the years? I’ve been coming for around 15 years. And when I started coming, there were only like 5,000 people. I think the conference only became more polarizing because of two issues: what’s going on in the United States, but also because for the bulk of the time, we’ve had the same Israeli prime minister. So a lot of the young people do not know any other prime minister and hence, they believe that AIPAC only supports the right-wing Israeli government, which is not the case. I think that when the government changes, the polarization will end immediately. The fact that we still get people from both sides represented here shows that AIPAC is still a robust bipartisan organization.
Why do you come to AIPAC? I come for the lobbying. I love going to Capitol Hill. I love meeting with my elected representatives. And this is not the only time I come to lobby. It’s important for me to have a connection with them and that they see that I care enough about this that I’m physically here. I’m not just sending an email or picking up the phone. I come to Washington and actually talk to them about it with other people from Nevada. When they see us all together in the room, that really gets their attention. It’s a very important thing.
What do you think of Bernie Sanders’s decision to boycott AIPAC? If Bernie Sanders becomes the nominee for the Democratic Party, I’m going to vote for Trump. And I’m gonna do it proudly. To get out there and call out AIPAC the way he did was shameful. And it really shows you he doesn’t understand how this works. If you saw Mike Bloomberg at AIPAC and you heard the speech, that was a powerful speech from a Jewish candidate. I don’t agree with Sanders one iota, and I don’t agree with Trump, but at least Israel will be supported by Trump. So that’s it. My kids will probably hate me.
Do you think AIPAC has become more polarized over the years? At the conference itself, no. Among the people outside the conference, yes. I noticed more kippot, so I think that the group in general is getting more religiously observant. There’s a mix. I was sitting next to a couple today who are progressives. It makes me feel good to see more progressives here. In general, AIPAC reflects American Jewry. I would say that if 30 percent of Jews are Republicans probably 30 percent of AIPAC is Republican. However, because AIPAC is about the U.S.-Israel relationship and the Israeli government has been right-wing for the last 15 years or so, if you’re interfacing with that government, it’s going to be more conservative.
Why do you come to AIPAC? I’ve been coming for the past 20 years or so. And now I come to hear the non-Jews. AIPAC is absolutely brilliant in how it does outreach to the rest of America. They have outreach to Hispanics, African Americans, evangelical Christians, progressive Jews, firefighters and public safety officials. It is a really big tent. The kick for me is coming and seeing African Americans who aren’t Jewish praising Israel, or evangelical Christians praising Israel. I mean, if someone’s for freedom around the world, Israel is at the frontline defending freedom. It’s certainly the greatest miracle of my life to be alive when Israel’s around. My daughters joke that I say Israel can do no wrong. Of course, every country does wrong. But Israel is such an incredible miracle that to take a stand against it is sacrilegious. Not to disagree with its policies—that for sure we can do. But to take a stand against Israel as Israel, as a Jewish state, to be anti-Zionist? Forget it.
How connected is Israel to your Jewish identity? If you read the daily service, it’s suffused with references to Jerusalem, the Davidic dynasty, the temple, Zion. I don’t get how you can say it’s not connected to Israel. It blows my mind that people don’t understand the relationship and that people think of Judaism just as a religion. It’s so much bigger than that. So Israel’s totally connected to my Judaism, and my Judaism is totally connected to my conservatism. Judaism says man from his youth tends towards evil, and conservatives would say the same thing. And conservatives would say you need civilization, and that’s what Judaism says too. And the ideas of personal freedom, which conservatives feel very strongly about, is certainly a Jewish idea.
Why do you attend the AIPAC Policy Conference? I’m not a regular attendee mostly because in the past they have not been that representative of the diversity within the Jewish community. They’ve been trying harder to do that. I think it’s important to have more liberal voices represented, so I came to sort of moderate and check to see if there are ways the organization can stay in a more centrist, modern direction. This is a delicate time because there are extremists on the right who are very anti-Semitic, and extremists on the left who are expressing views that are anti-Israel. If AIPAC is going to be effective, it needs to take more of a centrist approach and rise above the increasing polarization.
What did you think of Bernie Sanders’s decision to boycott the conference? I thought that was just ridiculous, uninformed and not productive. I already was not a Bernie supporter for many reasons. I think his policies are unrealistic and he is a polarizing figure that we do not need right now in this country. He is a populist of his own making. I do think he believes in the democratic system, and in office he would probably moderate his views, but he has spent his life pushing agendas that are not good for the capitalist system and would not be good for us.
Do you think the AIPAC policy conference is more politicized this year than in the past? Lately AIPAC has been demonized. I attribute it to the fact that there is a lot of anger toward the Trump administration and a lot unhappiness among the American Jewish community toward the Netanyahu government. He’s been in power for nine years or so and AIPAC tends to support the Israeli government, whether it’s Labour or Likud or Blue and White. Because of that, people associate AIPAC with Netanyahu, and if you feel ill will toward Netanyahu you get a little unhappy with AIPAC. It’s been political for a long time, but it’s gotten worse since “the squad” has risen to prominence. There are more direct attacks, including from Bernie Sanders. To associate bigotry with AIPAC is uninformed and wrong.
Why do you come to AIPAC? I’ve been vaguely pro Israel for a long time. It’s hard to explain why; I don’t have any Israeli friends or relatives. To me, it’s one of the expressions of Jewish identity. From my political perspective, I think Israel’s gotten a terribly bad rap in the world. The more I learned, the more I felt strongly that what AIPAC did was very important. At policy conferences, you have amazing exposure to speakers, public officials, experts, and then the opportunity to actually go to Capitol Hill. I wasn’t as politically engaged before I began attending policy conferences; I didn’t pay as close attention to candidates, I didn’t try to meet with them personally. As I become more involved with AIPAC, I’m now talking to senators and members of Congress about what’s going on with our government and Israeli policy.
Is your support for Israel connected to your Jewish identity? I don’t think you can talk about Judaism and take Israel out of it. It’s difficult to disconnect the two because they’re so closely aligned. That’s part of the reason why I am passionate about it. And I have publicly said that there’s a line that people cross sometimes when they’re super anti-Israel that they become anti-Semitic.
Do you think AIPAC has become more partisan over the years? I do feel that the outside looks at this conference as a horrible, Republican-led organization. I think it’s really unfair and wrong for people who have never even attended anything AIPAC-related to make these blanket comments on how horrible the organization is. Our last president was Lillian Pincus, one of the most prominent Democratic members that we had. So for people to say that this organization just serves Republicans is wrong. Israel should be a nonpartisan issue.
What do you think of Bernie Sanders’s decision to boycott the conference? I’ve been involved with AIPAC since I was in high school. I feel that it’s a very welcoming place that’s open to everyone. I’ve never been involved with an AIPAC event or project that is advertising or promoting hate or discrimination against anyone. It was frustrating to see how we were all categorized as bigots. It’s harsh. Being that I’m a progressive and an elected official, I felt like the way Bernie handled it was unfair. I know that he gets a lot of pressure from the very left side of our party to do things like this, but it is unfortunate. He’s never been to a conference, so it wasn’t shocking that he wasn’t coming. But what was shocking to a lot of us was the way that he went about announcing that he wasn’t coming.
Do you think AIPAC has become more partisan over the years? It’s very important that Israel always remains a bipartisan American issue. I was very upset ten years ago when the Republican Jewish Coalition tried to make Israel a wedge issue, and I’m disappointed that the Democrats are allowing it today. It doesn’t matter whether you are hard right, left or middle, the voice should be a collective yes in support of Israel. And I’m really disappointed that every Democratic candidate isn’t here, even if they’re not going to get standing ovations for everything they say. For me as a voter, anyone who does not profess an understanding that America’s relationship with Israel needs to be strong and resolute and special is disqualified from my vote. That doesn’t mean they’re not questioning the policies of the Israeli government. I think every American president should question those policies. I think half of Israel questions such policies. It’s about understanding that Israel is the only liberal democracy—now I sound like AIPAC’s talking points—in the Middle East that secures the rule of law and civil rights and shares American values.
How do you manage the diverging political opinions in your congregation? My congregation is a fairly purple place. You have a lot of people who are deeply committed to Israel in a variety of different ways, and they come to our congregation because they know that it is deeply Zionist, but they recognize that Zionist doesn’t necessarily mean one must fall in lockstep with Benjamin Netanyahu. They understand that it’s a love for the country’s ideals and values. That is part and parcel of the fabric of our community and our congregation. And that’s why we go to AIPAC because—I think Cory Booker said this most eloquently—Jewish values and American values are Israeli values. The things that we fight for and champion as Jews are the same things that America ought to be fighting for and championing, which are the same things that Israel should be fighting for and championing. To be a strong, committed Jew requires the same set of values that make you a patriotic, loyal American, which is the same thing that makes you a deeply passionate Zionist.
How has the conference changed over the years? This is my 53rd conference. There’s a lot more diversity at the conference; it’s a bigger tent and is bipartisan. The leaders are futurist so there’s more substance to the conference. They’ve done a good job with strategic planning and executing the programs.
Why do you think the AIPAC Policy Conference is so polarizing to some? The conference is not polarizing, but the media exacerbates this point. After all, “crises create news and if it bleeds, it reads.”
What are your thoughts on what some of the speakers had to say at the conference? I thought Joe Biden’s speech was effective. He’s definitely growing in strength. As for Cory Booker, his speech was an ‘exercise in rhetoric and insincerity.’ When it comes to Mike Bloomberg – during the South Carolina debate, he did not have a strong reaction to Sander’s comments about AIPAC and didn’t attack him. Yet at the conference, he came with a prepared speech that ‘checked all the boxes. I question his heart.
Why is AIPAC so important?AIPAC is important because ‘it’s a strong spectrum for core support for Israel.’ It’s important to remember that the United States and Israel do not just have a relationship but also a strategic partnership that is beneficial to both countries with regard to their militaries.
Do you think the perception of the AIPAC conference has changed over the years? I think they’ve done a remarkably good job of trying to stay as close to being pro-Israel while still welcoming everybody. The new president yesterday in her speech did sort of go after Bernie Sanders and what he said [about boycotting the conference]. And normally, we wouldn’t see an AIPAC president do that. But what Sanders said was such an affront. If it’s between Sanders and Trump, no doubt I’m voting for Trump.
What did you think of some of the major speakers at AIPAC? I think Cory Booker connected in a way where you thought that his support for Israel and his own commitment to Israel and its safety and security was very genuine, not like most politicians. This was a senator who knew the issues very well. He wasn’t just picking up somebody’s material and reading it. Booker was much more into bringing people together, and unfortunately, that is not the coin of the realm of this election cycle. This is a base election. Biden talks about bringing people together, but when you look at how he’s gonna run the campaign, it’s going to be a base election.
Could you support Biden over Trump? I don’t know.