Bernie Sanders may not have been at this year’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but that didn’t mean that he was forgotten. For many of those attending AIPAC’s important annual gathering of Israel’s advocates March 1-3 in Washington, D.C., Sanders was a frequent target.
The Temple’s Senior Rabbi Peter Berg was among the 18,000 who attended the meeting earlier this month, including a sizable delegation from Atlanta. Sanders was never far from their minds.
“Some mentioned him and some spoke about him without mentioning his name,” Berg pointed out, “but universally Republicans and Democrats critiqued Bernie for not being there.”
Sanders, who frequently acknowledges his Jewish ancestry, not only turned down an invitation to attend, but in a message on Twitter, derided the prominent lobbying organization.
In a Feb. 23 tweet, he wrote, “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason, I will not attend their conference.”
The words struck a nerve among a broad cross-section of Jewish community leaders, including a number of prominent rabbis from all branches of American Judaism. They quickly circulated an open letter, which is something of a rarity for American rabbis, rejecting what they described as his “outrageous comments.”
They rapidly collected 347 signatures on the letter, which praised AIPAC’s bipartisanship as “one of the last remaining vehicles in American politics that proactively seeks to bring Americans from across the political spectrum to achieve a common goal.”
Berg, a longtime supporter of Israel on this year’s ballot as a Reform delegate to the World Zionist Congress, describes Sanders as “misinformed and his comments about bigotry are highly regrettable.”
Berg said, “I sat in a session at AIPAC in Washington just before I came back to Atlanta and immediately surrounding me were Democrats, Republicans, Jews, Christians, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT Americans, all sitting together and united in talking about Israel. He missed the boat.”
Also among those signing the letter was Rabbi Stanley Davids, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Dunwoody, whose long career has included the presidency of Association of Reform Zionists of America and 12 years on the senior executive committee of the World Zionist Organization.
“I believe that Bernie Sanders, by virtue of the people he chooses to gather around himself, by virtue of the statements he’s made regarding Israel, has very weak standing to criticize AIPAC.”
Although Davids describes himself as a lifelong Democratic, he was critical of what he described as the “progressive wing of the party.
“The far-left Democrats have drunken the Kool-Aid of anti-Zionism as part of its world view and I really regret that.”
One Jewish organization of younger activists on the left, IfNotNow, in fact, campaigned to keep Democratic presidential candidates from speaking from the AIPAC meeting. They and many like them see AIPAC as too closely aligned with the policies of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Republican supporters in Washington.
Polls by Economist/YouGov show a steady decline among Americans who
strongly support Israel. Support dropped from 47 percent in 2015 to 37 percent in 2018.
Many of these changes in attitude were discussed in the book, “Trouble in The Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,” by UCLA professor Dov Waxman, published in 2016.
Waxman delivered the Rothschild Memorial lecture at Emory University the following year. He points out that what we are observing is an important change in the eroding support for Israel.
“What we’re seeing now is a new development since I wrote the book,” he said in an interview March 3 with the AJT. “This battle that had been happening within the American Jewish community is now playing out in American politics at large.”
As if to underscore that change, Sen. Joseph Biden, who accepted the invitation to speak at the AIPAC conference, warned attendees that they had to do more to influence Israel policies toward the Palestinians.
“Israel has to stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity,” Biden said. “That’s going to choke off any hope for peace.”
He also warned AIPAC that they had to do more to cultivate the younger generation.
“To be frank,” he continued, “those moves are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel in the United States, especially among young people of both political parties. That’s dangerous. We can’t let that happen.”
Rabbi Adam Starr of the Ohr HaTorah modern orthodox synagogue in Toco Hills, who also signed the rabbis’ letter about Sanders and who participated in the
AIPAC conference, is also worried about how young Jews, particularly, seem to be drifting away from support for Israel.
“That concerns me greatly,” Starr said. “Israel has always been the great unifier of the Jewish people in the diaspora. Many young people have grown up without that as a given.”