Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz were among the notable speakers at the Israeli American Council (IAC) 2021 National Summit.
The conference, which took place at The Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, FL from Dec 9-11, attracted more than 3,000 attendees and pro-Israel activists at the group’s first conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Torres, speaking to IAC Board Chairman Naty Saidoff, noted that “the amplification of anti-Zionism on platforms like Twitter” resulted in a spike in antisemitism in May. “The rhetoric that we use has real-world consequences,” he said. “As public officials we should be mindful of the words we use.” He added that accusations of Israel being an apartheid state that engages in ethnic cleansing are inflammatory.
The progressive Democrat went on to explain that he grew up poor in the south Bronx, raised in public housing by a single mother working a minimum wage job to make ends meet. Torres first entered politics as a housing organizer; at the age of 24, he won an election for New York City Councilmember despite having no money or political experience. Torres credited his victory to constantly knocking on doors.
He recalled how 15 years ago was “the lowest point of my life” because he had dropped out of college, fell into substance abuse and felt suicidal; now, he’s a member of Congress. “America is the land of opportunity and the land of second chances and my story is living proof,” Torres said to an approving audience.
Torres called New York City “ground zero” for a strain of democratic socialism that is anti-Israel. He pointed to the fact that in 2020 the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) circulated a questionnaire asking candidates if they would pledge to not travel to Israel; and if they would support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “One need not be Jewish or Israeli to see the antisemitic double standard against Israel,” Torres said, asking “why is there only a BDS movement against Israel?” and not against Iran, China and Myanmar. “[If] selective outrage is not explained by antisemitism, then what is it?” he said.
“The notion that Israel’s existence should be subject to debate is outrageous and offensive and the BDS movement should be relegated to the fringes of American politics.” – Ritchie Torres (D-NY)
Torres added: “The notion that Israel’s existence should be subject to debate is outrageous and offensive and the BDS movement should be relegated to the fringes of American politics.”
The congressman recalled the “vitriol” he encountered from the left after he traveled to Israel as a councilmember. Torres said he was accused of supporting “apartheid” and of “pinkwashing,’ the term used by pro-Palestinian activists accusing Israel supporters of touting the Jewish’s state’s record on gay rights to deflect from their treatment of the Palestinians. Torres recalled meeting at a rally a person wearing a “Queers for Palestine” shirt. When he asked her if she supports Hamas, she said she did because they “represent the liberation of the Palestinian people.” “That to me is a definitive sign of the stupidity and moral absurdity [of BDS],” Torres said. He added that he has faced “intimidation and harassment” on Twitter as well as death threats over his support for Israel. “It takes a toll, but I think I’m doing the right thing,” Torres said.
Gantz, the keynote speaker, lauded the fact that the conference provided an opportunity for Israelis and Americans to “gather in celebration of our bond” and “reflect on our challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in doing together,” thanking the IAC for their “ongoing investment in deepening United States and Israel’s ties.” He also paid homage to the late philanthropist and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, calling him “a beacon of light in the darkness and a vision for hope.”
The defense minister said he is concerned about “two challenges” to the Jewish story, with the first being that “support for Israel can no longer be taken for granted.” “We must walk together, my friends, to empower the Jewish identities of our youth and ensure their ties to Israel,” Gantz said. “They are the future of Israel and the future of our diasporas and communities.”
The second challenge was “antisemitism presented as anti-Zionism.” “The oldest form of hatred has been given a makeover and it is now being fueled with the head of social media and the spread of misinformation,” Gantz said, adding that “the work of Israel’s government alone is not enough” and urged the Jewish community to “stay united” in the face of rising antisemitism. “Our stars of David must never be hidden beneath our shirts. Our kippot should never be removed for fear of verbal or physical attacks. And our flags of Israel should always be waved proudly.”
Gantz also called for uniting “with our friends and allies around the world” and declared that the “the United States is and will always be the strongest ally of the State of Israel.” “Every [U.S.] president… has and continues to support Israel to this day and for this we are very grateful,” he said.
“Israel is the only country in the world that has another country, Iran, seeking its destruction and building the means to do it. As Israel’s minister of defense, I will never let it happen” — Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz
The defense minister went on to call Iran “the biggest threat to global and regional peace and stability” and “a complete threat to our way of life and our shared values.” Israel, he continued, is “the only country in the world that has another country, Iran, seeking its destruction and building the means to do it. As Israel’s minister of defense, I will never let it happen,” he vowed. Gantz urged the international community to “stand together and act forcefully against Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and nuclear program for the sake of global and regional peace.”
He touted the fact that the Iron Dome intercepted 90% of the Hamas missiles fired at Israel during the conflict in May and gave a shoutout to one of the technology founders of the Iron Dome, who was in the audience. “Nothing is more Jewish [than] defending human lives,” Gantz said.
Along with multiple breakout sessions and panels dealing with a wide array of issues facing the Jewish world, the conference also featured video speeches from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). “I am proud that my party, the Democratic Party, continues to take a stand against antisemitism,” Hoyer said, adding that he was also proud to work with his Republican colleagues to provide enhanced security and cooperation with Israel. “Israeli-American cooperation is central to overcoming the world’s greatest challenges.”
McCarthy similarly touted “America’s unbreakable ties with Israel,” calling the Jewish State “a critical ally and a model of democracy in an unstable region.” He said that Israel is constantly under attack from terrorists like Hamas as well as constant denunciations from the international community. “We cannot allow for that,” he said. McCarthy noted that he has visited Israel five times with 189 members of Congress and urges others to go on such trips.
Miriam Adelson also paid homage to her late husband, Sheldon Adelson, the major funder of the IAC. “I miss him more and more each day. He was irreplaceable.” She said she took comfort in seeing the “bright eyes and smiles” in the audience. “You are Sheldon’s living legacy.”