August 20, 2019

2016 Election Blog #14: Random Thoughts about Monday at AIPAC

The AIPAC Policy Conference is truly a unique American Jewish happening!  And if one combines the forthcoming elections with this annual AIPAC ritual, it adds an additional level of intensity.

The magnificent “Foursome” were with us!  Clinton, Kasich, Trump and Cruz would all make their appearance. Only Sanders elected to stay away, preferring to deliver his “pro-Israel” address in Utah rather than in Washington.  When one reads the Sanders speech, by the way, there is a fundamentally different message. Did the Bern not get the memo of what was expected and what might be accepted?

So, here we were 18,000 pro-Israel Americans, and there they were, our Presidential candidates, ready to be assessed. Which of these folks would measure up to the standards and expectations of the pro-Israel community?

There is a type of Israel template speech that seems to be the accepted norm for politicians as well as for the Jewish community.  It must contain certain “key” words and specifically “accepted” phrases.  The language that speechwriters normally include and emphasize are now fixed in time and place. Such ideas as “Jerusalem, the undivided, eternal capital of Israel,” “Israel, America’s closest ally in the region,”  followed by some type of appropriate link to the Shoah, and finally to the emergence of modern anti-Semitism and more directly anti-Israelism and the BDS movement, all of these ideas have become central to the Israel mantra for politicians and indeed, these and other themes are core to the Jewish mindset about Israel.

These four addresses each carried an array of these appropriate and essential words and phrases.  Israel speech #101 is a must performance for any politician.

Each presenter would describe his or her special relationship to the Jewish State.  Then, as if in chorus, our presidential hopefuls would offer us their negative commentary on Iran, with the same level of characterization and imagery.  As if in unison, the four would appropriately castigate the Palestinians, minimize the United Nations, and imprint upon us their special relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister.

Someone siting close by would utter, “and the next line will be….” as if we could each predict the outline and framework of these campaign addresses.

Indeed, certain of these key political markers would create an instant response of crowd approval, as the thousands  who had gathered would rise as one to praise the stock and trade messaging being offered to us.  It is not that these themes do not hold meaning and may well be important statements that must be uttered and absorbed, but this sameness suggests the absence of creative insights into this now nearly 70-year storyline. Are we witnessing an affinity on the part of our crowd to only resonating to such trigger ideas and established messages?  How would we respond to a new and challenging proposition that may take us out of our comfort zone?

Indeed, the unpredictable Donald Trump would remain in character with his personal assault on the President, stepping outside the AIPAC boundary lines. There is a rhythm to the AIPAC theme of bipartisanship where Democrats and Republicans are welcomed into the tent, Mr. Trump appeared not to respect these sensitivities and traditions.

Hilary Clinton went in a different direction opting to introduce the sometime-considered controversial theme, “Settlements”.  And the “neutral” Bernie Sanders would go further in his commentary critiquing Israel policies and Palestinian practices in several areas.

In order to stand out from their rivals, each of these candidates would offer their distinctive imprint.  Hilary announced she would invite the Israeli Prime Minister to the White House; Cruz suggested that he would move on the first day in office to tear up the Iranian agreement; Kaisch argued that his long service and experience in Congress with foreign policy matters would make him more equipped to manage Middle Eastern diplomacy, and Donald Trump would demonstrate to the Iranians the art of deal making! Several of our contestants would promise  “ to move the American embassy to Jerusalem,” a theme that reminded us of past presidential candidates offering the same proposal, only to realize that once in office such actions would not be forthcoming. Promises, we are reminded, are cheap, and deeds are not always easily attainable.

The “Trump Moment” at AIPAC may be one of the central issues within the Jewish orbit, as the Donald would rail against the President, upsetting some folks and energizing others. In some measure the overarching and competing reactions to Trump would symbolize the “great divide” that today exists within the Jewish world itself.  The new politics of anger and rejection in competition with the established liberal political traditionalists was being played out at the Verizon Center on Monday night. 

Were the standing ovations for Donald Trump merely respectful acknowledgements of his ideas concerning the Middle East and Israel or did they represent a more passionate embrace of his overarching messages?  While difficult to know, could his politics resonate with more folks in that room that we might like to believe?

In its desire to maintain its bipartisan modality, AIPAC would find how difficult it will be at times to walk this thin line, as the pro-Israel community is seen as microcosm of the American political story.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.  His complete set of writings can be found at