At AIPAC, Republicans and Democrats spar on what defines anti-Semitism

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, had heard one too many of his Republican colleagues talk about anti-Semitism on the left — and it appeared he had had enough.

“It will always be wrong to use anti-Semitism as a political weapon, always,” Schumer said, reminding the 18,000 activists at this week’s AIPAC conference that as the Senate minority leader, he is the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in the government. “And let me tell you if you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to combating anti-Semitism.”

Beneath the increasingly fraught debate that plays out in discussions of what it means to be pro-Israel, another even more sensitive fight is emerging along the partisan divide: what it means to be anti-Semitic.

That fight played out at this year’s AIPAC policy conference, where Democrats and Republicans decried expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but where Republicans barely spoke about white supremacism and other manifestations on the right.

The emphasis on anti-Zionism made sense at a pro-Israel conference, and especially because it was being held in the wake of attacks on the lobby by a freshman Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Comments she made about AIPAC’s influence and the pro-Israel movement’s purported power seemed to many to recall ancient anti-Jewish slanders.

Omar was called out by name and implication at AIPAC in speeches by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. — and Schumer — to name a few.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a video address Tuesday, also picked up on the theme, referring to Omar’s tweet that U.S. policy toward Israel is “all about the Benjamins” — that is, distorted by AIPAC money (Benjamin Franklin is on the $100 bill).

“From this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins. It’s not because they want our money, it’s because they share our values,” Netanyahu said.

(Omar hit back on Twitter by referring to the corruption scandals besetting Netanyahu, saying “This from a man facing indictments for bribery and other crimes in three separate public corruption affairs. Next!”)

But it was conspicuous that just five months after the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist, it was Omar who was held up repeatedly as the face of anti-Semitism.

It became even more conspicuous when several Republican speakers drew a line connecting Pittsburgh to the congresswoman.

Pompeo cited the Pittsburgh shooting as an example of the scourge of anti-Semitism, but spoke about the causes of anti-Semitism almost exclusively in terms of Israel and anti-Zionism. He did not mention that the alleged Pittsburgh shooter was a white supremacist who was acting on an anti-Semitic slander that Jews were organizing an “invasion” of Latin American migrants into the United States. The assailant was not known to be exercised by Israel.

“This bigotry is taking on an insidious new form in the guise of ‘anti-Zionism,’” Pompeo said in his address Monday. “It has infested college campuses in the form of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement. It’s discussed in our media. It’s supported by certain members of Congress, I suspect none of whom are here tonight.”

He was referring to Omar and another Democratic freshman, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who back BDS.

“Anti-Zionism denies the very legitimacy of the Israeli state and of the Jewish people. So, friends, let me go on record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” Pompeo said to applause. “The Trump administration opposes it unequivocally, and we will fight for it relentlessly.”

Pompeo did not mention anti-Semitism on the far right.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, was even more direct in making the connection.

“We look at the horrific action of what took place in Pittsburgh in October,” he said Monday, segueing directly to say “I heard language in the own floors of Congress, I want you to know we did not stay silent,” presumably a reference to Omar.

Pence did not mention Pittsburgh, singling out only the manifestations of anti-Semitism on the left: at universities, in the boycott Israel movement and in the case of Omar.

“All over the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise — on college campuses, in the marketplace, even in the halls of Congress,” he said Monday morning.

Schumer, by contrast, drew loud applause from the AIPAC activists not only for calling out Omar, which he did repeatedly, but for noting the ways McCarthy himself and President Donald Trump have been accused of enabling anti-Semitism.

“When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out,” Schumer said.

McCarthy last year posted a tweet accusing three billionaires of Jewish heritage of buying the midterm elections. He insisted, however, that the tweet was not anti-Semitic. The post was later deleted.

“When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company, we must call it out,” McCarthy said, referring to Trump’s controversial comments after a deadly neo-Nazi 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Schumer also noted that the Pittsburgh killer was a white supremacist.

The activists again roared in approval Tuesday morning when Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., spoke about anti-Semitism on the right and left.

“Having spent more than a quarter-century advocating for a strong relationship between the United States and the Jewish state, I cannot stay silent when the entire Democratic Party is castigated as ‘Jew haters’ when what we really need is leadership that unites this nation and the world against the rise of anti-Semitism, hatred and white supremacy around the globe,” Menendez said.

“So yes, when you imply that money is the only driving factor of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, you are fanning those flames. And just the same, when you accuse Jews of funding caravans of asylum seekers at our Southern border, or fail to call out and condemn the rise of white supremacy at home and abroad, you are fanning those flames.”

Trump had accused liberal philanthropist George Soros of funding the migrant caravan — a baseless and false narrative shared by the alleged Pittsburgh killer.

AIPAC, for its part, opened the conference with a blessing by a rabbi who grew up in the Tree of Life congregation and a Pittsburgh-area choir singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

David Kaufman, a Reform rabbi from Des Moines, Iowa, said he wanted to hear more of both sides calling out their own.

“I think we are still very much in the mode of each side condemning the anti-Semitism on the other side, but not necessarily on their own side,” said Kaufman, who attended the conference.

“Look: I’m not crazy about politicization of #antisemitism,” tweeted attendee Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But, over the last two days we at #AIPAC2019 heard many Dems call out the BDS/antizionist/AS left. Would have been nice if even one Republican main stage [speaker] called out white supremacy/right wing AS for what it is.”

For her part, Omar seemed ready to move on.

“It’s been interesting to see such a powerful conference of people be so fearful of a freshman member of Congress,” she told The New York Times, “so I hope that they figure out a way to not allow me to have a permanent residency in their heads.”