Attempting to head off signs of weakening Democratic and progressive support for Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee kicked off its annual policy conference with a pledge to welcome liberals to the pro-Israel lobby’s proverbial “big tent.”
“We need to embrace and involve many more Jewish Americans,” AIPAC president Mort Fridman said at the conference’s opening session on Sunday morning. “To my friends in the progressive community - I want you to know that we are partners in this project.”
With 18,000 activists in audience and many more watching at home, AIPAC attempted to set a tone of outreach and diversity. Offering an olive branch to progressives and showcasing Democrats, women, and non-Jews who support Israel, the conference’s opening moments made a clear statement about the lobby’s wish to correct course and repair its current image as a conservative-leaning organization, an image reinforced after several years of tense relations with the Obama administration following the debate over the Iranian nuclear deal.
“The progressive narrative for Israel is just as compelling as the conservative one,” said Fridman, an Orthodox psychiatrist from New Jersey who is now assuming his role as AIPAC’s top lay leader. He warned liberals that there are “very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall and out of this movement” and pledged that AIPAC “will not let that happen” and that the lobby “values your voice and our work together needs to grow.”
AIPAC’s stress on bipartisanship as an antidote to hyper-partisanship in the Trump era has been noticed throughout the lobby’s choice of speakers and their messaging. Fridman echoed AIPAC’s longtime maxim that only working with both parties, and in the larger context working with the extremes of both parties as well, can ensure U.S.-Israel ties in the long run.
“People are angry and hurting and frustrating and fed up,” Fridman said. “There’s an impulse to walk away from politics…but we cannot let those impulses win the day.” He called AIPAC, a group accused by rival pro-Israel groups from the left and right of veering too strongly to either side, as a force of unity at a time of disunity. “We are what is good about America,” he said.
In an effort to reinforce this notion, the lobby highlighted Democratic former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm on its main stage. As photos of her embracing the stones of the Western Wall flashed in the background, Granholm tried to drive home the progressive case for Israel, citing the country’s support for women’s rights, LGBT rights and a strong public healthcare system. “Israel can be a role model for other nations, including America, showing how citizens are cared for not only through words but through deeds and policies,” she said.
Despite partisanship,” Granholm told the crowd, “I pledge to support AIPAC to make sure Israel remains a bipartisan issue.” To a standing ovation from the audience she added: “There is a strong pro-Israel voice within the Democratic Party.”
AIPAC may be facing an uphill battle in its attempt to regain the mantle of bipartisanship. Keynote speaker at its conference will include Vice President Mike Pence and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who will likely argue that the Trump administration is the friendliest Israel has ever known.
It will be up to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the conference on Tuesday, to set the tone in his speech. A one-sided expression of gratitude to Trump could deter Democratic supporters of Israel, while an evenhanded message would be harder to craft given his right-wing base in Israel.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.