Why are More Democrats Breaking Tradition and Boycotting AIPAC?

February 27, 2020

The pro-Israel group is attacking Bernie Sanders both for his support for Palestinians and for not attending the yearly conference, but he's not the only person calling out AIPAC's right-wing agenda.

The pro-Israel group is attacking Bernie Sanders both for his support for Palestinians and for not attending the yearly conference, but he's not the only person calling out AIPAC's right-wing agenda.


WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES - 2019/03/26: Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel seen speaking via video to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during the Policy Conference in Washington, DC. Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown.

AIPAC is the largest official Israeli lobby group registered in the United States. It holds conferences every election cycle. And it used to be a nonpartisan issue for all presidential candidates to attend and speak at these conferences, where they would usually try to outdo each other in their fanatic support for Israeli policies, but this is changing rapidly. Both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both announced that they will not attend AIPAC’s policy conference this year. AIPAC has been running attack ads against Senator Bernie Sanders because of his demand that the U.S. treat not just Israelis, but Palestinians with respect. Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota’s fourth district said that AIPAC is a hate group.

Now, AIPAC eventually apologized for the attack ads. On Sunday Bernie Sanders tweeted: “The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. 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” Now, AIPAC in turn blasted Bernie Sanders for his tweet and called his decision not to attend shameful. The group called If Not Now is a progressive Jewish organization. They released this video last week calling on progressive candidates to skip AIPAC. Let’s have a listen.

SARAH KATE: I realized the AIPAC conference wasn’t the educational event it was branded but rather something with a deep-set, right wing agenda.

REBECCA MILLBERG: Then Trump came and spoke at AIPAC and Pence came and spoke at AIPAC and Netanyahu kept coming back even as he had more and more racist policies in the state of Israel.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: The way AIPAC is policing the discourse on this issue is harmful to Palestinians. It’s harmful to American Jews, it’s harmful to Israelis, and it’s harmful to everybody who considered themselves an ally in the fight for a better future.

REBECCA MILLBERG: To people who are still considering going to AIPAC my question is why?

JACOB LEVKOWITZ: Today, if you’re a progressive or someone who cares about human rights. If you care about equality, if you care about justice, you should have serious concerns about showing up at AIPAC’s conference.

KIM BROWN: So after Congresswoman McCallum called AIPAC a hate group, Alex Kane interviewed her for 972 Magazine. He’s here with us today to discuss the shift in the Democratic Party in its relation to the state of Israel. Alex is a freelance journalist who writes on Israel Palestine, on civil liberties and on Jewish communities here in the United States. Also, on the war on terror. He writes, as I mentioned, for 972 Magazine; also writes for the Intercept Middle East I forward and other outlets across the web. Alex, we appreciate you joining us today.

ALEX KANE: Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: So Alex, we’ve spoken to you here previously on the Real News about an earlier piece you wrote titled How Israel Palestine Jumped to the Heart of U.S. politics in which you already pointed out the division in the Democratic Party. Now as we’re going along through the caucuses, we’re seeing delegates start to add up and right now, the more progressive candidate Bernie Sanders who has a more progressive policy or ideas towards how U.S. should deal with Palestine, he’s fairing much better than the pro-Israel candidates like Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg. So in your opinion, how is this issue factoring into how caucus and primary voters are choosing their candidate this time?

ALEX KANE: Well, I’m not sure how much it’s playing into the actual primaries or caucuses. I mean we’ve only had of course three primaries or, sorry, two caucuses and one primary and of course the next one is in South Carolina and Israel as a particular issue has not come up as a major part of the primary elections itself, right? So I don’t think most voters in the States that have voted think of Israel as a huge issue. I think that will perhaps change as we get to states with larger and more influential Jewish populations, including New York and Florida, so that’s sort of one point to make. But that doesn’t mean that Israel hasn’t been an issue in the overall primary. You’ve seen Israel come up a number of times in the debates and you’ve really seen the split between the progressives and the more establishment candidates there.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren sticking to their line that Netanyahu is a right wing racist whose pursuing policies that entrench Israel’s occupation and in turn making it impossible for a Palestinian state to come into being. And of course Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg also saying that there should be a two state solution, meaning Israel and a Palestinian state living together side by side, but Biden in particular are not criticizing Netanyahu in as harsh terms and not contemplating real shifts in U.S. policy like making U.S. military aid to Israel contingent on changes in Israeli behavior, like stopping Israeli settlements or stopping the steps to AMEX to West bank, so that’s where the issue has come up mostly in debates and on the campaign trail. I don’t think voters are yet thinking about Israel but that may change in the future.

KIM BROWN: We can look back on presidential election cycles 25 years in the past between George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, all spoke at AIPAC and they each made a promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the annexation. Now, of course they all lied except for Donald Trump who actually went ahead with it. But there’s an interesting twist here because what can a Democratic candidate possibly promise at an AIPAC conference, which can out shine what Trump has already done?

ALEX KANE: Well that’s a good point. I mean I don’t think any of the Democratic candidates, if they’d gone to AIPAC and to be clear, none of them have said they’re going to AIPAC and it’s on super Tuesday so none of them probably will be going to AIPAC. But if say Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg went to AIPAC, I don’t think it’s possible for them to outflank Donald Trump on the right on Israel because Donald Trump has essentially ripped the mask off of U.S. policy and made it clear that the United States will stand with Israel and its apartheid regime in the West bank and its overall policies of occupation and discrimination against Palestinians.

And that has totally ripped the mask off of the U.S. policy because U.S. policy for decades has been: “We want a Palestinian…” Or sorry, for years I should say, not for decades. For years, U.S. policy was that there should be a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel; there should be a two state solution there. Israel should withdraw from the occupied Palestinian Territories. Now that is no longer U.S. policy, so there’s no middle ground here, right? I think Trump has really polarized the Israel debate. That’s something that leaves people like Joe Biden very uncomfortable, but it’s something that allows Bernie Sanders to step in and really be the progressive candidate on Israel-Palestine.

KIM BROWN: Let’s talk about perhaps the waning influence of the AIPAC conference because let’s say at least in the 21st century political era, I want to say the modern political era, but I think it’s a little bit more recent than that. I mean it was really a come to Jesus, pardon the pun, but a kiss the ring sort of moment for all candidates, Republicans, Democrats to go to the AIPAC conference and make not just promises but I suppose intentions of support for Israeli policies. Maybe some slight critique about how to treat Palestinians depending on the candidate, depending on the era of course. But are we seeing AIPAC’s influence on U.S. national elections, especially for the white house, is that teetering off a bit in your opinion?

ALEX KANE: Yes, absolutely. And I think there are essentially two reasons why. The first is a sort of fundamental reason. AIPAC exists to marshal the resources in support of a sort of center right liberal American Jews community, I mean there are splits in the American Jewish community but AIPAC has always been a big tent meant to marshal the resources of American Jews and Christian evangelicals to support candidates who profess their undying love for Israel no matter what Israel is actually doing, so that has been AIPAC.

Now, as Israel has carried out more and more belligerent policies towards the Palestinians, launching deadly assaults on the Gaza Strip and entrenching on a deeply brutal occupation and building settlements on stolen Palestinian land, that has made the job of AIPAC very difficult. How are you going to appeal to a Democratic Party base that is for social justice, for equality, and yet defend a state whose very policies are antithetical to that? So that’s first. That’s one difficulty that AIPAC has to contend with.

The other is something that AIPAC did to itself during the Iran debate for instance. AIPAC spent millions of dollars trying to kill president Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, which is a diplomatic agreement with Iran. AIPAC did not succeed. The Democrats supported Obama’s Iran deal, and AIPAC did eventually succeed when Trump got into office and ripped the Iran deal up and basically put the U.S. on a confrontation path with Iran. So that was a major clarifying moment in the sort of cleavage that has been building up between AIPAC and parts of the Democratic Party. I don’t want to overstate it; the Democratic establishment is still very much with AIPAC, but the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is basically telling AIPAC to shove it.

KIM BROWN: Alex, I’m a little loathed to compare apples to oranges, so to speak, but I’m imagining a black presidential candidate skipping the NAACP conference, for example. What does it mean for Bernie Sanders, a Jewish candidate–not only a Jewish candidate for president, but the front-runner at the moment–to skip this particular conference? And it’s not to paint the Jewish voting block as a monolith, nor is the African American voting black a monolith but there is some sort of divergence in how identity politics works in this particular instance.

ALEX KANE: I think it’s significant because I think many non-Jewish politicians and non-Jews in general, to make a generalization, certainly not everybody, but to make a generalization they think of American Jews as supporters of Israel no matter what. And Bernie Sanders is showing the world that that’s not necessarily true. Now, Bernie Sanders is a supporter of a certain kind of Israel. He wants Israel to be a democracy. He wants Israel to stop occupying another people, to stop having separate and unequal laws when comparing Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

So it’s not that Sanders is not a supporter of Israel it’s just he’s a supporter of a different kind of Israel than the one that exists today. And in fact, that’s really the majority views of most American Jews. Most American Jews don’t like Netanyahu, they don’t like Israeli settlements, they don’t like Israel’s occupation. They are in general more antiwar than the larger American population if you want to break it down by ethnic groups. And so, Sanders is really in the mainstream in the Jewish community. People may not realize that, but he’s expressing views that are really in the mainstream.

Now, the American Jewish establishment is a different matter. His views are very much antithetical to that establishment. Groups like AIPAC groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, but Bernie Sanders aligned with J Street, which is a liberal pro-Israel group that wants Israel to end the occupation but also wants the United States to keep supporting Israel. So Bernie Sanders, essentially, his views are very much in line with the larger American Jewish community.

KIM BROWN: When you get a chance go to 972 Magazine check out Alex Kane’s interview with Congresswoman Betty McCollum. She called AIPAC a hate group after they ran attack ads against Senator Bernie Sanders who announced that he would not be attending this year’s AIPAC conference along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, who said that she would not be in attendance either.

We’ve been speaking with Alex Kane. Alex is a freelance journalist. He writes on issues relating to Israel, Palestine on civil liberties on Jewish communities here in the U.S. You can find his latest piece, as I said, at 972 Magazine, but he writes all over the internet. So Alex, we do appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you.

ALEX KANE: Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.