Each spring, the American-Israel Political Action Committee hosts a massive policy conference in Washington D.C. where a line-up of speakers that includes American politicians from both parties discuss Israeli-American relations. AIPAC boasts that “more than two-thirds of Congress” attends their annual conference, and this year’s event featured Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the leaders of both houses of Congress. All of them appeared on a stage in a darkened room that stretched for hundreds of yards and felt more a megachurch than a convention center. On the domineering screens, there were images of the American flag and the Israeli flag merged beautifully and without flaw.
The conference is usually celebrated as one of the few moments of bipartisanship in Washington, but this year was different It seemed more urgent. Perhaps it was the ugly face of anti-Semitism that has cut itself more defined in the past few years, after Charlottesville and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Or the never-ending debate over Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s attacks on Israel and AIPAC. Or the escalating tensions in Gaza. Or perhaps it was something else.
But almost all of the 2020 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish) publicly announced that they would not attend the AIPAC conference. The progressive group MoveOn was behind the push for Democrats to skip the conference. In a statement, MoveOn said “AIPAC is clearly a partisan lobbying group that has undermined diplomatic efforts” and that “AIPAC has been known to traffic in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric while providing a platform to Islamophobes.”
On Monday—the second day of the conference—Israel announced that they were taking military action in Gaza after a rocket hit a house in Tel Aviv. This happened at almost the same moment that President Trump was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office where Netanyahu spoke Trump’s language, heaping on praise. At one point during their meeting, the Prime Minister told Trump “over the years, Israel has been blessed to have many friends who sat in the Oval Office but Israel has never had a better friend than you.”
We don’t wear our support for any other American ally on our sleeves as loudly as we do for Israel, not even for our oldest allies. I hoped to find out why.
And that stirred at the underlying tone of AIPAC—that American patriotism is directly married to our support for Israel. From a distance, it was a strange but obvious theme because it’s not among the traditional tenets of patriotism; ideals like supporting the military and participating in democracy. The message from the American politicians, like Vice President Mike Pence was I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud to support Israel and these two ideals are mutually inclusive. At one point, he declared “we stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight.” We don’t wear our support for any other American ally on our sleeves as loudly as we do for Israel, not even for our oldest allies like France or Great Britain or our NATO allies, nor is that support so directly tied to the American identity. And I hoped to find out why.
As a reporter, covering AIPAC was a brain-bashing endeavor. The press was given no access to the speakers, and I lingered in high-trafficked areas hoping to find a stray member of Congress, but each time I was instead found by an event staffer who told me to keep moving. I managed to bump into Congressman Denver Riggleman (R-VA) for a moment before he went on stage, and asked him why it’s important for American lawmakers to be speaking at AIPAC, instead he pivoted to a talking point, saying “I think the important thing is that with the lawmakers that we have now, a lot of them haven’t been to Israel … I think we have to get as many over to Israel as we can.”
At the opening of the Monday evening session, AIPAC presented six members of Congress onto the massive stage in the darkened ballroom. Among them Riggleman and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), the Republicans’ answer to the AOC phenomenon. The members of Congress each advocated for the support of Israel as a bipartisan message, but none of them answered my question—why is supporting Israel a component of American patriotism?
Perhaps the reason I was so curious about this question was that outside of AIPAC, more than ever, American patriotism seems independent of support for Israel. In the United States, the conversation about our relationship with the nation has shifted. It’s no longer unthinkable to criticize Israel, especially since the country grabbed headlines as they massacred Palestinian protesters trying to enter Israel last May. And it’s no longer unthinkable to support direct opposition of Israel, termed BDS (an abbreviation for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). At AIPAC, the BDS movement was denounced as un-American and anti-Semitic but supporters of the movement—some of whom are in Congress—say that it’s an effort to fight back against Israeli oppression of Palestinian citizens.
On Tuesday as the conference concluded, the AIPAC attendees went to Capitol Hill where they spoke to lawmakers about issues important to Israel, and I went to a press briefing with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who, during his AIPAC speech on Sunday night, seemed to attack Rep. Omar. When I asked Hoyer if supporting Israel is a component of American patriotism as Pence suggested, he prefaced his answer by saying that he had not read Pence’s speech, but said “we shouldn’t question people’s patriotism because of the positions that they take—it seems to me that perhaps Mr. Pence is doing the opposite.” He added, “I think one should not question one’s loyalty to America if one is a very strong supporter of Israel, nor do I think the opposite is true.”
This presented another question—is supporting Israel becoming a partisan issue? When I asked Rep. Crenshaw about that on Tuesday he said “unfortunately, it’s becoming partisan and we’re fighting to maintain that bipartisan support for Israel.”
American foreign policy in the Middle East has always been a fracturing issue in our nation— consider the Gulf War and the Iraq War. But support for Israel has usually been bipartisan. It’s impossible to choreograph our conversation as the future unrolls, but at AIPAC, it quickly became clear that Israel will be yet another impasse between both sides of the aisle.