Certainly it will be remembered by the number of times the AIPAC Policy Conference participants rose to their feet to applaud multiple pro-Israel comments by Vice President Mike Pence or crowd favorite Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
There were those who actually created a score card of sorts. Was that 15 standing ovations for Haley and 14 for Pence?
And it didn’t matter if the vice president or the ambassador lauded President Donald Trump or any other member of the opposite party, Democrats and Republicans alike shouted their encouragement for the administration’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to guarantee that the Jewish state’s security priority is shared by the administration and the American people.
If there were two speakers who might not have gotten as many standing ovations, but who spoke with clarity, integrity and compassion, they were easily the two from New Jersey, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Teaneck’s own Dr. Mort Fridman, AIPAC’s incoming president.
Before he addressed the conference, Sen. Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Jewish Link in a rare moment of exclusivity during a more casual get-together Monday evening of elected officials and AIPAC delegates in the Convention Center basement that “AIPAC represents what we are all about as Americans. And I think it is so important that there are 3,600 young people (high school and college students) here.”
“We are here to talk about the security of Israel and the bipartisan support we have for Israel,” he continued. The senator was surrounded by so many friends and well-wishers not just from New Jersey but from people wearing credentials from across the nation.
He stood before the AIPAC audience on Tuesday morning and carried on his discussion with delegates hanging onto every word. Menendez said, to much applause, that “even when political winds change, even when it may be tough for others to stand up for Israel, I will always stand up for three fundamental truths.”
Those truths he espoused were that the “security of the United States is strong when our bond with Israel is strong.” He said then that “the Jewish people have a right to live in peace, security and prosperity in the indisputable homeland of their ancestors.” And he added, “Israel has a right to defend herself, and the United States will always ensure she has the capabilities necessary to protect her people and her borders.”
Menendez also spoke with force when it came to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic boycott, divestment, sanctions movement as well as the growth of hatred he is witnessing in this world. He said that BDS really stood for “Bias Directed Solely at one people and one country by those who should know better.”
“It is up to all of us to stand up, stand together and speak out against anti-Semitic hatred and bigotry in all of its forms,” he said. “That includes right here at home. Last year, the United States saw the number of anti-Semitic incidents increase by 57 percent. Even in my home state of New Jersey we saw anti-Semitic incidents rose by almost one third in 2017.”
The senator said that there were more than 200 anti-Semitic incidents reported in New Jersey last year.
“This is 2018,” he said with emphasis, “and this is horrifying. We’ve seen anti-Semitism creep into political discourse across the world. Last month we watched in horror as Poland passed a law criminalizing the act of acknowledging that Poles had a role collaborating with the German Third Reich. This is a gross attempt to rewrite history, one that risks denying the past, the suffering of millions and stoking anti-Semitic hatred.”
When it came to the Iranian threat to Israel, the senator said that Tehran must understand that the U.S. will never tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. He also emphasized that in the halls of the U.S. Congress there is a “continuing, overwhelming bipartisan support for Israel.”
Senator Menendez drew a special applause when he recognized the hundreds of “AIPAC members here today from the great state of New Jersey. That includes my dear friend and AIPAC’s newest president, Dr. Mort Fridman. As you know, Mort is a real mensch and a tenacious leader who will continue to serve AIPAC well.”
Dr. Fridman succeeded Lillian Pinkus as AIPAC president.
“Today I assume the presidency of an organization that is strong, motivated and determined to move forward and an organization that recognizes the need for more of us to be part of this work,” said Dr. Fridman. “You know, when I meet people who have never heard of AIPAC, I tell them what everyone here already knows. I tell them that we succeed because we come together to shape policy, not to reinforce our nation’s partisanship. I tell them that we forge and maintain community in a time of disunity, that simply and proudly we are what is good about America.”
He added that he understands that people are frustrated by the challenges facing America and there is what he described as an “impulse to walk away from politics, to retreat to partisan corners or to demonize the other side.” He said that we can’t permit those impulses to win the day. Politics is the vehicle that AIPAC delegates must use to help secure the U.S.–Israel partnership, and Congress is the place where critical decisions on Israel’s and America’s security are made.
“We need to double down on our bipartisan methodology,” he said, “and without compromising one iota of our commitment to other issues that matter to us deeply, we must create the space to come together for the U.S.–Israel relationship.”
Dr. Fridman asked the people in the packed room to look at the people around them and realize that the person sitting nearby might not share similar political views.
“But look,” he said, “we all braved this weekend’s storm and took time away from work and school and our many involvements to be here. And we all want to make a different to help keep America and Israel safe.”
Dr. Fridman recognized his wife Esther, his children Ari, Shoshana, Daniel, Talia, Michael and Elisheva and his mother Lillian. And he thanked President Donald J. Trump and his administration “for your commitment to strengthening the bonds between these two great nations.”
The new AIPAC president was also recognized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, despite the pressure of an alleged scandal back in Israel, wowed the crowd.
Netanyahu spoke of the “good, the bad and the wonderful” of Israel. The good referred to the technology and innovation of Israel from its agriculture to its military. He also talked about how Israel has become a home for the world’s leading information technology companies. The ugly he referred to was Iran and its existential threat to Israel.
“Last week we read in the Book of Esther about an earlier Persian attempt to exterminate our people,” Netanyahu said. “They failed then. They’ll fail now. We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons—not now, not in 10 years, not ever.”
A woman sitting just to the left of this reporter yelled out, “We love you, Bibi!” And the crowd applauded wildly in agreement.
“President Trump has made it clear that his administration will not accept Iran’s aggression in the region,” he added. “He has made clear that he too will never accept a nuclear-armed Iran. This is the right policy. I salute President Trump on this. And the president has also made it clear that if the fatal flaws of the nuclear deal are not fixed he will walk away from the deal and restore sanctions. Israel will be right there by America’s side.”
The beautiful part of all of this, according to Netanyahu, is the alliance between the U.S. and Israel.
“The beautiful alliance that has brought all of you here to Washington,” he said, the beautiful alliance that you work day in and day out to make stronger and to make better.”
There were sessions happening during the day that ranged in topics from how digital media is quickly growing in the Middle East, all the way to a preview of the new Netflix thriller “Fauda.”
Security from both Washington, D.C., police, Capitol Police and even the Secret Service were protecting the event in a show of welcome force. In the basement of the convention center, an Iron Dome missile defense system was on display. The policy conference has always been a place where its delegates can learn by actually seeing new technologies, both good and sometimes even threatening. Several years ago it was at AIPAC where many learned exactly how Iran was in the process of militarizing nuclear material.
AIPAC is best known for its speakers, and this year’s conference didn’t disappoint, ranging in speeches from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to MK Tzipi Livni to His Excellency Jimmy Morales, the president of Guatemala (the second nation to announce its embassy move to Jerusalem), to Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) to Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, and many others.
But it was unarguably Sen. Menendez who brought the strongest, reasoned approach to the podium, recognizing the significance of this year’s policy conference like no other speaker before him.
“As we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, it is you who keep the shared values, hopes and dreams of the American and Israeli people forever aligned,” he said. “And I am proud to stand with you, knowing full well that no matter what challenges come our way, we will stand strong. We will not shrink in the face of growing threats against our cherished ally. We will not be silent in the face of a rising tide of anti-Semitism here at home or abroad. And we will not be deterred by those who try to drive a partisan wedge between us. We will stand united against those foreign adversaries who seek the destruction of Israel. And together we will show the world the United States stands by the right of the Israeli people to live peacefully and securely in their homeland.
“David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, once said that ‘in Israel, to be a realist you must believe in miracles.’ Well, my friends, I believe in miracles and I believe in the State of Israel.”
By Phil Jacobs