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As 18,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby group, filled a convention center in Washington early this week, a multitude of speeches included few surprises. On a giant stage and also in the nearby Verizon Center sports arena, politicians representing both major parties declared their unshakable support for the Jewish state.
Just below the surface, however, activists who toil to strengthen alliances with Israel mounted an effort to preserve the movement’s bipartisan nature. They have valiantly tried to prevent support for Israel from becoming something only for conservatives and Republicans.
As attendees cheered loudly for UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has been quashing anti-Israel declarations, it felt as if AIPAC leaned heavily toward the political right. Conservatives, regardless of religion, have made support for Israel a part of their worldview. She has become one of their heroes.
Partisanship can be dangerous, however, and many Democrats drifted away from caring passionately about Israel and its welfare. The trend was fueled by President Barack Obama’s personal and political friction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plus claims by left-wing activists that Israel oppresses Palestinians and illegally builds settlements.
It was encouraging, then, that at the conference and at dozens of gatherings, emphatic liberals declared affection for Israel. “My country has seen apartheid, and we know what it is,” a student activist from South Africa, Jamie Mithi, said at a party hosted by The Israel Project, a nonprofit organization. “I have been to Israel, and there is no apartheid there. Not in Israel, and not in the West Bank!”
Two African-American politicians were equally supportive during the party in a crowded Mexican restaurant. Michael Blake, an assemblyman from the Bronx who is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Ceasar Mitchell, president of Atlanta’s City Council, insisted that praising the Jewish state as the only Middle East country where minority rights are upheld fits in with demanding criminal justice reform, government aid to the poor in America and an end to racial discrimination by police.
Even before a DJ laid down a pounding beat at the party, the speeches were music to the ears of Josh Block, president of The Israel Project. He spoke of “our global civil rights coalition, building on the legacy of the era when African-Americans and American Jews united against racism.”
With many AIPAC members and Jewish leaders seeing a dangerous increase in anti-Semitism, there is a welcome effort by activists to forge coalitions, in the spirit of the 1960s, to combat discrimination of all kinds.
AIPAC centrists who feared that their movement was being dragged to the right privately expressed relief that a pro-Israel left is growing. Some self-described progressives, even if Jewish, had chosen in recent years to be highly critical of Israel.
The smaller gatherings, in meeting rooms dotted around the convention center, included LGBT supporters of Israel and labor union leaders who believe in Israel as a just nation. Marcia Nichols, based in Iowa for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said it made sense for her to be a liberal who supports Israel.
The progressive, pro-peace group J Street, was not impressed that the much larger AIPAC attempted to feature and embrace perspectives from the left. AIPAC faces “some tough questions about whom they represent,” J Street said in a statement, because by showing loyalty to the leaders of Israel and America, Netanyahu and Trump, it risks alienating the majority of Jews who are liberals.