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At AIPAC, sparring on what defines anti-Semitism

Sen. Chuck Schumer at the 2019 AIPAC conference.

Sen. Chuck Schumer at the 2019 AIPAC conference.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said at AIPAC:

“It will always be wrong to use anti-Semitism as a political weapon, always,” Schumer said, reminding the 18,000 activists at this week’s AIPAC conference that as the Senate minority leader, he is the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in the government.

“And let me tell you if you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to combating anti-Semitism.”

What it means to be anti-Semitic played out at this year’s AIPAC policy conference, where Democrats and Republicans decried expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

The emphasis on anti-Zionism made sense at a pro-Israel conference, and especially because it was being held in the wake of attacks on the lobby by a freshman Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. She said that AIPAC bought off Congresspeople to be pro-Israel.

Omar was called out by name and implication at AIPAC in speeches by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. — and Schumer — to name a few.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a video address Tuesday, March 26, also picked up on the theme, referring to Omar’s tweet that US policy toward Israel is “all about the Benjamins” — that is, distorted by AIPAC money (Benjamin Franklin is on the $100 bill).

“From this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins. It’s not because they want our money, it’s because they share our values,” Netanyahu said.

(Omar hit back on Twitter by referring to the corruption scandals besetting Netanyahu, saying “This from a man facing indictments for bribery and other crimes in three separate public corruption affairs. Next!”)

It was conspicuous that just five months after the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist, it was Omar who was held up repeatedly as the face of anti-Semitism.

Pompeo cited the Pittsburgh shooting as an example of the scourge of anti-Semitism. He spoke about the causes of anti-Semitism almost exclusively in terms of Israel and anti-Zionism.

“This bigotry is taking on an insidious new form in the guise of ‘anti-Zionism,’” Pompeo said in his address Monday.

“It has infested college campuses in the form of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement. It’s discussed in our media. It’s supported by certain members of Congress, I suspect none of whom are here tonight.”

He was referring to Omar and another Democratic freshman, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who back BDS.

“Anti-Zionism denies the very legitimacy of the Israeli state and of the Jewish people. So, friends, let me go on record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” Pompeo said to applause. “The Trump administration opposes it unequivocally, and we will fight for it relentlessly.”

Pompeo did not mention anti-Semitism on the far right.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, said:

“We look at the horrific action of what took place in Pittsburgh in October. I heard language in the own floors of Congress, I want you to know we did not stay silent,” presumably a reference to Omar.

Schumer, by contrast, drew loud applause from the AIPAC activists not only for calling out Omar, which he did repeatedly, but for noting the ways McCarthy himself and President Donald Trump have been accused of enabling anti-Semitism.

“When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out,” Schumer said.

McCarthy last year posted a tweet accusing three billionaires of Jewish heritage of buying the midterm elections. He insisted, however, that the tweet was not anti-Semitic. The post was later deleted.

“When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company, we must call it out,” Schumer said.

Schumer also noted that the Pittsburgh killer was a white supremacist.

The activists again roared in approval Tuesday morning when Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, spoke about anti-Semitism on the right and left.

“Having spent more than a quarter-century advocating for a strong relationship between the US and the Jewish state, I cannot stay silent when the entire Democratic Party is castigated as ‘Jew haters’ when what we really need is leadership that unites this nation and the world against the rise of anti-Semitism, hatred and white supremacy around the globe,” Menendez said.

“So yes, when you imply that money is the only driving factor of a strong US-Israel relationship, you are fanning those flames. And just the same, when you accuse Jews of funding caravans of asylum seekers at our southern border, or fail to call out and condemn the rise of white supremacy at home and abroad, you are fanning those flames.”

AIPAC, for its part, opened the conference with a blessing by a rabbi who grew up in the Tree of Life congregation and a Pittsburgh-area choir singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

David Kaufman, a Reform rabbi from Des Moines, Iowa, said he wanted to hear more of both sides calling out their own.

“I think we are still very much in the mode of each side condemning the anti-Semitism on the other side, but not necessarily on their own side,” said Kaufman, who attended the conference.

“Look: I’m not crazy about politicization of #antisemitism,” tweeted attendee Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

“But, over the last two days we at #AIPAC2019 heard many Dems call out the BDS/antizionist/AS left. Would have been nice if even one Republican main stage [speaker] called out white supremacy/right wing AS for what it is.”

Omar told The New York Times:

“It’s been interesting to see such a powerful conference of people be so fearful of a freshman member of Congress. I hope that they figure out a way to not allow me to have a permanent residency in their heads.”

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