With the ironic exception of Bernie Sanders, the only Jewish candidate in the race for the White House, all viable contenders for president — Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — addressed the more than 18,000 delegates of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington on Monday, with each candidate pledging unwavering support for Israel if elected.
Among the record-breaking number of attendees at the largest-ever conference for the pro-Israel lobbying group were 90 delegates from Pittsburgh, including 11 University of Pittsburgh students affiliated with the Hillel Jewish University Center, and the entire 11th and 12th grades of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Academy Girls High School. Those students were among 4,000 other young Israel advocates at the conference.
This was the first AIPAC Policy Conference for several of the Pittsburgh delegates, many of whom were overwhelmed by the energy generated by being in the same room with such a large contingent of supporters of the Jewish state.
“This is totally mind-blowing, seeing so many people committed to Israel,” said Yikara Levari, assistant principal of Hillel Academy Girls Middle and High School. “It’s an emotional experience.”
Hillel Academy students have been following the election closely, Levari said, and the opportunity to see and hear the presidential candidates in person, and to personally lobby Rep. Mike Doyle (D-District 14), helped to “make things real.”
“It’s very exciting,” said Yael Itskowitz, a senior at Hillel. “Last semester, I took a course at Chatham University about American government, and it’s so interesting to see it put into action. I am passionate about making the voice of Israel heard in Congress.”
It was clear that the presidential candidates were all well aware of that voice, as each one in turn hit on major crowd-pleasing talking points for the pro-Israel community, including putting an end to the incitement of Palestinian terrorism.
The dangers still posed by Iran despite — or because of — the Iran nuclear accord brokered by the Obama administration last summer took center stage at the conference. Months after the deal was ratified internationally and approved by the Senate after the pro-Israel lobby had fought hard to kill it, speaker after speaker denounced the agreement. It was, in the words of Trump, “catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole Middle East.”
Several of the speakers noted that the release of sanctions against Iran put $150 billion in the hands of a regime considered to be the No. 1 sponsor of worldwide terror and pointed to the recent test launch by Iran of ballistic missiles.
AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr made it clear that Iran was its top priority: “The struggle to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over,” he said on Sunday night. “So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the Middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival.”
That message was clear to those in the audience.
“Iran is the major threat facing Israel, and we have to do everything in our power to make Israel strong against her enemies,” said Pittsburgher Judy Kanal, a first-time AIPAC attendee, following Sunday night’s general session at which Vice President Joe Biden praised the Iran deal. “And we have to support AIPAC as it does its amazing work.”
While all three Republican candidates condemned the Iran deal — with Cruz pledging to “rip this catastrophic nuclear deal to shreds” on his first day in office — Clinton vowed she would strictly enforce its terms and exert force against Iran if it they are violated. Biden had praised the deal the previous evening as putting Iran “much, much further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon than they were a year ago.”
“It’s a matter of perspective,” observed Rabbi Yaier Lehrer, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom in the North Hills and a frequent attendee of AIPAC’s conferences. “The Iran deal is not as good as it could have been. Biden was here to put a good face on it. But the most important thing he said was to reaffirm United States support for Israel.”
That support was echoed universally throughout the three-day conference, with candidates eager to outshine their opponents in terms of their pro-Israel credentials through rhetoric ranging from subtly critical of each other to insulting.
As was expected, Trump was the target of much of that rhetoric, as Clinton implored the AIPAC constituents to stand up to “bullies” and Cruz began his speech by calling out Trump’s repeated reference to “Palestine” when referring to the Palestinian people.
“Palestine has not existed since 1948,” Cruz told the crowd, to rousing applause.
On the other hand, Trump — who was uncharacteristically scripted for most of his speech — was more direct in his critique of his opponents, calling Clinton “a total disaster, by the way.”
The multibillionaire real estate mogul also did not hold back when talking about the current president, saying, “Obama is in his final year. Yay!”
That remark was met with thundering applause by the AIPAC crowd, and Trump followed it with: “He may be the worst thing to happen to Israel. Believe me.”
At Tuesday morning’s general session, AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus chided the crowd for its reaction to Trump’s remarks about Obama.
“We say unequivocally that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the president of the United States of America from our stage,” Pinkus said. “While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama.
“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus continued. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”
The fact that Trump had been invited to speak at the AIPAC conference was controversial in and of itself, with a few Jewish groups threatening to protest his speech by either not showing up, walking out or rallying outside the Verizon Center. Nevertheless, the stadium was packed, and if there was a walkout, it was imperceptible among the massive crowd.
Among the small group protesting outside the stadium were Pitt students, although they were not part of the group affiliated with Hillel JUC, according to Dan Marcus, the organization’s executive director and CEO.
“We heard AIPAC was inviting Donald Trump to speak, and all of us were pretty outraged as Jewish young people,” said Hannah Weintraub.
“We don’t support the sort of hatred that he [stands for] in our country and stand in solidarity with all the other protestors who have been disrupting his protests,” she continued. “We don’t believe the Jewish community should be supporting Donald Trump in any way.”
Even inviting him to speak was a problem for Weintraub, a Washington native.
“You don’t invite someone who is inciting the sort of violence and hatred in our country,” she said. “You don’t invite someone like that to come and speak at your event if you don’t stand for hatred yourself.”
Tahel Axel, a junior originally from Chicago, expressed “frustration” with AIPAC for hosting Trump.
“I don’t believe AIPAC represents me at all as a Jewish person,” said Axel, who held a sign reading “AIPAC doesn’t speak for me, Dump Trump.”
But, Trump aside, for other young Jews the AIPAC Policy Conference provided a meaningful way to affect a pro-Israel stance.
Tony Satryan, a Squirrel Hill native who is a junior at Indiana University, found the various AIPAC policy sessions “inspiring” and appreciated the opportunity to lobby congressional representatives on issues important to Israel.
“It’s important to speak out as a Jew, and as an American, this is the best way to do it,” Satryan said.
The issues on which Satryan and other Pittsburgh delegates were planning to lobby Doyle, along with Reps. Tim Murphy (R-District 18), Mike Kelly (R-District 3) and Keith Rothfus (R-District 12) and Sens. Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D) were Iran and its threat to Israel’s security; supporting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; and a new 10-year memorandum of understanding providing for American defense assistance to Israel.
While Satryan was not a supporter of the Iran deal, he said it is time to “come together and move on,” with the proviso that the United States will ensure its enforcement.
In addition to hearing the speeches of the candidates and other government representatives, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Bob Menendez, the policy conference gave participants the chance to attend a variety of break-out sessions led by experts and strategists on political as well as cultural and business topics relevant to Israel.
“It is inspiring to get a behind-the-scenes look at the things you don’t see in the media,” Kanal said. “The media is often negative, because that’s what sells. At the conference, we’ve been hearing about political and strategic collaboration behind the scenes and about innovations coming out of Israel. It’s an inspiration that even more can be done.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed the conference with words of warning about the Iran agreement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, check your enthusiasm at the door,” he said by satellite feed. “You see, this deal doesn’t make peace more likely. By fueling Iran’s aggressions with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, it makes war more likely.”
Melissa Gerr, David Holzel and Daniel Schere of Mid-Atlantic Media contributed to this report.