Trump’s election win gave AIPAC a bipartisan challenge
America feels like a divided country.
Cracks that have existed for decades between conservatives and liberals have become chasms.
Last year’s presidential election was brutal and ugly and has split families and friends.
Time may prove a healer. But the four months since Donald Trump’s victory have been filled with rancour and acrimony. Newspapers, radio, the 24-hour cable networks and above all social media magnify the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Trump supporters are accused of being racist and misogynist. Hillary Clinton supporters are told their candidate is a crook and are chastised for thinking they are morally superior.
The American Jewish community is not immune to the divisions. There are reports that couples who voted for different presidential candidates are going to counselling.
American Jewry has been unnerved further by a series of incidents which have targeted them. Three Jewish graveyards have been vandalised. The branches of a giant menorah were bent into a swastika. Dozens of Jewish community buildings have received bomb threats, although there is a suspect arrested in Israel who is a troubled Jewish youth. These events are unheard of in recent memory and the political landscape is only adding to the uncertainty.
Traditionally, American Jews vote Democrat: 70% are estimated to have backed Clinton. But as the number of orthodox Jews grows, Republican support rises too. Some American Jews are concerned the Democrats can no longer be relied on to support Israel.
Some Democrats are urging a pivot to the left in response to seeing the Republicans take the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. This may result in a less pro-Israel stance, or certainly more critical support. Either course of action by the Democrats risks further alienating American Jews.
These are key concerns being considered by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC.
AIPAC lobbies congressmen and women to ensure the US-Israel relationship remains strong.
AIPAC stresses its bipartisan credentials: the organisation will work with any leader, Republican or Democrat, whoever they are, whatever their values, provided they support Israel.
This year’s Policy Conference in Washington, DC brought together more than 18,000 pro-Israel activists from around the country, Jewish and non-Jewish, to hear from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by live video link, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, American Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Delegates then spend a day lobbying their representatives on Capitol Hill.
It’s a hugely impressive event: a basketball stadium filled to the rafters, staging worthy of the Oscars, hundreds of break-out sessions, it’s big and loud and unapologetic. The constant applause and standing ovations have toned my arms and legs. AIPAC is Limmud Conference on steroids.
But Trump’s election result provides AIPAC with a unique challenge to its bipartisan principles: how to deal with an administration still deciding which campaign promises to follow through on, and a new president who already has record low approval ratings.
The new administration is already backtracking on a number of campaign promises. The flagship pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is yet to materialise. Mike Pence was only able to tell AIPAC it was something Donald Trump is “giving serious consideration” to.
The White House has already delivered contradictory messages on Israeli settlements with the Trump team now appearing less willing to give Israel free rein to build new settlement blocs.
This unpredictability makes forming policy asks of government challenging.
For years AIPAC has spoken out in favour of the two-state solution for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But the two-state solution was noticeably absent from AIPAC’s policy asks this year.
Also absent was Donald Trump himself. This was the first time a newly-elected president has not addressed the gathering: recognition by AIPAC, perhaps, that given the divisions in the American Jewish community, it would have been too soon for him to appear.
We Brits have a lot to learn from America. But there are warning signs too: if ever there was an example of the danger of polarising politics, the American political system is it.