The general consensus at this year’s annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was that Democratic frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) decision to snub the event—a requisite stop for U.S. presidential contenders on the campaign trail—was a big disappointment. Attendees also expressed concern that the some of the senator’s recent remarks could spur anti-Semitism.

Although the mood exiting the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Monday was largely upbeat, with attendees, who travel to the nation’s capital to lobby their members of Congress on behalf of the U.S.-Israel alliance, generally pleased about Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisive election victory that day (although it remains uncertain if he can still form a government), when asked their feelings about Sanders’s decision to shun this year’s AIPAC policy conference, many expressed outrage.

“I’m thrilled about Bibi’s re-election,” said Michael Elman, 64, a retina surgeon from Baltimore. “Hopefully, he’ll be able to form a government. I support his policies. We think it’s a good move for the Jewish people, and hopefully, they can get out of this paralysis.”

He added that “Bernie is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. With friends like that, we don’t need enemies.”

Sanders’s decision to skip the conference, as well as his recent characterization on Twitter of the historically bipartisan advocacy group as providing a “platform … for leaders who express bigotry,” coupled with his characterization of Netanyahu as a “reactionary racist” in last week’s Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, comes at a time when many Jewish-Americans are distressed about a rise in anti-Semitism associated with extremism at both ends of the political spectrum, and what they perceive as a Democratic Party increasingly populated by members who are hostile to Israel.

Both his comments and his absence reverberated throughout this year’s event, with speakers ranging from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to former New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential contender Michael Bloomberg making reference to them.

In his speech on Monday, Pence said if elected, Sanders would be “the most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation.” And in reference to Sanders’s remarks, he said, “it is wrong to boycott and slander Israel. It is wrong to boycott and slander AIPAC.”

Bloomberg called Sanders “dead wrong” to describe AIPAC as a “racist platform.”

Attendees by and large strongly echoed these sentiments, although there were a small number of dissenters.

“To associate pro-Israel advocacy with bigotry, [Sanders] is advancing anti-Semitism,” said Robin Hanerfeld of Bethesda, Md. “He’s emboldening anti-Semites to start using the word to describe us.”

Anne Brody Elovic, 58, a homemaker from the heavily Jewish village of Skokie, Ill., said “Bernie Sanders is a putz. If you want to run this country, have the chutzpah to come stand here and tell us what you think.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

Some who expressed disappointment in Sanders self-identified as Democrats.

“Among this crowd, there’s a resounding agreement that Bernie made a bad decision,” said Gaby Cosgrove, a dentist from Los Angeles. “As a very devoted Democrat, I feel he’s embarrassed me.”

Referring to Democratic candidates who either spoke or addressed the conference by satellite, Cosgrove added that she thought Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) “were wonderful.” She said the same of Bloomberg, who was there in person.

‘Extremism tends not to be good for minorities’

Among those taking strong exception to Sanders’s recent statements claiming AIPAC provides a “platform for leaders who express bigotry” were non-Jewish African-American and Hispanic Israel-supporters in attendance. Many had traveled from across the country at their own expense to show their support for Israel and the values they believe Israel upholds.

“If AIPAC promotes bigotry, then why am I here? Why is there a whole constituency group led by African-Americans here?” said London Camel, 20, a student at Florida Agricultural Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Fla.

“The organization is bipartisan and about dialogue, so why not come, Senator Sanders?” posed Landon Coles, 19, a student at the University of Miami.

Former mayor of New York City and current Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaking at the 2020 AIPAC Policy Conference on March 2, 2020. Credit: AIPAC.

Older African-American Israel-supporters echoed the younger generation’s sentiments and added some of their own. “Senator Sanders should keep in mind that extremism tends not to be good for minorities,” said Eric McLendon, 56, of New York, who works in commercial real estate.

Nonetheless, two of about two-dozen AIPAC attendees interviewed expressed some degree of qualified support for Sanders, saying that although they disagreed with his recent statements about Netanyahu and AIPAC, they supported his right to make them and would consider voting for him to be the next president.

“Israel’s important to me, but I’m not a one issue voter,” said Jonah Dubin, 21, a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. “Bloomberg is standing in a better place on Israel, [but] lot of people feel Sanders would be better on health care.”

But, added Dubin, “It influences my decision to vote for Sanders in a negative way that he didn’t come here.”

Some cited the values of debate and discussion in voicing their disapproval of Sanders’s choice to rebuff AIPAC.

Originally from Venezuela, Veronica Figoli of Denver, Colo., says life back home “became broken” when people ceased being able to have civil conversations. A lifelong Democrat, she says she disagrees with Sanders’s characterization of AIPAC and decision not to attend, emphasizing that she believes “the most dangerous conversation is the one which never happens.”

Support Jewish Journalism
with 2020 Vision

JNS is more than just another news website and syndication service. It is an organization devoted to nonstop reporting, and telling the truth about Israel and Jewish issues unburdened by the biases and institutional blinders that distort so much of what we read, hear and see about these topics elsewhere in the secular and even Jewish press.

At JNS, you get the facts about Israel and Jewish issues without the bias that so often tilts the argument against the Jewish state. JNS articles and columns are republished every week by digital outlets and print newspapers across the globe. But in the age of round-the-clock news coverage, advertising and syndication revenues are not enough to support our continued growth. We need your financial help to keep JNS on target as we continue our fair and accurate reporting.

Please help us take JNS to the next level with a tax-deductible sponsorship, either on a recurring monthly basis. Jewish News Syndicate is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.