While thousands of attendees at this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference milled around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington awaiting a speech by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, a who’s-who of right-leaning pro-Israel group leaders, donors and supporters filled the large main floor committee hearing room in Dirksen Senate office building to listen to a panel featuring Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Guests at the Monday event, “The Meaning of Never Again: Preventing a Nuclear Iran,” numbered in the hundreds and watched the two panelists – with Boteach acting as sometime moderator, sometime panelist – holding court in the cavernous room. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), who announced her retirement earlier that day, often presided over that room in her role chairing the Senate Committee on Appropriations, discussing federal funding legislation that includes foreign aid to Israel.
Illuminated by bright television lighting and recorded by several cameras, the panel discussed the danger of a nuclear Iran and expressed support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress.
As the elder statesman, Wiesel provided the philosophical backbone for the event, which sought to equate the modern Iran with Nazi Germany, and illustrate the danger it poses for Jewish and the state of Israel.
“We have America today. In my time, we didn’t have America,” said Wiesel, to highlight the need for the United States take an active role against Iran, rather than participate in negotiations.
“I asked five presidents a question: In 1944, what were you doing,” he said. Wiesel warned the audience that it was dangerous to ignore the many threats against Jews and Israel made by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
“Especially when their threats are repeated, we have to take them seriously,” Wiesel said. “If the evil begins its work, don’t give it another chance.”
Cruz’s remarks drew the biggest applause as he reflected on the issue with his usual red-meat conservative rhetoric and rhythm of speech more reminiscent of an actor performing a monologue than a politician trying to work a crowd.
“And Khomeini and the mullahs have not been subtle in any regard about what their objectives are in the nuclear program. This is not about powering the lights,” said Cruz. “The father of the Iranian nuclear program, who thankfully has now met his maker, involuntarily I might add, in his last will and testament he explicitly provided what he wanted on his tombstone. He specified that his tombstone would read ‘Here lies a man who has sought to annihilate the nation of Israel.’
“It is not by accident that Iran refers to Israel as the Little Satan and America as the Great Satan — which I would note, Great Satan is not a compliment.
“What matters is what we do right now to address the single greatest national security threat facing both the nation of Israel and the United States: what we do right now to ensure that in no circumstances will the nation of Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability. The gravity of this threat cannot be overstated.”
Most of the audience had come from AIPAC’s policy conference, but were not the normal collection of bipartisan AIPAC attendees. This was a crowd that wouldn’t mind if they missed Rice’s speech back on the main stage of the convention center.
The room was full of leaders from a number of right wing pro-Israel organizations – something not lost on members of the leftist anti-war organization Code Pink.
Code Pink, wearing the color pink, set the tone of the meeting early when they unfurled large anti-Israel, anti-AIPAC posters in front of the room and began chanting – shocking the audience members. The audience responded with shouts of its own – first shouting in unison “Get out, get out…” followed by a unified “Hatikvah,” the Israel national anthem.
Code Pink, a familiar sight in this committee room, shows up to committee hearings to heckle witnesses for a few minutes, until they are led out by police.
But due to the event’s last minute room change, Capitol Police were not in the room. The police were notified through Cruz’s aides, and the long response time led to a brief period of confusion without chanting, though the chanting then resumed.
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, sat in the front row and ended up in an altercation with the protestors, being pushed and threatened with a lawsuit, he said, after he tried to take one of the group’s signs.
Part of the reason for the crowd and the event may have been the result of the recent controversy that embroiled Boteach. The previous week, Boteach and the organization he heads took out an ad in The New York Times and The Washington Post which featured images of skulls and bones of victims of the Rwandan genocide next to a picture of Rice, and comparing the United States’ decision not to interfere in the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust.
Boteach’s ad was roundly criticized by many Jewish organizations.
The panel was originally intended to be a bipartisan discussion, with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) representing the pro-Israel left, but he quickly withdrew after the controversial ad was published.
“Since 1998, I have taken advantage of every opportunity to urge the toughest sanctions on Iran, including nearly 20 presentations at AIPAC policy conferences,” said Sherman in a statement to explain is decision to withdraw his participation in the event. “I cannot appear at a forum which was advertised using an unwarranted incendiary personal attack. I will be working with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and others, to create appropriate forums to focus on the danger posed by Iran.
“Nothing has done as much to unify the Jewish community, and nothing has done so much to bring the Jewish community in agreement with the Obama administration, as this ad…. J Street and AIPAC, the Obama Administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the leading organizations in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish communities all agree – this ad is harmful distraction from efforts to combat Iran’s nuclear program.”
Boteach mentioned the ad briefly during the event, but later clarified his position in a conversation with Washington Jewish Week. He said that he did not go after Rice the person, but as a high level national security official and her role in underestimating the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s.
“What we wanted to demonstrate was given that human rights has this record, as detailed by her own success, she should be extra sensitive to Israel’s defense,” said Boteach. “Now was that communicated effectively? A lot of people thought that it wasn’t…. We weren’t communicating this in any way that this was personal, we were speaking of her as the national security adviser of the United States. If someone in Kansas turns a blind eye to genocide, OK, none of us should, but positions of authority are much more serious.
“But to the extent that we communicated it and it was personal, that’s what I apologize for. I have nothing against Susan Rice. I don’t know Susan Rice. Why would I dislike Susan Rice? But I do want Netanyahu to be allowed to speak.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro