Tough talk is what more than 2,000 people came to hear at the Israeli-American Council’s National Conference in Washington last weekend, and that’s what they got.
The three-day conference featured a good deal of discussion about anti-Israel sentiment in the world, especially the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
In a hawkish keynote address, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) condemned the United Nations for “questioning Israel more than any other nation, even though it is the only representative democracy in the Middle East.”
Schumer, speaking to the crowd at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week at the U.N. General Assembly, in which he praised several other nations in addition to the United States for their increased willingness to cooperate with Israel in working toward peace in the region.
“Perhaps Bibi [Netanyahu] is right; I believe that history favors nations that condemn terror, not celebrate it,” Schumer said. “Nations with democratic institutions, accountable governments, open markets and the rule of law. Maybe someday the U.N. will be fair to Israel, but until that day comes, the United States must always come to the aid of Israel.”
The Los Angeles-based Israeli-American Council was founded in 2007 with the cultural goal of strengthening Israeli identity here and the political goal of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Schumer told his audience that he was disturbed last week to hear Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accuse Zionist organizations of attempting to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement — a deal Schumer voted against and “has not regretted a single day since.”
He condemned the BDS movement, calling it “counterproductive” to the Middle East peace process. He said the real conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not about settlements, but about the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognize the existence of a Jewish state.
Schumer praised California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, for signing a bill over the weekend that prohibits the state from doing business with agencies or businesses that engage in BDS tactics. He noted that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, had done the same earlier this year.
Throughout his speech, Schumer also alluded to the anti-Semitism he observed during his youth. He recalled an instance in June 1967, during the Six-Day War, when he walked around James Madison High School in Brooklyn with a transistor radio attached to his ear out of concern that Israel would be “driven into the sea.”
“They don’t get that — they’ve only seen Israel as strong,” he said of today’s youth.
“They don’t understand what the Palestinians are up to. The only way to educate them is to show them the textbooks that all of the Palestinians put out to educate their children.”
Schumer’s tough talk about the Palestinians brought the crowd to its feet several times, including during his closing words when he delivered a warning to the Palestinians:
“War didn’t give you a state, terrorism didn’t give you a state, the United Nations won’t give you a state, boycotting Israel will not give you a state — and you will never, as long as we are here, break the strong bond between Israel and America,” he said.
Conference participants talked about lessons learned from the victory of having California adopt an anti-BDS measure. During a session called “Fighting BDS Step-by-Step,” IAC Coalition for Action National Director for State Government Affairs Dillon Hosier outlined strategies for getting anti-BDS laws enacted.
They include meeting with elected officials and explaining what BDS is, as well as organizing advocacy days at state capitols. Hosier, a Los Angeles resident, said the California anti-BDS bill was IAC’s top priority in the last legislative session.
“The idea here is that we can take this model and replicate this in many states, and it’s a great way to combat delegitimization of Israel,” he said.
The session also featured an interactive component. Jeb Ory, the founder of the technology startup Phone2Action, demonstrated how his company is helping citizens to advocate for or against legislation in their state.
He instructed everyone in the room to text “Israel” to a certain number and said it would automatically send a message to their lawmakers in their home state, asking them to support anti-BDS legislation.
After the participants tried it, Ory showed a map of the United States with markers for each location someone had sent a text.
“What we’re demonstrating here is the power of live technology to galvanize movements,” he said.
Perhaps the best way to galvanize pro-Israel activity in the United States is through trips to the Jewish state, casino tycoon and major IAC and Republican Party supporter Sheldon Adelson said during a featured conversation with IAC chairman Adam Milstein during the closing session Monday.
“Many years ago, Miriam [Adelson’s wife] and I would take over 200 congressmen and senators to Israel with AIPAC,” he said. “Trent [Franks (R-Ariz.)] was on one of our trips, and I’ll never forget, they came back from those trips much like they do on Birthright. … They all came back and said the same thing, ‘It changed my life.’”
Adelson said he has also taken several Jewish Democrats, including Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida and Rep. Brad Sherman of California.
“The only problem with them is they’re Democrats, but no one can be perfect all the time,” he joked. “I told that to Chuck Schumer, who thought it was a very good joke. Too bad he’s still a Democrat.”