'They're saying you can’t be good American, support Israel'

Head of AIPAC accuses lobby’s critics of ‘defamation’ as confab kicks off

Following the Ilhan Omar firestorm, CEO Howard Kohr says those attacking pro-Israel advocacy ‘want the Jewish state vulnerable, and alone’

AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr addresses the Policy Conference in Washington on March 24, 2019. (Screen capture/AIPAC)
AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr addresses the Policy Conference in Washington on March 24, 2019. (Screen capture/AIPAC)

WASHINGTON — AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr opened the pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference Sunday with a stinging rebuttal against a growing tide of criticism of the group’s work, after a freshman lawmaker accused the lobby of paying for support of the Jewish state on Congress.

“They want to starve Israel of America’s support,” Kohr told a crowd of more than 18,000. “They want America on the sidelines. They want the Jewish state vulnerable, and alone.”

A tweet by freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar earlier this month accusing AIPAC of paying lawmakers to back Israel drew charges of anti-Semitism, but also stoked a vociferous debate regarding the lobby’s activities in Washington.

Omar apologized, but sparked fresh criticism when she said that Israel activists were pressuring lawmakers to have an “allegiance” to Israel, which critics said amounted to the longstanding charge that Jewish Americans had “dual loyalty” to the United States and Israel.

Those remarks led to House Democratic leadership passing a resolution condemning all forms of hatred, with a special emphasis on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which some castigated as a “watered down” version that did not mention Omar by name. After the incident, US President Donald Trump said that Democrats “hate Jewish people” and accused his political opposition of being both “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish.”

US Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Speaking Sunday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual confab, Kohr did not address Trump’s comments, which Democrats have denounced, in his speech.

But he did take on Omar’s defenders who have said that her critiques had some validity — namely, that AIPAC plays a pernicious role in the democratic process by punishing members of Congress who criticize Israel or are more supporting of the Palestinian cause.

“This isn’t about having normal policy discussions and debates,” he said. “This is defamation masquerading as discourse.”

The case for a strong US-Israel relationship, Kohr insisted, was that such an alliance was in both countries’ security interests. “America needs a strong Israel,” he said. “And we have history and the facts on our side. Israel has always been a loyal and reliable friend to America, supporting America’s national security interests in a turbulent region.”

AIPACs 2019 policy conference opens with the singing of the national anthem (AIPAC screenshot)

In recent years, there has been a vigorous fight on American campuses regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with far-left activists insisting that supporting the Palestinians is something of a prerequisite for having progressive credibility.

What started off as a marginal crusade, Kohr suggested, has seeped into the broader discourse, including now on Capitol Hill, and has led to even stronger attacks.

“We have always had critics and detractors, and some have been particularly harsh,” he said. “But today, they are emboldened and energized, and their false claims are taken at face value by new and larger audiences. Those claims are not meant to inform or engage in legitimate debate. They are meant to isolate us and demonize us so they can undermine America’s historic support for Israel,” he warned.

“Look at what they say. They say you can’t be a good campus leader and a supporter of Israel. They say you can’t be a good progressive and be a supporter of Israel. And now they are even saying you can’t even be a good American and be a supporter of Israel.”

The AIPAC head lamented the criticisms against AIPAC and pro-Israel activists, particularly that they are beholden to Israel’s interests, not America’s, and that supporting Israel is mutually exclusive with backing other liberal or justice-oriented causes.

“They are trying to silence each of us,” said Kohr of the critics. “The scurrilous charge of dual loyalty is a signal, and that signal — amplified by today’s social media — is now empowering people who have long opposed our cause, our movement, and, frankly, everything we have built.” Added Kohr: “These attacks on all of us are painful… painful precisely because the other side is trying to isolate us from our friends, from our neighbors, and from the other causes and coalitions we care so deeply about.”

He acknowledged: “They have our attention. But know this much: we will respond.”

“Our detractors think we’ll fold if we’re pushed,” Kohr noted. “They don’t know what we’re made of.”

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