(CNSNews.com) – As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference got underway Sunday the first Democratic lawmaker to speak, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) reaffirmed strong bipartisan support for Israel, and called for “debates on policy instead of impugning the loyalty of Israel’s supporters.”
And in a swipe at a trio of high-profile Democratic newcomers to Congress, he told the gathering in Washington that there were 62 Democratic freshmen – “not three.”
“I stand with Israel, proudly and unapologetically,” Hoyer said. “So ladies and gentlemen, when someone accuses American supporters [of Israel] of dual loyalty, I say: accuse me.”
“I am part of a large, bipartisan coalition in Congress supporting Israel – an overwhelming majority in the Congress of the United States. I tell Israel’s accusers and detractors: accuse me,” he repeated. “And millions of Americans, regardless of race or faith or partisan label, stand with Israel. They stand with Israel because they understand why our relationship with Israel is so very important. Accuse us all.”
In the run-up to this year’s conference, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) sparked controversy for implying that AIPAC pays U.S. politicians to be pro-Israel, and for insinuating that pro-Israel politicians have “allegiance to a foreign country” – the so-called “dual loyalty” slur.
Members on both sides of the aisle criticized the comments, although the House Democratic leadership’s response ultimately came in the form of a resolution that did not name Omar, and which condemned not just anti-Semitism but also other forms of bigotry.
Then, last week, the left-wing group MoveOn.org released a survey saying 74 percent of its members agreed that “any progressive vying to be the Democratic nominee for president should skip the AIPAC conference.”
News that most of the crowded field of Democrats running for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination would not be attending the conference prompted President Trump to tell reporters on Friday, “The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel,” before adding, “Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.”
Against that background, Hoyer’s remarks were seen both as a repudiation of Omar’s earlier remarks, and as a rejection of the narrative that his party is becoming less pro-Israel.
He stressed actions taken by “the Democratic House,” referring to past and planned visits to Israel by large Democratic delegations.
“This August, I will lead with what I expect will be the largest delegation ever – probably more than 30 Democratic members of Congress, including many freshmen,” he said.
“And by the way,” he added, “there are 62 freshmen Democrats. You hear me? Sixty-two. Not three.”
The room erupted in applause at the implied rebuke of Omar as well as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who are reported to be planning not to go on an AIPAC-affiliated trip to Israel this year.
Hoyer said support for Israel must never be, or be seen to be, a partisan issue.
“Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly support Israel, as do independents,” he said. “That is why maintaining the perception and reality of near-unanimous support for Israel’s security, sovereignty, and existence is in my view so critically important.”
In further oblique criticism of Omar and Tlaib, Hoyer also spoke out strongly against the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, for which both have voiced public support.
“When the curtain is pulled back,” Hoyer said, “everyone can see what the movement truly is: a front for delegitimizing the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.”
“Democracy only works when citizens are educated and informed. As advocates for truth, we here in this room must educate and inform our fellow Americans about what BDS really aims to do: destroy a partner democracy and one of America’s most faithful allies.”
Hoyer threw his support behind a bipartisan House resolution opposing the boycott movement: “Together, we will defeat BDS, because at its core it is un-American.”
Last month the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill which among other things enables state and local governments to divest from any company or fund which boycotts, divests from, or sanctions Israel.
High-profile speakers at this year’s AIPAC conference include Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
According to conference organizers, at least ten Republican and 12 Democratic lawmakers are also scheduled to be speaking between Sunday and Tuesday.
The Republicans are Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Sens. Jim Risch (Idaho), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Martha McSally (Ariz.); House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), and Reps. Mike McCaul (Texas), Kay Granger (Texas), Mark Meadows (N.C.), Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), and Doug Lamborn (Colo.)
The Democrats are Hoyer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), and Reps. Ted Deutch (Fla), Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.), Adam Smith (Wash.), and Stephanie Murphy (Fla.); Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), and Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.).