Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former New Democratic Party national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.
One of the shabbiest moments in this year's dishonorable American presidential race will not effect the outcome at all, but it adds to the sense of US democracy having lost its way. Donald Trump was intimately involved, but this time not responsible.
Trump appeared before 18,000 attendees of the American– Israel Public Affairs Committee and wowed the crowd. Impossible to imagine but true.
AIPAC is the extremely influential lobbying group that claims to represent American Jewry. Its objective is to make sure that Israel's interests always come first–even before those of the USA. With only tiny exceptions, no American politician ever crosses AIPAC; the consequences can be political suicide.
The AIPAC-Trump story is ironic several times over. First, as is well known, some have compared Trump to Hitler and the Nazis. While this seems rather overwrought, it's also understandable. After all, encouraging his supporters to use violence against opponents is certainly right out of the Nazi playbook. Moreover, as any genocide scholar will tell you, the early steps to genocide include targeting and demeaning of certain specified groups based on their religion, ethnicity or nationality. This is part of the dehumanization of this group, since it's only logical to want to eliminate sub-human species. This of course describes the shocking way Trump talks about Mexicans and Muslims.
Now among the groups in the world most sensitive to any remote trace of revived Nazism, AIPAC surely takes pride of place. Hitler means anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the extermination of 6 million European Jews. AIPAC is ready to cry "anti-Semite" if someone dared so much as criticized Israeli government policies. Rationally, one would have expected AIPAC not to invite Trump to this conclave but rather to ban him for his incendiary rhetoric. Or, if they allowed him to appear, to make their disgust for him absolutely clear. The last thing anyone would have predicted was enthusiastic support.
But the world is not easily predicted. So blind have these self-declared leaders of American Jewry become that not only did they not protest his appearance, they eventually offered huge cheers. The irony: While much of America is terrified by the prospect of President Donald Trump, prominent Jews, of all people, give him a standing ovation. Even for this campaign it was a surrealistic and distressing moment.
There's another irony here. AIPAC's power is actually based on a lie. It doesn't speak for the majority of American Jews at all. The clear majority of Jews don't share AIPAC's extreme position on all things Israeli. A long series of polls show that the majority of American Jews actually want an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories; AIPAC will not tolerate American politicians even raising the issue. And it's AIPAC that regularly gives Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a platform to attack Barack Obama, for whom most Jews have voted in two elections.
There's a third irony here – or maybe these are travesties – which is quite obvious. All three Republican contenders spoke to this huge gathering, as did Hillary Clinton. All were invited. The only candidate for either party that chose not to attend was Bernie Sander, who begged off claiming scheduling conflicts. This was a great shame, since so many of his most enthusiastic devotees are young American Jews following in the once-great progressive tradition of American Jewry.
Mr. Sanders' position on Israel and Palestine can best be described as moderate and balanced, one that many Canadians would like their government to adopt. Yet in AIPAC terms, indeed in American terms, this stance is considered radical, dangerous, and even anti-Semitic.
AIPAC terrifies nearly every member of Congress, and the White House too. When they say jump, American pols ask "how high?" Except of course for Bernie, who jumps only to his conscience and sense of honor. It's another reason to be dismayed that Bernie can't win. He could have approached the Middle East with no obligations to powerful special interest groups.
Don't get me wrong. As I've repeatedly argued, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may well be beyond any solution, both sides doomed to continue hating and hurting each other. No American president will easily change that equation. Indeed, all four candidates who spoke to AIPAC descended to new levels of embarrassing pandering, each swearing to be Israel's greatest friend ever. It's a genuine tragedy for the prospect of peace and security in the Middle East, and for the Palestinians above all.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that AIPAC did not invited Bernie Sanders to speak to their conference.