AIPAC Won't Comment on Rubio Claims That 'Significant Number' of Democrats Back BDS

Incensed Democrats rebuke Sen. Marco Rubio's accusations amid a tense debate over an anti-BDS bill and a government shutdown

Senator Marco Rubio speaks to reporters before a series of votes on legislation ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

WASHINGTON – The powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC refused to comment Tuesday on Sen. Marco Rubio’s claim that a “significant number” of Democratic senators support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Rubio’s claim enraged some of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, who responded by noting that not a single Democratic senator has ever publicly endorsed BDS.

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Currently, there are two Democratic members of the House of Representatives who publicly endorse BDS, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, but none in the Senate.

Haaretz reached out to AIPAC to see if the lobby is aware of any senators from either party who support BDS. A spokesperson for AIPAC responded, “We have no comment.”

>>Read more: A week into new U.S. Congress, tense debate erupts over anti-BDS bills

AIPAC is known for highlighting bipartisan support for Israel as a key element of promoting the U.S.-Israeli alliance. The organization tries to stay away from partisan debates in the United States and is proud of its access to influential figures on both sides of the aisle.

Rubio’s tweet came after Democratic senators said they would not vote in favor of legislation he had presented to support Israel and oppose the BDS movement because of the ongoing government shutdown.

Democratic senators who support the contents of Rubio’s bill, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat of New York) and Sen. Ben Cardin (Democrat of Maryland), have stated that the Senate should not vote on any bills, no matter the subject, until Trump and Senate Republicans vote to end the ongoing government shutdown and reopen the government.

In response to the decision, Rubio wrote: “The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill. A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem [Democrats] meeting last week over BDS.”

He then added that a “significant” number of “Senate Democrats” support BDS, and that the party leadership wants “to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.” 

Sen. Chris Coons (Democrat of Delaware), who has a good working relationship with AIPAC and has expressed support for anti-BDS legislation, said he has “never heard any Senate Democrat, current or former, express support for the anti-Israel BDS movement.” 

Sen. Chris Murphy (Democrat of Connecticut) also wrote that no Senate Democrats support BDS.

One Democratic staffer who is involved in the party’s internal debate on the issue confirmed to Haaretz that there was a discussion on the anti-BDS legislation last week, but that “it wasn’t about whether or not BDS is good. Everyone agrees it’s bad. The debate was on how senators should address this specific piece of legislation in light of the shutdown and some concerns over First Amendment questions.”

A second source within the party told Haaretz that AIPAC’s decision not to comment on the claim that Senate Democrats support BDS was disappointing.

“Instead of correcting the lie that any Senate Democrat supports the BDS movement, it is disappointing that AIPAC has chosen to fan the flames of partisanship when it comes to support for Israel,” said the source, who asked not to named in order to maintain a working relationship with the organization.

The source expressed concern that this will make the organization “complicit in the campaign to paint Democrats as anti-Israel.”

Later Tuesday, Rubio defended the anti-BDS bill, tweeting: “The anti-Israel BDS campaign pressures companies to stop doing business in #Israel & banks & funds to divest of investments in Israel.” 

Rubio added that opposition to the bill is not an issue of free speech, but rather freedom of local and state governments to end contracts with companies that choose to boycott Israel. 

Republicans view the current debate as one Democrats will lose due to the growing faction at the party's grassroots level that is sympathetic to the boycott movement – especially when it comes to boycotts targeting settlements in the West Bank.

Politically, Republicans hope to expose a rift on this issue within the Democratic Party and use it to portray the Democrats as not supporting Israel.

Their strategy has benefited from the increased media attention given to Tlaib’s support of BDS. The congresswoman was criticized by Jewish-American groups earlier this week for stating that senators who are promoting Rubio’s legislation “forgot what country they represent.” Rubio accused her of anti-Semitism, writing that “this ‘dual loyalty’ canard is a typical anti-Semitic line.”

The Anti-Defamation League released a critical statement in reply to Tlaib’s tweet: “Rep. Tlaib’s tweet regarding the pending bill on the Senate floor has been interpreted by some as suggesting that Jews or Members of Congress, such as the sponsors of the bill, are more loyal to Israel than to their own country,” the ADL said. “Whether or not this was her intent, this type of language is deeply problematic.” 

The statement also noted that “historically, the allegation of mixed loyalty or dual loyalty has been leveled as a smear against many kinds of Americans – including against Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Though the legislation discussed is sponsored by four non-Jewish senators, any charge of dual loyalty has special sensitivity and resonance for Jews, particularly in an environment of rising anti-Semitism.” 

The Jewish Democratic Council of America also denounced Tlaib, tweeting: “We oppose your charge of dual loyalty. It's wrong, dangerous, and hurts the cause of peace. Whether one supports a particular bill or not, it’s offensive to insinuate that senators would be driven by anything other than the best interests of the U.S.” The group’s tweet drew a rare expression of support from the head of the rival Republican Jewish Coalition.