All eyes were on the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday as the senior Trump administration official took the stand in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee looking into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.
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While he was being grilled about his presence at the Mayflower Hotel to hear the then-candidate Trump give a foreign policy speech, Sessions made a reference that stung the ears of many American Jews — and undid the past five years of image-building of an American Jewish organization.
During the hearing, Senator Richard Burr asked Sessions whether he had come to the April, 2016 event “as a United States Senator or as a surrogate of the campaign for this event?”
Sessions responded: “I came there as an interested person and very anxious to see how President Trump would do in his first major foreign policy address. I believe he had only given one major speech before and that was maybe at the Jewish AIPAC event.”
The “event” that Sessions was referring to was the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference which Trump addressed. Though the majority of those attending the event were Jews, several thousand were not, with a significant representation from the Christian evangelical community.
For many, the attorney general’s definition of the event as exclusively “Jewish” reflected a level of insensitivity to nuance that other Trump officials have also shown in the past — such as White House Spokesman Sean Spicer’s infamous “Holocaust centers” gaffe . The choice to define the pro-Israel group as “Jewish” can be viewed as invoking stereotypes of Jews as fifth columnists or worse, international Jewish conspiracies.
AIPAC, for its part, makes a tremendous effort to define itself as a “pro-Israel” lobby, describing itself with great care as a “bi-partisan pro-Israel lobby.” In its mission statement,the group says its goal is “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel” and “educate decision makers about the bonds that unite the United States and Israel and how it is in America’s best interest to help ensure that the Jewish state is safe, strong and secure.”
Over the past five years, the group has made a concerted outreach effort to show that it is “not just for Jews anymore,” reaching out aggressively to evangelicals, leaders in the African-American and Latino communities and student activists from a variety of backgrounds.
As expected, reaction on Twitter and Facebook to the Sessions remarks came fast and furious.
Only one American Jewish organization officially weighed in — the National Jewish Democratic Committee let their feelings be known using an emoji.
Following the outcry, there was pushback from those who felt there was nothing wrong with his description. Some asserted it was simply factually accurate. The group’s leadership and funders are, after all, overwhelmingly Jewish and AIPAC is a card-carrying member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
Other defenders of Sessions, however, were more politically motivated, coming from traditional right-wing and pro-Trump quarters.