Bernie Sanders to skip AIPAC conference

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. © Shannon Stapleton
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will skip next week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference. Citing his campaign schedule, Sanders, who happens to be Jewish, is the only presidential candidate not scheduled to speak.

The Vermont Senator said in his letter to AIPAC head Robert Cohen on Friday that he could not make the conference.

"I would very much have enjoyed speaking at the AIPAC conference. Obviously, issues impacting Israel and the Middle East are of the utmost importance to me, to our country and to the world," Sanders wrote. "Unfortunately, I am going to be traveling throughout the West and the campaign schedule that we have prevents me from attending."

As he was not allowed the address the conference remotely, Sanders offered to send remarks to the conference for distribution to the attendees. Sanders is the only Jewish candidate in the race and would become the first Jewish president if elected.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich are all featured speakers for the two-day event.

AIPAC has a tradition of inviting all the presidential candidates in elections years to the conference. CNN reported that Donald Trump’s appearance has drawn backlash from attendees, some of whom plan to boycott his speech on Monday.

AIPAC lobbies politicians on its pro-Israel agenda and energizes Americans around strengthening the US-Israel relationship. The group is criticized by anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian groups in the US.

A petition urging Sanders not to speak at AIPAC was started by Max Blumenthal, a pro-Palestinian writer who is also the son of former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal. His effort garnered over 5,000 signatures by Friday.

In an op-ed for Alternet, Blumenthal revealed one of the scheduled speakers at this year’s conference to be Bishop Edwin Harper, a self-described “fanatic” who founded the Apostolic Life Cathedral in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Blumenthal said Harper devoted a 2012 sermon to the notion of an imminent nuclear war with Iran and the impending Rapture before diverging into a tirade against Obamacare.

“[Warning] his audience that they would have government-owned chips installed in their hands and skulls if they signed up,” wrote Blumenthal, who said Harper called the government-subsidized healthcare system a Satanic enterprise and Obama a tool of Lucifer.

“Is Obama the Anti-Christ?," Harper asked his audience, according to Blumenthal. "No. He don't qualify. He’s not a Jew! You've got have a Jew!"

Blumenthal said AIPAC has been courting Harper, sending him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, and inviting him to speak and participate in AIPAC-lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill. Blumenthal added that Harper claims to have met with Frank Gaffney, an anti-Muslim extremist and foreign policy advisor to Ted Cruz.

In a related story, several hundred people attended an event on Friday organized by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a DC-based magazine that questioned Israeli government policies, a counterpoint to the AIPAC conference.

Speakers were reticent about the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and questioned the wisdom of giving Israel more than $3 billion in a year in US military aid. Speakers said most Americans were unaware of the reality on the ground, in part because of the effectiveness of nongovernment groups supporting Israel.

“From the point of view of an Israeli patriot, I see AIPAC as one of Israel’s biggest enemies,” said Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, according to The Washington Post.