This past week I was in our nation’s capital to attend the annual Policy Conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), along with more than 18,000 pro-Israel activists. Bringing together representatives from across the religious, political and philosophical spectrum, the organization devoted to strengthening the bonds between the United States and Israel continues to grow, and this year’s gathering was the largest in its history.
From the sages of our Jewish tradition, we learn that certain kinds of daily experiences trigger the recitation of special blessings. As a means of capturing a moment, these blessings are offered for occasions both mundane and exceptional: from eating bread or drinking wine, to seeing a rainbow, hearing a clap of thunder, or seeing the first blossoming of trees in the spring. This past week, the cherry blossoms were beginning to open in Washington, D.C., somewhat earlier than usual, and being there provided me the opportunity to recognize the One “who has created lovely creatures and beautiful trees for people to enjoy.” Given the attendance at this year’s Policy Conference also gave me the opportunity to recite another one of the more infrequent blessings; namely, the prayer said when one beholds a large gathering of Jews.
One of the core strengths of AIPAC is its fervently bi-partisan mission and focus, which is why at the same gathering, the (Republican) Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and the (Democratic) Vice-President Joe Biden, can appear on the same agenda; why the (Republican) House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer, can share the same stage. When it comes to supporting and maintaining the alliance between the United States and Israel, the seemingly impassable party lines give way to both moral and strategic imperatives.
But that calculus gets challenged in an election year, when in keeping with this focus, all presidential candidates are invited to address the gathering. Of course, the candidates aren’t interested in being bipartisan. As such, the solid foundation upon which AIPAC is built can be shaken as some 18,000-plus delegates naturally raise their voices and amplify their applause for the candidates and party with which they each, individually, align. (Some may be surprised to learn that among the pro-Israel activists are Republicans, as well as Democrats and Independents!)
AIPAC’s invitation to Republican candidate Donald Trump was therefore a given, despite significant opposition within the Jewish community to many of Trump’s positions and comments. Leadership of the Reform Movement issued a statement in the days leading up to the Policy Conference:
“[We] understand AIPAC’s decision to extend the invitation. Mr. Trump is the unarguable frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and he has not yet spoken clearly about his views on U.S./Israel issues. The AIPAC Policy Conference will give him an opportunity to do so, just as it does for other candidates. At the same time, we cannot ignore the many issues on which Mr. Trump has spoken clearly. His campaign has been replete with naked appeals to bigotry, especially against Hispanics and Muslims. Previous comments he has made – and not disavowed – have been offensive to women, people of color, and other groups. In recent days, increasingly, he appears to have gone out of his way to encourage violence at his campaign events. At every turn, Mr. Trump has chosen to take the low road, sowing seeds of hatred and division in our body politic.”
Mr. Trump was the third of four presidential candidates to address the Conference, following John Kasich and Hillary Clinton, who had spoken earlier in the day. A discernibly muted response to Mr. Trump’s arrival into the venue was in stark contrast to the warm, even raucous welcomes which both Secretary Clinton and Governor Kasich had received.
In general, the delegates followed the rules as set out by the AIPAC leadership: Be respectful. Clap if you agree. If you don’t like what’s said, don’t clap (in other words – no booing or the like.
And that respectful behavior for the most part held firm through all of the candidates’ remarks.
Some of Trump’s remarks were met with stony silence, and at other times, with laughter at his tendency towards boastful, narcissistic hyperbole. Such was the case in discussing last summer’s nuclear deal with Iran, of which he said: “I’ve studied this issue in great detail; I would say actually greater by far than anybody else.”
Not many were buying into what he was selling there. And it seemed that some of Mr. Trump’s rhetorical devices and techniques fell on deaf ears, and he appeared surprised that some old tricks weren’t working on this well-educated and especially well-informed audience. One of the few occasions when jeering could be heard in the arena was when he took aim at the candidacy of Sec. Clinton, which was more of a personal attack than about any specific issues.
But Donald Trump knows how to work a crowd, and in his remarks – delivered from a teleprompter for the first time during this campaign – he touched upon many issues near and dear to the pro-Israel community, including the importance of America’s unwavering alliance with Israel, the need to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, and the promise to recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish State. Each time he hit on such hot-button issues, he was rewarded with applause, and if anything, he came well prepped. So for example, Mr. Trump rightly declared:
“When you live in a society where the firefighters are the heroes, little kids want to be firefighters. When you live in a society where athletes and movie stars are the heroes, little kids want to be athletes and movie stars. In Palestinian society, the heroes are those who murder Jews. We can’t let this continue. We can’t let this happen any longer.”
The most disconcerting incident, however, and the moment which captured the attention of the nationwide media outlets was the loud applause and standing ovation (the loudest he received) in response to an off-the-cuff remark bashing of the President: “With President Obama in his final year — YAY! …He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me.”
No doubt, the response of applause and ovation from many of the delegates reflected to a great extent the disappointment from last summer’s controversy over the Iran nuclear deal, which effectively ended sanctions against the regime and which, in the view of many, removed obstacles to their ability to produce a nuclear weapon in a matter of years. It also came as the result of
Trump’s ability to rile up and captivate a gathering – something that has brought shudders to those of the nationwide Jewish community who had not previously been witness to Trump’s bombastic style. Like populist politicians both past and present, he knows how to tap into the emotions of his audience, to exploit their fears, and to present illogical, even extreme solutions that defy more rational scrutiny.
Trump’s vicious remark about the president and the ovations he received carried the potential for threatening the unified stance of this pro-Israel movement, and of upsetting the relationship between AIPAC’s Jewish and its African-American and Latino allies. In fact, I personally spoke with a member of one African-American delegation, who told me that while the remarks and response would not cause her to waver in commitment both to the AIPAC and Israel, she was “surprised how deeply she felt hurt and abandoned” when delegates expressed approval to remarks denigrating President Obama. In short, this was not a good moment for the pro-Israel and AIPAC movement.
In response, and sensing the fallout, AIPAC leadership addressed the gathering early in the following morning’s General Session to offer a rather unprecedented repudiation of Trump’s “ad hominem” attack on President Obama, as well as addressing the seemingly positive approval by the attendees to his words. AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus stood with her co-leadership, both lay and professional, and remarked:
“From the moment this conference began, until this moment, we have preached a message of unity. We’ve said, in every way we can think of, “Come Together.” But last evening, something occurred which has the potential to drive us apart. To divide us. We say unequivocally that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the President of the United States of America from our stage. While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the President of the United States and our President, Barack Obama. There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry. We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”
At that exceptional moment, AIPAC reclaimed the narrative in the national conversation, reasserting its role as the vital bi-partisan, pro-Israel movement advocating for a strong strategic alliance between Israel and the United States. Soon thereafter, in his address to the conference via satellite feed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise seemed to be repudiating Mr. Trump’s attack on President Obama. He unequivocally expressed appreciation to our president, saying that he wanted “to take this opportunity once again to thank President Obama for his support, including for ballistic missile defense.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in a letter cited on the URJ’s website: “AIPAC was right to invite Mr. Trump to speak. But it is wrong to believe that the AIPAC audience is an accurate reflection of the American Jewish community. Indeed, it was powerful to see that both before and after Mr. Trump’s speech, AIPAC itself chose to highlight people and organizations – a soldier with autism, an Israeli aid organization rescuing Syrian refugees, and Jewish and Arab Israeli children playing sports together – which reflect the values we applaud and we fight for on Israel’s behalf.”
The importance of the unity of which Ms. Pinkus and the AIPAC leadership spoke was immediately driven home by the news of the vicious terror attacks in Brussels only hours before. International terror fueled by radical Islamic jihad is an enemy that has no borders, and engages in brutality that knows no limits. The attacks were a stark reminder that the results of our upcoming elections will be vital in stemming the growing tide of terror. The new American president will play a key role, and will need the wisdom, experience, and foreign policy expertise to build strong coalitions among nations around the globe. Like the pro-Israel movement itself, in unity will come strength, and only through unity will the world be made safer for our shared future.
And that would be the greatest blessing of all.
Rabbi David J. Meyer, Th.M., DD., is rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.