WASHINGTON (RNS) Should I stay or should I go?
That was the key question facing many of the 18,000 delegates at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference Monday (March 21), when Donald Trump took the podium.
For a prominent rabbi on the one hand, and a group of teenagers on the other — the answers were entirely different.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who heads the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest stream of American Jews, planned to join a group of rabbis boycotting the real estate tycoon’s AIPAC speech because of the candidate’s intolerant remarks and bullying style.
“For the kinds of things he has said, an apology is not adequate,” Jacobs said, speaking of Trump’s statements about Muslims, women, immigrants and people with disabilities. Even if he speaks strongly for Israel at AIPAC, “it doesn’t overshadow all the other things he’s said that really violate our core beliefs.”
The students, 10 members of the URJ’s youth movement — mostly juniors and seniors in high school who will vote in their first presidential election in November — share Jacobs’ distaste for Trump. As Jews, a minority persecuted throughout history, they said they are taught to call out bigotry wherever they see it.
But they planned to stay put when Trump took the stage.
“We can sit there without feeling guilty for listening,” said Jeremy Cronig, 18, the president of North America’s Reform Jewish youth movement, known as NFTY. Because he has vocally shared his feelings on Trump, and the Reform movement’s official statement denouncing the candidate’s offending remarks, Cronig’s presence in the arena “isn’t an endorsement of his views.”
The students said they understand and respect Jacobs for the protest he planned while Trump takes the floor. But like many of the delegates to the AIPAC conference, they don’t want to register their disapproval by leaving their seats.
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All presidential candidates are invited to AIPAC’s annual conference, noted the students, who represented most of the delegation of the North American Reform Jewish youth to the AIPAC conference. Several said they felt obligated to listen to every candidate who accepted the invitation even if they disagree with their views. Others said that while they appreciated Jacobs’ plans to protest respectfully, they worried that by walking out themselves, they could be lumped in with those who will protest Trump’s candidacy in hostile ways.
“When someone like Donald Trump gets up, who has blatantly shown disrespect for so many groups of people, it’s hard to sit around based on the Jewish values by which we live our lives,” said Kathryn Fleisher, the incoming NFTY president. But she’s going to sit still anyway, she said.
Otherwise “our polite, respectful message that we don’t stand with Trump’s beliefs may be confused with the people who are showing hate, and the people who are showing disrespect.”
“All protests are not the same,” Jacobs agreed. In the lobby of the Verizon Center, while Trump is onstage, he and other rabbis and AIPAC delegates plan to study a part of the Babylonian Talmud — a commentary on the Hebrew Bible — that speaks to the dignity of all people.
On AIPAC’s opening day Sunday, pro-Palestinian demonstrators held up signs outside the arena that called for the Jewish state to get out of occupied Palestinian lands. Other placards were harsher, one equating Israel with the Ku Klux Klan. And “IFNOTNOW,” which describes itself as a group of Jewish activists opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, called on all delegates to boycott Trump’s speech. “Donald Trump and AIPAC deserve each other,” its press release read. “By inviting Donald Trump to address its conference, AIPAC tacitly condones Trump’s beliefs.”
Trump’s speech to AIPAC brought cheers from the crowd as he sought to dispel some Jewish Americans’ doubts about his commitment to Israel, doubts that stem in part from a comment he made in February that as president he would be “neutral” negotiating between Palestinians and Israel.
Trump painted himself as a rock solid supporter of the Jewish state, and made direct pitches to the more conservative of pro-Israel supporters. He denounced the Iran deal as a threat to Israel, disparaged the United Nations as no friend of Israel, and pointed a finger directly at Palestinians for fomenting hatred of Jews and Israelis.
“In Palestinian society, the heroes are those who murder Jews – we can’t let this continue. You cannot achieve peace if terrorists are treated as martyrs. Glorifying terrorists is a tremendous barrier to peace,” Trump said.
“In Palestinian textbooks and mosques, you’ve got a culture of hatred that has been fermenting there for years, and if we want to achieve peace, they’ve got to end this indoctrination of hatred. There is no moral equivalency. Israel does not name public squares after terrorists. Israel does not pay its children to stab random Palestinians,” he continued.
Responding to Trump’s speech in a statement, Jacobs said: “A commitment to a strong US-Israel relationship is essential for any candidate for President. It was important that Mr. Trump addressed that relationship today when he spoke at AIPAC. We were disappointed but not surprised that Mr. Trump did nothing tonight to allay our deep concerns about his campaign. It still seems that he does not share our values of equality, pluralism, and humility.”
Among mainstream Jewish organizations, there has been little criticism of AIPAC’s invitation to Trump, with the understanding that every major party presidential candidate may have the AIPAC microphone.
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All accepted except for the one Jewish major party candidate, Bernie Sanders, who asked to address the conference through a videotape, which is not permitted by AIPAC. Sanders said his schedule does not allow him to attend the conference, but expressed his regrets and support for Israel.
Hillary Clinton took her turn at the conference Monday to criticize Trump — though not by name — for his call to exclude Muslim immigrants to the U.S. and deport undocumented Mexicans. To a cheering crowd that filled the Verizon Center almost to the rafters, she spoke in strong terms on rising anti-Semitism, sustaining the U.S-Israel relationship, and opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS seeks to pressure Israel to leave Palestinian territories it occupies in violation of international law. She also invoked the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins Wednesday evening and tells the story of the Jewish Queen Esther, who saved her people from annihilation in ancient Persia.
“Let us never be neutral or silent in the face of bigotry,” she said. Some thought she was tacitly identifying Trump with “Haman,” the villain of the Purim story.
As much as he deplores Trump’s rhetoric, Jacobs said he rejects comparisons of Trump to Haman or Hitler.
“With Hitler it was radical evil. With Haman it is the very same,” he said. A more appropriate Purim character to focus on today is Queen Esther, who risked everything to save her people, he said.
“That’s the Purim takeaway. I believe. Not the confusion of a flawed political candidate with radical evil.”
(Lauren Markoe is a national reporter for RNS)