Trump at AIPAC troubles Jewish consciences

Attendees applaud Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during her address to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington on March 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TRUMP-JEWS, originally transmitted on March 21, 2016.
Left to right, Kathryn Fleisher, incoming NFTY President; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism; Taylor Gleeson, current NFTY Social Action Vice President; Jeremy Cronig, current NFTY President; and Eli Ziegler, at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference in Washington, D.C. with members of the delegation from the Reform movement's youth division. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

Left to right, Kathryn Fleisher, incoming NFTY president; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism;
Taylor Gleeson, current NFTY social action vice president;
Jeremy Cronig, current NFTY president; and
Eli Ziegler, at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference on March 21, 2016 in Washington, D.C., with members of the delegation from the Reform movement’s youth division. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

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.

RELATED STORY: Merrick Garland is Jewish. Does it matter?

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.

COMMENTARY: Why I will skip Donald Trump’s speech to AIPAC

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)

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


Click here to post a comment

  • AIPAC has allowed previous candidates, like Mitt Romney most recently, to appear by video. I wonder what changed?

  • Seriously? Islam posed no threat to the West with the defeat of the Ottomans after WW1. With the creation of Israel it gave the entire Muslim world a new reason to hate us. Put that in your Shofar and smoke it.

  • If you support the Obama-Hillary deal with IRAN, (in which Iran is NOT actually stopped from going nuclear but merely has to supply several months’ warning prior to doing so!)…

    …and if you’re convinced that IRAN will NOT use any their massive new freed-up dollars from the Obama-Hillary Iran Deal to finance deadly terror attacks on Israel, then please please vote for Hillary. Which is the same as you voting for Iran.

    …But if you agree with Trump’s statement that his very first foreign policy priority will be to GET RID of the Iran deal as a potentially “catastrophic” threat against the people of Israel, then you need to vote for Israel’s safety RIGHT NOW, and that means you need to vote for DONALD TRUMP.

    You saw what happened in Brussels today, didn’t you? Do you want that to happen to ISRAEL? If not, then vote for the candidate who’s ready to fight terrorism NOW, the old-fashioned way. Trump!!!

  • Try 1979. Islam was largely out of fashion for radicals and Soviet backed nationalism was in vogue from the end of WWI. Islam did not become “weaponized” in such a sense until Iran started funding terrorists and the Saudis countered with their own version. At no point could the blame be laid upon the Israeli’s for that.

    In fact the Iran/Saudi civil war is one of the chief obstacles to peace between Israel and Palestinians. It’s why Gaza is ISIS lite and the West Bank is just a plain kleptocracy.

  • I guess you don’t realize that ISIS and AL Qaeda are not funded by Iran. They are actually funding forces fighting them. For their own agenda of course. Israel has already done it’s share to neuter Iran’s ambition to the point where nuclear scientists there had to hide like groundhogs for fear of their lives.

  • I agree that the Saudis have a hand in the unrest. The British and allies used the Arabs against the Ottomans in WW1. Britain reneged on their land promises to the Arabs. Carving up former Ottoman territories into Arab dictatorships without regards made it worse. The last straw was 1948 and Israel. Many terrorist activities in the West occurred well before 1979. The terrorist activity at the Munich Olympics was directly a result of Israel.

  • Tom, Israel was the TARGET of the Munich Olympic attacks. You want to blame victims of terrorism for existing. There is nothing resembling a good faith argument here.

    The Islamicist world has enough reasons to hate the West with or without Israel. If not Israel they would just blame Europe for imperialism, the US for being powerful or each other for not being the right kind of Islamicist. The loony is dictatorship need outside enemies to stay afloat and avoid civil unrest. One blames the dictators for their situation, not its victims.

  • @yoh- There were many Islamic terrorist attacks against the West prior to Iran and 1979 that didn’t involve Israelis. Just go look at the large number of airliner bombings. Many before 1979. Israel isn’t the only cause for hatred for the West, but it’s a big reason and is like fanning the flame.

  • Doc, Cruz says the same thing and more on the Iran deal and he doesn’t have Donald’s emotional dysfunction, poor impulse control, authoritarian personality, or flexible positions on every imaginable issue. You have yet to explain to anyone why you insist on pretending there is no alternative to Trump.

  • No there weren’t Tom. Aside from the assassination of Sadat, terrorists in and from the Middle East were of a secular nationalist or radical stripe. People who, with ample funding by the USSR targeted US and European interests for its own sake. It is why leftists like Carlos Ramirez were able to find sanctuary in Syria or why Japanese Red Army shot up Lod Airport.

    You are still blaming victims for simply existing. Nonsense. Let me guess, you will segway to The Rothschild family and “international banking conspiracy”.