Despite promises of walkouts and other protests from American Israel Public Affairs Committee attendees alarmed by Donald Trump's incendiary statements and violent rhetoric, the Republican frontrunner enjoyed a full house and enthusiastic reception for his speech at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Monday night.
The positive reaction to Trump appeared to represent a grievous miscalculation by rabbis who were hoping to make a strong statement against Trump's racism and bigotry. As soon as AIPAC announced, last Sunday, Trump had accepted its invitation to speak, rabbis issued statements decrying his "naked appeals to bigotry, especially against Hispanics and Muslims," his "derogatory epithets that no moral society should tolerate," "his thinly-veiled racial dog-whistling," "his failure to distance himself from white supremacists and avowed racists" and "his incitement and encouragement of violent behavior among his supporters at rallies." While these rabbis, all staunch AIPAC supporters, urged speaking out in some way — by not attending his speech, or walking out of the arena before it began — they emphasized an intention to make any protests unobtrusive, in deference to AIPAC decorum.
In an interview at AIPAC in the afternoon before Trump's speech, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the largest denomination in American Judaism, criticized Trump for having "fomented anti-Muslim bias, xenophobia, misogyny, insensitivity." Pesner skipped the speech and instead studied with a group of rabbis, cantors and lay leaders.
Yet as Trump took the stage in the massive sports arena, only a handful of people were visible leaving the venue, and many of the 18,000 attendees at the conference applauded his entrance.
Trump spent considerable time at the beginning of his speech criticizing the Iran nuclear deal, provoking an increasingly positive reaction from the audience. He pledged to block any United Nations effort to declare a Palestinian state, boasted of his deal-making skills and announced his daughter Ivanka would soon have "a beautiful Jewish baby." All of these statements elicited enthusiastic applause and even garnered a standing ovation from some attendees.
Typically presidential candidate speeches at AIPAC stress America's unbreakable bond with Israel, their personal dedication to that relationship and Israel's survival, and their pledge to protect and defend that relationship as president. In a speech delivered Monday morning, Hillary Clinton hewed to this formula as well as any Republican might. She was applauded by attendees for saying that "one of the first things I'll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House" — a clear signal that she aims to avoid the same conflicts President Obama has had with AIPAC over his strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
She staked out a position to the right of where Trump had been before AIPAC, when he troubled Israel hawks with his statements that he'd be "neutral" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without naming Trump, Clinton criticized the ugliness that has marked his campaign. "Encouraging violence. Playing coy with white supremacists. Calling for 12 million immigrants to be rounded up and deported," she said.
In the end, though, Clinton's efforts appeared to earn her few points. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which has yet to be publicly critical of Trump, issued a statement that Clinton's "rhetoric rings hollow." In his own speech, Trump called her tenure as secretary of State a "total disaster," to which many in the audience cheered loudly.
"We love you, Trump!" one audience member yelled after the candidate pledged that if elected, "the days of treating Israel as a second-class citizen will end, on day one!"
After the speech, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, issued a statement that he was "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."
For AIPAC's Jewish critics, though, the Trump invitation was just another layer on an already troubling agenda. "Trump or no Trump, we think AIPAC is worthy of protest," said Simone Zimmerman, one of the founders of If Not Now, a grassroots group galvanizing young Jews, mostly under 35, against Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. AIPAC's invitation to Trump, said Zimmerman, was a "motivator to organize much more forcefully than we probably would have otherwise."
Allowing Trump to speak, said Zimmerman, "is not being neutral. It's providing legitimacy to the ideas he's espousing." The group drew about 200 protesters outside the Verizon Center Monday night.
Although several AIPAC attendees declined to speak to a reporter as they were exiting the arena at the conclusion of the evening, those who did reflected differences of opinion on Trump. Still, there appeared to be agreement that AIPAC speakers should be treated respectfully, something they said AIPAC organizers diligently enforced.
Rabbi Mario Rojzman, of Miami, said that while he has "disliked most of [Trump's] positions," including "how he treats minorities," he was "thankful" that he came to AIPAC to state his position on issues related to Israel. As to the audience's positive reaction, Rojzman said, "I think people love to be entertained. He develops entertainment." Rojzman said he was "not a Trump guy."
Susan Feldman, with AIPAC's Palm Beach delegation, said that the AIPAC leaders "at every session made a statement that we are bipartisan," and "stressed we were to be respectful of everybody's point of view." Asked about the rabbis who had said they would protest Trump's speech, Feldman said, "I think the leaders got to them." She said the leaders of AIPAC and of the individual state and city delegations that were at the conference "made sure that during the private parties they discussed it with them to be respectful, and as a bipartisan organization we're interested in America and Israel together, that's what we're here for."
Feldman added, though, that she was "shocked" that the audience "stood more with him [Trump] than any other candidate."
Carole Shnier, who had traveled from Los Angeles for the conference, praised Trump's "charisma," "passion" and "fervor" and his "no-nonsense approach." She said she had been on the fence, but "was overwhelmed in a positive way" by his speech. Now, she said, "there's no question my feelings are Trump and Cruz, that to me would be the ideal ticket."
Shnier added that she was "unbelievably disgusted" by the rabbis who planned to protest the speech, calling their action "despicable."
"The fact that a rabbi, a leader of the Jewish people, would incite clearly bad behavior, disrespectful behavior, and to suggest to rally support of other Jews to be disrespectful is completely antithetical to the principles of Judaism," said Shnier.
The divide between Shnier and If Not Now's Zimmerman could not be more stark. "The fact that there are people at this conference who are expecting him to come prove that he's a better friend of Israel and of the Jewish community, when they've heard him say these terrible, terrible things," said Zimmerman, "just really makes me question the moral code that is guiding our community right now."During a campaign rally on Sunday night, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson danced along to a performance cover of "Stand By Me." Watch our mashup of moments when the two stood together in solidarity.