Inside the Pro-Israel Conference That Welcomed Trump
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.”