I’ve just returned from the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington where more than 18,000 people gathered to learn about Israel and the Middle East, discuss pro-Israel strategies and find new inspiration for supporting Israel. This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference set a record for attendance. The number of people in attendance was so large that general sessions could no longer be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (a massive and sprawling complex) so they were relocated to the Verizon Center, a sports arena a few blocks away that seats well over 20,000 people.
This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference was controversial because Donald Trump was invited to address the convention along with other leading candidates for President and political leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice-President Joe Biden. Some people, viewing Trump’s statements and positions are bigoted, insulting and racist, felt that AIPAC should not have invited him. Others stressed that AIPAC is about political strategy and accomplishes its pro-Israel mission by creating and nurturing bipartisan ties to members of Congress. As AIPAC’s Executive Director Howard Kohr said, an invitation to speak at Policy Conference is not an endorsement of the speaker’s views. It is, rather, part of a strategy to engage all leading political figures in dialogue about supporting Israel. Listening to Donald Trump’s speech does not require endorsing what he says, let alone voting for him.
Mr. Trump’s speech on Monday night was hardly boycotted. The arena was packed with more than 18,000 people. Yet, I was appalled at the response he received. Rather than disrupt him (which I think would have been inappropriate and undignified), he received numerous rounds of applause and standing ovations. Perhaps this is typical behavior when someone well known addresses a large gathering and makes pro-Israel statements. But there was no rejection of Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric, his statements condemning an entire faith group, his comments that denigrate women, or his failure to forcefully condemn white supremacists. As a whole, the group shockingly embraced him, even when he made ugly and inappropriate comments about President Obama (the next morning, Lillian Pinkus, the newly installed President of AIPAC, tearfully apologized to the convention attendees at the general session for the divisive tone set by those comments). I rejected the idea of boycotting Mr. Trump’s speech, advising instead that we must hear what Mr. Trump, and the others, have to say about their views on Israel. But I was terribly disappointed and dismayed to see how enthusiastically he was received. Where was the rejection of hate and bigotry? Where was the Jewish stance against discrimination? I only wish that it had been possible to mobilize the crowd to mute its response to Mr. Trump and thereby demonstrate to him that while we are willing to hear his views on Israel, we are unwilling to tolerate positions that are racist and unjust.
In general, the reaction of the crowd to pro-Israel speeches was at times bewildering. This is not a commentary on AIPAC as an organization or its supporters, but rather an insight into crowd behavior in general. Some speakers made statements that are simply unrealistic or unbelievable. For example, Trump mentioned the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist nature of education in the Palestinian school system. That’s a concern of course, one raised by others, including Ellie Wiesel (here, I invoke the Hebrew word l’havdil, which means to separate, and is used to convey that two people shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence). It’s worth noting that Palestinian educational culture is shaping a generation of young people to hate Israel, but Trump added that if he becomes President, “that will stop.” When I heard that, I wondered how on earth he would, as President of the United States, change the curriculum and educational culture of Palestinian schools. But the crowd applauded and gave him a standing ovation. Another example is the statement, made by several candidates, that as President they would quickly move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (normally an embassy is in a nation’s capitol and some have pushed for the United States to make a statement about Israel’s capitol by moving our embassy to Jerusalem). Frankly, moving the embassy is a fairly low priority issue. But saying it gets a good reaction from a large, staunchly pro-Israel crowd. Here, too, people stood up and applauded loudly. (I preferred Hilary Clinton’s approach on this issue, who said that moving the embassy is unnecessarily provocative and would harm any potential progress toward a two-state solution.) So not only was the applause bewildering because it appeared to embrace Donald Trump despite his rhetoric, but also because it seemed to be a virtually pavlovian response to hearing anything a candidate might say that sounds pro-Israel.
Putting aside the controversy generated by Mr. Trump, I want to encourage you to get involved with AIPAC. This is an organization whose sole purpose is to support Israel by strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership. Those who attend Policy Conference come away inspired to support Israel, having learned something valuable about Israel, the Middle East and world politics, and feeling the power and strength that come from such a large pro-Israel gathering. Beyond hearing from politicians, AIPAC is a place to learn about how Israel is an innovator in the field of technology, especially technology that is designed to help people overcome life’s obstacles. It’s a place to learn how Israel reaches out a helping hand to distressed communities and countries that experience disaster and tragedy. Next year’s policy conference will take place on March 26-28, 2017. But even before that, there will be opportunities in the next few months to gather together to learn about AIPAC from members of our own synagogue delegation and other speakers.
Israel is a strong, democratic nation that still needs the support and love of people around the world, and AIPAC is one of the most important and successful ways to mobilize that support. I hope you will get involved.