The 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference is over, but the damage it caused is far from done. As Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post wrote, “In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there will be plenty of people to blame for the Trump phenomenon. At the top of the list will be those who intentionally or not helped to mainstream Trump and those who refused to denounce him and his hateful rhetoric as beyond the political pale.”
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The problem with Trump's speech was not, as AIPAC would have us believe, what he said, or, as many wrote, the crowd’s reaction to it. The problem was the fact that AIPAC dignified him – and conferred legitimacy on him – by inviting him to speak in the first place.
As it always does, AIPAC put considerable thought in deciding whom to invite to its annual Policy Conference. Yet, despite what you may have read, AIPAC’s hands were not tied. It had the option of inviting, or not inviting, whomever it wanted.
One incorrect argument that has been going around the Internet is that AIPAC is a 501(c)(3) organization and is therefore required to invite all political candidates to its events in order to maintain its tax-exempt status. This is false information. AIPAC is a 501(c)(4) organization, which means that donations to it are not tax deductible and, more importantly, it is free to invite any political candidate it chooses to its events.
An even more prevalent rationalization for AIPAC’s decision – even among the organization’s critics – is that “AIPAC has always provided equal opportunity to all political candidates to participate in its policy conferences” and it would therefore break longstanding precedent not to have invited Trump. This too is incorrect. According to a JTA report, AIPAC refused to invite the third-place Republican candidate, Ron Paul, during the last presidential election, in 2012.
AIPAC’s decision not to invite Paul was not about his electability. That same year, it invited the fourth-place Republican candidate, Newt Gingrich. Rather, AIPAC decided that Paul’s views did not align with its own. As JTA reported at the time, AIPAC justified its decision based on Paul’s statements regarding cutting American aid to Israel (as well as to every other foreign country) and other comments critical of the Israeli government.
Paul’s non-invitation in 2012 demonstrates that AIPAC pays very close attention to what presidential candidates say; and it assesses that information to decide whether their messages align with its own. AIPAC's invitation to Trump suggests it reached the conclusion that his demagoguery is compatible with its mission.
It is not clear what motivated AIPAC’s decision. At worst, the organization has become guilty of being concerned only with the State of Israel and has no regard for the well-being of Americans, as Peter Beinart accused. At best, this was an egregious error that merits Tablet Magazine’s harsh critique that AIPAC is an organization run by “mid-level incompetents who disgrace our community.”
Regardless of what precipitated AIPAC’s shameful decision, the damage it is causing and will continue to cause can still be mitigated. It is not too late for AIPAC to issue a public statement admitting it made a grave mistake by treating Donald Trump as a presidential candidate worthy of its podium. This would be incredibly difficult for AIPAC’s leadership, as it would require taking responsibility for a failure that could tarnish their personal reputations and that of the organization. The decision could also distance the thousands of members who gave standing ovations to Trump. As scary as that is, however, AIPAC’s leadership should also consider how history will judge them and their organization – and how many more current and potential supporters they will alienate – if they choose to remain silent.
In Judaism, repentance is referred to as “teshuvah,” which means “returning.” AIPAC still has the opportunity to return to its former respectability as an organization that lived up to its own mission “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel,” rather than one that hurts the security of the United States by giving legitimacy to a man who promotes war crimes, physical violence at rallies, registration of Muslim American citizens, and shameless racism and sexism, and, in turn, hurts Israel’s security by weakening the social and political fabric of its most important ally.
Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @ayaloneliach.