When Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump takes the podium at next week’s AIPAC Policy Conference, we plan on walking out, joined by hundreds of other rabbis and conference participants.
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This protest, which we both helped to organize, is not about party, politics or policies. Rather, it is about our tradition’s insistence that “silence is tantamount to consent” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 37b). We want to send a clear message that we stand against the bigotry and vitriol that has become central to the Trump campaign. We cannot stand idly by and condone such bigotry. We cannot risk sitting through a speech when doing so might give the appearance that we consent to the hateful tenor at the core of his candidacy.
Whether we support them or not, we will warmly welcome other candidates who speak to the delegation. We believe that, in a vibrant pluralistic democracy, many viewpoints are valid and have their place in respectful, constructive debate. We appreciate AIPAC’s efforts to make supporting Israel a matter of broad bipartisan consensus. Furthermore, as rabbis, we understand that Jewish tradition can be interpreted in a number of ways, and we humbly acknowledge that no individual or ideology has a monopoly on truth.
However, time and again Trump has crossed the line of reasonable disagreement into the realm of hateful invective and violent incitement. His openly xenophobic, Islamophobic and misogynistic remarks, both prior to and during this campaign, are hurtful and beyond the pale of tolerable rhetoric in a decent society. They are especially disturbing when they inform policy proposals like building a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, deporting the roughly 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the country, banning Muslims from entering this country, and registering Muslims in America into a database. His thinly-veiled racial dog-whistling, both in the past and during this campaign, paired with his failure to distance himself from white supremacists and avowed racists, grant harmful legitimacy to the most disgusting and dangerous elements within our country. Even more distressing is his incitement and encouragement of violent behavior among his supporters at rallies, something that is not only immoral, but also contrary to both American and Jewish values.
Our protest is not a criticism of AIPAC. We will, after all, be attending the conference, and both of us have a history of involvement with AIPAC. We respect and support AIPAC’s work securing bipartisan partnership for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and we especially appreciate this year’s theme, “Come Together.” We also understand why AIPAC invited Trump. As in past years, AIPAC has invited all presidential candidates to speak. We, like they, want to ensure that leaders of both parties, whoever they are, continue to strongly support Israel.
Some have argued that it would not be wise for the Jewish establishment to confront Trump, that the pro-Israel lobby should "keep itself on decent terms with whatever powers govern in Washington." But the AIPAC conference is more than just a pro-Israel rally. It is also the single-largest annual gathering of the American Jewish community. As such, we feel obligated to send a message to Donald Trump that we believe many of his views, his words, and his actions are anathema to Jewish values and are opposed by many within our community. We feel compelled to stand on the other side of what we feel is a great moral divide. And we feel especially moved to take this opportunity to stand as Jews in solidarity with those who Trump has routinely denigrated: our Muslim, Mexican, Latino, immigrant, female, disabled and differently-abled, and LGBTQI brothers and sisters who have been the targets of Trump’s vitriol and who would be most at risk should Trump get elected.
We do not intend to respond to hate with hate. We intend to respond to hate with Torah. We believe that there is no greater way to combat Trump’s dangerous rhetoric than by learning together. For this reason, when we walk out of his speech, we will gather to learn Torah together, uniting in the values of our tradition that we hold dear, values of common decency that Trump has ignored.
In taking this action, we mean only to speak for ourselves, for like-minded individuals who may not be at the conference, and for Jewish values as we understand them. While we have many constituents who will support our efforts next week, we are not protesting on behalf of the institutions we serve. Rather, we are protesting because we believe that, even as rabbis, we have the right and the responsibility in a democracy to voice our conscience to those in power and to those pursuing power, especially when it pertains to important matters like this.
And, while we are not acting on behalf of our communities, we are taking these actions knowing that we do, indeed, represent many American Jews who feel similarly. At the largest annual gathering of American Jews on the eve of an election, where candidates are seeking the support not only of the pro-Israel community broadly speaking, but also of the Jewish community specifically, we feel a special moral obligation to give voice to the many Jews who are appalled at what Trump has unleashed in our country’s politics, and alarmed at what a Trump presidency might look like.
Donald Trump does not speak for us. His hateful tone does not speak for us. So we must take a stand.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. He was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf. Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. Follow his personal blog, and on Twitter: @JMOlitzky. Both write regularly for Haaretz's Rabbis Round Table.