Way to Go, AIPACers: Cheering Trump Undid Years of Work Against BDS

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) afternoon general session in Washington March 21, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) afternoon general session in Washington March 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters

As a student at the University of Michigan, I have been very active in the fight against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.  During my time on campus, I have served as a representative on student government and worked with many other committed pro-Israel students to repeatedly defeat BDS resolutions introduced by our student government assembly. 

I oppose BDS because I believe that a negotiated, two-state solution is the only way for Israel to maintain its Jewish and democratic character, while respecting the Palestinians’ right to self-determination as well. Instead, BDS delegitimizes the State of Israel, aims to isolate it as a pariah, paints the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as black and white, and polarizes college campuses in the process.

Last week, I attended the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. I was inspired by the sight of 18,000, mostly Jewish, Americans joining together in support of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. But as I sat in the packed Verizon Center, I was shocked, disgusted, and embarrassed to see my fellow Jews rise to their feet again and again to applaud Donald Trump, a man whose hateful demagoguery is the antithesis of the values that the American Jews stand for individually and communally. Every stream of American Judaism, from the Reform movement through to the Orthodox Union, and its representative organizations, from the ADL to the American Jewish Committee, have condemned Trump and his rhetoric.

I deeply respect the courageous individuals who walked out of Trump’s speech and I commend AIPAC’s leadership for condemning Trump’s ad hominem attacks on President Obama. I suspect (hope?) that the majority of AIPAC supporters do not condone Trump’s ugly speech, and instead gave him repeated standing ovations because they liked what he had to say about Israel. When they clapped for him with gusto, they seemingly gave the pro-Israel community’s stamp of approval to the same man whom their own leaders had roundly rebuked. And I fear that the warm welcome given to Trump will severely harm pro-Israel students’ efforts on campus to combat the growing anti-Israel movement. 

AIPAC and many other pro-Israel and Jewish organizations are rightly concerned about BDS. This anxiety, bolstered by recent victories at prestigious institutions like Northwestern, Stanford and UCLA, was on full display at this year’s AIPAC conference. Speaker after speaker lauded the 4,000 students in attendance and delivered a clear message; we stand with you in your fight against BDS. We students appreciated the sentiment.

However, by welcoming Donald Trump with open arms, those same people have made our work on campus infinitely more difficult. AIPAC and other Israel advocacy groups have worked hard to make the case that being progressive and pro-Israel are not mutually exclusive.

They have devoted time, money and energy to expand the coalition of pro-Israel students to incorporate Hispanics, African-Americans, and other ethnic, cultural, and religious groups into the big tent of the pro-Israel community.  Given the increasingly diverse face of America, it is crucial to form a broad alliance of student leaders to effectively combat BDS and preserve strong support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. The applauding attendees undid much of that valuable work when they enthusiastically cheered for Donald Trump, despite his record of bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny.

After Trump’s speech, I spoke with three African-American college students about their reactions. Like me, they were shocked at and disappointed by the audience’s response. They told me that they decided to attend the all-expenses-paid conference to learn about strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. But as one student told me, “They brought us here to learn, but then they brought someone like Trump here, with all that he stands for. People went crazy when Trump said that President Obama is the worst thing to happen to Israel. It’s disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to all black people. It makes me feel like we’ve been used to make their conference more diverse.”

I can see the headline of the next BDS campaign now: “Racist demagogue Donald Trump receives warm welcome from AIPAC, 'America's pro-Israel lobby.'” Unfortunately, the headline would be true. 

Anti-Israel activists are competing for the hearts and minds of students by portraying the discrimination faced by Palestinians as similar to that faced by minorities in the United States, using taglines such as “from Ferguson to Palestine” or “from Baltimore to Gaza.” What better way to make their case for them than to cheer a man who has repeatedly insulted just about every minority group in the book? The sight of thousands of Israel supporters on their feet for Donald Trump was, and will continue to be, the greatest of gifts for Israel’s detractors.  

The most effective pro-Israel college students strive to honor the Jewish values that we learned in our homes, synagogues, schools, and summer camps. We do so by acknowledging Israel’s virtues AND its flaws.  We espouse peace, coexistence, and respect for both sides of the conflict. We certainly do not embrace hateful rhetoric like Donald Trump’s. This nuanced approach is the most productive way to connect with today’s college students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is the only way to discourage support for BDS.

Donald Trump’s message and the ovations he received at AIPAC betrayed our Jewish history of speaking out against injustice. When the pro-Israel establishment abandons these values and applauds a bigot instead, we risk forfeiting our coalition partners, emboldening our enemies, and frankly, losing many Jewish supporters as well. 

I hope that Trump’s speech will be a wakeup call for the pro-Israel establishment. Some serious cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) is in order. 

Matthew Fidel is a student at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Follow him on Twitter: @matt_fidel

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