When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. next week in front of 18,000 pro-Israel activists from around the country, nobody quite knows what will happen – and not only because it is always impossible to predict what will come out of Trump’s mouth.
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The behavior of the crowd towards the undisputed dominant force in the Republican Party is just as hard to foresee.
Normally, predicting the reception of a party frontrunner at AIPAC would be a no-brainer - any high-profile politician at AIPAC’s big show, let alone a leading candidate for president wins a healthy measure of polite applause, if not a standing ovation, by just showing up. The organization’s tradition during election cycles of inviting any viable presidential contender who wishes to speak is not only so that they can hear what the hopefuls have to say on policy regarding Israel, but to give the candidate a warm welcome, hopefully inducing positive feelings about the pro-Israel crowd.
But as the countdown clock to AIPAC’s opening curtain on March 20 ticks down, the ominous atmosphere at Trump events and the way in which Trump is seen as fanning the flames of bigotry deeply troubles Jews on the right and the left. Raised right hands of supporters taking “loyalty vows” to Trump and backers shouting at protesters to “go to Auschwitz“ can’t be ignored.
With a campaign increasingly feared as a slippery slope into violence, racism, and chaos, an unqualified friendly reception for Trump is far from a given.
Online petitions have sprung up calling on AIPAC to disinvite Trump, as well as at least one Facebook group devoted to organizing a protest against him at a conference called “Come Together Against Hate."
A strong statement released on Monday by leaders of the Reform movement and its rabbis in response to the announcement of Trump’s appearance left the door open to some form of protest or action by Reform Jews at the AIPAC event, promising that the movement “will find an appropriate and powerful way to make our voices heard” against what they called Trump’s “hate speech.”
A formal call for AIPAC to disinvite Trump was published on the left-wing blog The Daily Kos, where David Harris Gershon wrote, “I ask AIPAC to rescind its invitation, to send a message that people who inspire hatred will not be embraced by the American Jewish community.
U.S. Jewish voters are making this message loud and clear. It’s time for American Jewish leaders to follow.” Given Trump’s “violent rhetoric,” he said, Trump’s invitation to AIPAC conference was “shameful.”
Rob Eshman, writing in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal struck a similar tone: “AIPAC misjudged. By extending an invite to Trump with no additional comment, no caveats, no reproach, AIPAC is helping Trump erase the many lines he has crossed Bigotry is bigotry.
Racism is racism. A demagogue willing to defame or threaten an entire religion or nationality just to rile up voters could just as easily redirect his venom to some other group when the time is ripe ... He is creating an atmosphere and a precedent for winning votes by fanning hate and discord. The near-riots at the Trump rallies in Chicago and St. Louis show what will happen in a Trump America—and what may happen at the AIPAC conference.”
If Trump is given a cold shoulder at AIPAC, it won’t be his first uncomfortable encounter with the Jewish and pro-Israel community this election season. On December 3, Trump was booed while at a Republican Jewish Coalition presidential candidate forum over his position on the status of Jerusalem.
The jeering led Trump to snap, “You're not gonna support me because I don't want your money. You want to control your politicians.”
Republican Jewish audience members were observed shaking their heads in shock and burying their faces in their hands, as Trump continued to speak, trying to convince them that he was the man who could cut a Middle East peace deal by utilizing borderline anti-Semitic tropes like, "Is there anybody that doesn't renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them, perhaps more than any other room I've ever spoken in."
Unfazed, Trump then assured his audience that he would be clarifying his positions on Israel when he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a few weeks, during a visit to the Jewish state that had been scheduled for December 28, just before the primary voting was to begin.
But that meeting never happened. Shortly before the Israel visit was to take place, Trump made his December 7 declaration calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.”
In the immediate aftermath of the controversial statement, 37 Knesset members signed a letter calling on Netanyahu not to meet with Trump.
The Israeli Prime Minister tried to tread a middle ground - while he denounced Trump’s words, Netanyahu said he would still meet with Trump when he came to Israel. In the end, however, the visit was cancelled. Although Netanyahu aides insisted they had nothing to do with the decision, Trump indicated otherwise, saying that he cancelled because “I didn't want to put [Netanyahu] under pressure"
Now another potential Netanyahu-Trump face-to-face has been avoided.
Netanyahu, originally scheduled to speak at the conference announced last week that he wasn’t coming. His stated reason was to avoid the appearance of taking a partisan position by meeting and greeting the candidates at AIPAC. Most pundits scoffed at the excuse - saying that his chilly relationship with President Obama, and the failure to close the deal on the U.S. defense package was the real reason.
But in truth, Netanyahu dodged a bullet by missing Trump at AIPAC. If he smiled and embraced Trump, he would get criticized for putting Israel’s kosher stamp of approval on the deeply divisive candidate. If he didn’t, he would have been snubbing the almost-certain Republican nominee for president and possible future occupant of the White House, not to mention one representing the party to which both Israel and Netanyahu has had the closest ties.
Interestingly, in the limited amount of polling that has been done, Israelis themselves don’t appear particularly hostile to Trump. Many see him as a tough straight-talker, a personality type that isn’t uncommon in the Israeli political firmament, and some applaud his attacks on Obama, who hasn’t been a popular figure in the Jewish state.
In a recent poll commissioned by the Walla website, Trump’s popularity was measured far higher than Republican rivals like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have bent over backwards at every opportunity to show that they are more loyal to Israel than Trump.
Twenty-three percent favored Trump as president, 5 percent favored Cruz and Rubio, who has since suspended his campaign, trailed with 4 percent. The most popular candidate in the same poll was Hillary Clinton with 38 percent support - despite general dissatisfaction with the Democrats in the Obama era, it seems the Clinton name still has cache in Israel.
And yet, when asked which candidate would likely have policies most favorable to Israel, Trump actually surpassed Clinton – 25 percent to her 24 percent with only 6 percent each for candidates Cruz, Rubio and Sanders. A majority of those responding - 33 percent said they didn’t know enough about the candidate’s potential policies to decide.
In another poll, this one by the Israel Democracy Institute, a majority of Jewish Israelis - 61 percent - assessed Trump’s positions on Israel as being very friendly or moderately friendly to the Jewish state with a mere 14 percent saying his positions are not at all or not so friendly.
If these polls are accurate, Israelis seem to be having an easier time accepting the Trump phenomenon than their American Jewish cousins in both parties.
To the left-wing and liberal Democratic majority of U.S. Jews, it comes as no shock that Trump is anathema. But there is also the politically active cadre of conservative - and neoconservative - Jewish Republicans of the Reagan-Bush era that hitched their wagons to more conventionally pro-Israel, and now defunct, campaigns led by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
These Jews are now facing a full-blown identity crisis and some are active in the brewing battle against the Trump-ization of the GOP that will likely take place at the party’s convention in July.
James Kirchick penned this group’s cri de couer in a lengthy piece in Tablet, writing, “If Trump wins the nomination and, God forbid, the presidency, I anticipate race riots in major American cities.
Philip Roth’s alternate history novel, The Plot Against America, envisioning the narrow election of a President Charles Lindbergh who keeps America out of World War II and presides over a worsening climate of anti-Jewish persecution, is no longer the stuff of my Bubbie’s tsuris . To those Jews who contemplate making peace with a President Donald Trump: He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.”
And yet at the same time, there are also small but clear signs that in some quarters, Republican Jews are already preparing themselves to fall in line with what seems to be the will of their party’s voters.
After sitting out the Republican primary battles, with no confirmation of rumors he was favoring Rubio and possibly Cruz, there were signs that Sheldon Adelson himself could be coming around on Trump. His newspaper Israel HaYom splashed its front page on Monday with the headline: “Trump not afraid to say ‘Islamic terrorism’ “ quoting former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key supporter of the frontrunner, visiting Israel on a suspiciously well-timed business trip, dismissing the demonization of Trump as “typical very extreme left-wing way of dealing with any Republican they are afraid of. The comparison to Hitler is appalling. Trump has not killed anyone, he is not against a particular group of people and he does not want to hurt anyone.”
The transcript of a video of Adelson publicly entertaining the concept of potentially endorsing a Trump candidacy was recently published by political blogger Tal Schneider. “Trump is a businessman,” Adelson says, when asked if he would consider backing his fellow casino owner. “I’m a businessman. He employs a lot of people. I employ 50,000 people. Why not?”
In an appearance last week, Matt Brooks, the Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition - the same group that booed Trump in December - sounded as if he were practicing his lines to rally the troops in the general election, no matter who the candidate may be.
Asked whether Trump’s candidacy was “uncomfortable” for Jewish voters and party leaders, Brooks asked the moderator “Uncomfortable in what way? Uncomfortable in the way that if you look at Donald Trump vs. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, he is someone who has clearly said he’s going to do what it takes to stand up to radical Islam? When you look at the contrast between [Sanders and Clinton] and any one of the Republicans that are in this race right now, the choices are absolutely clear – including Donald Trump.”