Donald Trump is coming to the AIPAC policy conference and the American Jewish community is abuzz with debate about the best way to confront him.
Across websites, Facebook groups and hashtags like #JewsAgainstTrump, various plans are being hatched: from protesting loudly outside the venue, to defiantly walking out of the hall. There is even discussion of disrupting Trump’s speech in the style of the impending holiday of Purim - with shouts and noisemakers, casting the Republican presidential frontrunner in the role of Haman, enemy of the Jews.
Leading the anti-Trump charge are the rabbis - some already wearing their “Rabbis Against Trump” buttons, arguing that Trump’s racially charged language, demagogic style and frightening supporters cannot go unopposed. Florida Rabbis David Pasky and Jesse Olitsky have organized the most prominent group, “Come Together Against Hate” to “shine a moral light on the darkness that has enveloped Mr. Trump’s campaign.”
The group plans to distribute anti-Trump stickers and flyers at AIPAC, stage a silent walk-out during Trump’s speech and hold a Torah lesson as Trump gives his speech, arguing that “If we sit around and do nothing, even if we sit in silence, that shows complacency and that, by default, we agree with what he says,” declared Olitzky.
Another rabbi, Eric Yoffie, former head of the Reform movement sees the gathering as an opportunity to “fight back” against the Republican frontrunner. “Will an ongoing, organized Jewish effort to battle Trump’s bigotry adversely impact Jewish security and well-being in America? If Trump is elected President, it could,” he writes. But no matter, he concludes: action is required.
I am no Trump fan - his words, actions, policies, and dog whistling to the worst racist and xenophobic tendencies in America turn my stomach. I understand the gut feeling that the prospect of 18,000 Jews greeting him with cheers, applause, even polite attentiveness, is difficult to swallow. And because of our recent history, we Jews feel a burning need to stand up and be counted when it comes to dangerous demagogues before it is too late.
But Washington, DC’s Verizon Center, where the AIPAC confab is being held, is not a synagogue. Advocates for Israel are not spiritual leaders. When emotions and moral righteousness are put aside, anyone who truly cares about Israel’s future has to ask themselves whether preparing confrontational mega-protests and walkouts is really the wisest political move.
Veteran columnist JJ Goldberg, no Trump supporter himself, answers that it is definitely not. While individual Jews can, and should, fight against a Trump presidency, he wrote in the Forward, that’s not AIPAC’s role.
“The core mission of the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby is to ensure good relations between the American and Israeli governments. And the voting on Super Tuesday greatly increased the odds that Trump will be one of the two candidates contending to win the presidency next fall, like it or not And given its mission, it’s important that the lobby keep itself on decent terms with whatever powers govern in Washington.”
That’s why AIPAC invited Trump, Goldberg wrote, and why they should hear him out, just as they will hear out Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich -- all scheduled to speak to conference participants.
A circus atmosphere surrounding the Trump speech plays directly into the theatrical candidate’s hands. Trump has shown that he is the master of turning opposition into a boomerang, and using it to fire up his supporters. In the Republican debates, the more combative the atmosphere has been, the better Trump has performed.
And then there is the press. Media attention is the oxygen that his campaign runs on. And what would get more attention and be a more irresistible story than Trump facing thousands of angry protesting Jews?
This is why, in my ideal world, the 18,000 attendees at AIPAC will greet Trump in as subdued a manner as possible. Silent protest in the form of shirts and buttons would be fine. I understand why those who can’t even stomach the sight of him would choose to stay out of the hall. Stay away – yes. Walk out – no.
And then, when Trump takes the stage, brief smattering of polite applause acknowledging his presence. No loud cheers, no enthusiastic clapping - but no boos and no jeering either.
And then, it will be time to listen.
Those of us who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship – whether we are on the right or on the left – don’t have a choice.
Over the past year, the deterioration of the relationship between Israel and the White House has made AIPAC’s mission of maintaining government support for Israel – in both parties – nearly impossible. At almost every turn, the current Israeli Prime Minister recklessly and unwisely alienated the Obama administration and decided to place all of Israel’s eggs in the Republican basket. More accurately, he placed them in the basket of the Republican establishment – the same establishment that is in the process of being decimated by Donald Trump. If Trump succeeds, unwavering support for Israel could, over the course of a single year, travel a path from bi-partisan to partisan to non-existent.
We can’t even look at Trump’s foreign policy team for a hint of what he will do in the Middle East, because such a team doesn’t yet exist. When asked where he looks for guidance on foreign policy matters Trump stated unabashedly that his top adviser is in the mirror.
“My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff,” he said. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain.”
Trump may repulse, astonish and frighten us. But like it or not, he is dangerously close to ascending into one of the most powerful positions in the world. If he does, he will, to a great extent, hold the fate of Israel, the Middle East, and much more, in his hands. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t the case, no matter how sure we are that we won’t like it, we can’t afford to refuse to hear what he has to say. What he says may want to make us scream - but we have to listen.