AIPAC Attendees Face Donald Dilemma: Stay Polite or Walk Out

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People rally as they take part in a protest against U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in New York, March 19, 2016.
People rally as they take part in a protest against U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in New York, March 19, 2016.Credit: AFP

With 18,000 delegates, hundreds of breakout sessions, and dozens of keynote speakers, one issue dominated the chatter at AIPAC’s annual policy conference: Donald Trump.

“He’s horrible for Israel, the United States and the world,” said Nancy Resnik, a participant rushing with her husband to the next session at the Washington Convention Center Sunday morning. But while the attention before the official kickoff was grabbed by hundreds of rabbis and activists planning protests and boycotts of Trump’s speech, many rank and file delegates, like the Resniks, say they feel bound by decorum to welcome guests, despite their feelings about Trump and his rhetoric.

“We will not walk out. That is not who we are,” she said, and her husband Alan Resnik added: “I will be polite. It means I’ll neither applaud nor boo.”
And this is pretty much how AIPAC would like their delegates to react to in the contentious moments awaiting them tomorrow. In an email to all participants before they descended on Washington, the pro-Israel lobby asked for a respectful welcome of all guest speakers, with no specific mention of Trump.

“I wish that Donald Trump were not running for president and beyond that I’m not sure it would be good to say what I think about him,” said Debbie Poliner.
What will she do when Trump takes the stage? Poliner has yet to decide.

“I think there’s a possibility I will just get up and walk out. I will not be applauding for him. I’m sure of that,” she said.

Offering some guidance Sunday morning were leaders of the Reform movement, who came up with their own way of making their distaste to Trump known.

“I plan to leave the arena to go out into the lobby area right before he’s introduced. My goal is not to disrupt the gathering but to actually remove myself from the physical presence where he’ll be speaking,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I’ll be joined by many colleagues to study a few very key Jewish texts and to frame not only his words tomorrow with these texts, but also the words he and other candidates may speak in the coming days, weeks and months.”

These texts includes reading from the Talmud saying that upholding human dignity is the highest mandate, as well as a text from Abraham Joshua Heschel about how Jewish integrity is eroded if Jews don’t speak out against wrongs being done to others.

The Reform leaders and others will follow, however, Trump’s speech from the video screens outside the arena.

“We’re not walking out,” clarified Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. He noted that the decision not to attend the speech was made in a way that would not disrupt the event. “AIPAC is doing their job and we have our job to do,” he said.

“There’s going to be a Jewish communal and an American national conversation about Donald Trump and what he has said and what he has stood for and how we live up to not just our Jewish values but American values around dignity and equality and diversity,” Pesner added.

On Friday, Pesner sent a letter to Trump requesting a meeting to discuss issues of concern to the Jewish community. The Trump campaign replied, expressing the candidate’s desire to connect, though such a connection has yet to take place.

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