The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad. — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
I live for the applause, applause, applause. — Lady Gaga
Donald Trump’s words weren’t the worst part of his appearance before the world’s largest annual Jewish gathering, the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. The standing ovations from many in the Verizon Center when he attacked the President of the United States were.
Where were AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship and its expectation of conference participants to “be on their best behavior and to treat all guests with respect?” The bipartisan respect AIPAC values so highly was woefully absent when thousands of attendees leaped to their feet and cheered when President Obama was described by Trump as “a disaster for Israel.” This false and mean accusation was made by a man who has waged a race-tinged “birther” war against the President, and the lights at the Verizon Center went on, as a signal for the crowd to rise and applaud. And applaud they did.
They applauded a man whose remarks about immigrants have been condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as “hate speech and stereotyping.”
They applauded a man who, as the leaders of the American Conservative Jewish Movement pointed out, has made “blatant sexual references and characterized women and minorities with derogatory epithets that no moral society should tolerate.”
They applauded a man to whom the American Reform Jewish Movement wrote:
You have told supporters to “Just knock the hell” out of protestors, promising to pay their legal fees. How does your refusal to explicitly condemn violence reflect our nation’s commitment to free speech and robust political discourse?
And, while they applauded, hundreds of rabbis protested Trump’s appearance. Some gathered as “Rabbis Against Trump.” Some joined the Reform Movement’s “Holding Leaders Accountable” text study, designed specifically for this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. Some rabbis chose to absent themselves entirely during Trump’s speech.
The group I joined, Come Together Against Hate, left the Verizon Center once Trump arrived and walked out in protest. I was blessed to join Rabbis Morris Allen, Jesse Olitzky, and David Paskin and 70 more rabbis and rabbinical students as we studied sacred texts about ethical conduct, challenged each other to not respond to Trump’s hateful rhetoric along the campaign trail with hatred or demonization, and to pray. As Rabbi David Paskin, lead organizer of the Come Together Against Hate walk-out, reflected:
We have listened for long enough. Now it is time to come together against hate. It is time to stand on the shoulders of those who built our country, based on values born out of our sacred scriptures. It is time to come together as people of faith and say, ‘Mr. Trump – you do not speak for us; you do not represent us and we will not let your bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, racism and hatred go unanswered anymore.’
But it would be a misrepresentation to end the story with our intrepid rabbinic voyagers learning, praying and singing.
Hundreds of rabbis within AIPAC’s community protested Donald Trump’s presence. Thousands more participated virtually, thanks to real-time sharing on many social media platforms. Many more learned of the protests thanks to intense media coverage.
And, while hundreds of rabbis protested, thousands of AIPAC attendees applauded. And roared. And cheered. Trump spoke. AIPAC stood and clapped.
Here’s what didn’t matter:
- That he’s a blowhard whose suddenly hawkish scripted talking points happened just weeks after he promised an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn’t matter.
- That his speech was simply a rehashing of remarks by every Republican (and most Democrats) over the past 20 years of AIPAC Policy Conferences didn’t matter.
- That his newfound hard-line policies on Israel’s behalf stood in stark contrast to his statement — on the very same day — that he would demand of Israel that it pay back the United States for the foreign aid it received didn’t matter.
- Trump’s shameful conduct along the campaign trail, inciting violence, using vulgarity, and demonizing Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities didn’t matter.
- Trump’s terrible treatment of women over many decades of his celebrity life — including misogynistic comments while on the 2016 campaign trail — didn’t matter.
- His false credentials as a conservative didn’t matter.
Here’s what does matter: The American Jewish community was willing to applaud a hatemonger, inviting him to speak in our largest gathering, adulating him.
But perhaps the problem is even deeper. AIPAC’s mission is famously laser-focused:
to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.
The word “Jewish” doesn’t appear in AIPAC’s mission. The American demographic is ever-shifting, and Israel’s well-being, a commitment I share and labor to support, is not only a Jewish commitment. But today I stood with AIPAC, as I have in years past, and witnessed a perversion of Jewish and American values in the applauding of Donald Trump. It wasn’t about the respect a guest deserves. It was multiple standing ovations for someone with no political leadership, rambling rhetoric, and a readiness to bully his way into the greatest office in the United States. These aren’t Jewish values. This isn’t the America I love.
Every branch of Judaism has issued warnings about what Trump’s campaign represents, a reality-TV style amplification of the underbelly of American society. Judaism’s commitment to recognizing God’s Image in every human being grants hate no place, but the applause, the applause, the applause… My Jewish American soul is sick with the sound of it. Jews clapped for a man who said what they wanted to hear and also frequently says things that should never be heard.
The applause showered by Jews upon a hateful demagogue: that’s what matters.
Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Ancestors, teaches:
in a place where no one stands up, stand up (2:5).
Hundreds of rabbis protested, and Jews applauded. That matters.
But here’s what matters most: Will you clap when Trump speaks next?