On AIPAC, Trump and Civility

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Once again the AIPAC Policy Conference is garnering a great deal of attention. As I, along with over 30 TSTI members, find ourselves in Washington DC as PC Delegates, the fact that Republican front runner Donald Trump is scheduled to speak has become an issue of significant discussion and debate. Earlier this week the Reform Movement released a statement about his campaign as well as his appearance at Policy Conference. On the one hand, it stated,

“The Reform Jewish Movement has always worked very closely with AIPAC. We respect completely its decision to invite all the viable candidates for president to speak at its upcoming Policy Conference. By inviting the candidates to speak, AIPAC does not support or oppose their candidacies, nor does it condone or commend their policies. AIPAC has, as it must, a singular focus: the U.S./Israel relationship. AIPAC’s intent – and its responsibility – is to better understand the candidates’ views on issues that impact the U.S./Israel relations.

“We know the invitation to candidate Donald Trump was issued in that spirit, and we therefore understand AIPAC’s decision to extend the invitation. Mr. Trump is the unarguable frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and he has not yet spoken clearly about his views on U.S./Israel issues. The AIPAC Policy Conference will give him an opportunity to do so, just as it does for other candidates.”

At the same time, the statement went on to note,

“…we cannot ignore the many issues on which Mr. Trump has spoken clearly. His campaign has been replete with naked appeals to bigotry, especially against Hispanics and Muslims. Previous comments he has made – and not disavowed – have been offensive to women, people of color, and other groups. In recent days, increasingly, he appears to have gone out of his way to encourage violence at his campaign events. At every turn, Mr. Trump has chosen to take the low road, sowing seeds of hatred and division in our body politic.”

I agree with both parts of the statement. The culture of hate and intolerance that has been created by the Trump Campaign is unacceptable. The misogyny, Islamophobia, racism and overall crassness are just part of what makes Mr Trump’s candidacy so troubling. At the same time, I understand and support AIPAC’s decision. They did not invite Mr Trump specifically. Instead, as they have for the last few election cycles, they issued a blanket invitation to all active presidential candidates to address the gathering. That includes Mr Trump but also includes Secretary Hillary Clinton, Senator Ted Cruz, and Governor John Kasich, who will be addressing the assembly as well. Senator Bernie Sanders who has not yet confirmed or declined said invitation.

I understand the inclination of some who are critical of AIPAC’s invitation, or calling on the organization to publicly disavow Mr. Trump and all he stands for. But said criticism comes from a misunderstanding of AIPAC and its laser-focused approach and mandate. AIPAC is committed to Bi-Partisan support for the US-Israel relationship. In order to have influence on this relationship and the key safety and security they, and I, believe it creates for both the United States AND Israel, they and we have to have a relationship with Congress and the Administration no matter who is in office at any given time. To not invite any of of the current presidential candidates would undermine a AIPAC’s very reason for existing. It is unfortunate that there is a campaign that uses racism, misogyny and threats as core tactics. But it is not on AIPAC to make statements against this or any other campaign. That task currently falls to the Republican establishment and, ultimately, to us. And so, while I understand the calls and critiques, I believe they are misplaced. That is my opinion and I certainly understand that people who I deeply respect disagree. That is what our nation, and our religion, is about.

That, however, leads to a key question. Since Mr. Trump will speaking at Policy Conference what are attendees to do? I believe there are two acceptable options: choose not be there or sit quietly without so much as a movement. I understand that there are those who find his behavior so reprehensible that they will simply choose to miss the entire session during which he speaks or leave during the musical interlude before he takes the stage. And I understand that there are those individuals who find his behavior so reprehensible that they will choose to sit in the hall and, in protest, simply not react. I do not, however, understand or support those who plan to wait until he takes the stage and then leave. To do so is disruptive to those who have chosen to remain in the hall and undermines the very foundation of the bi-partisan approach AIPAC takes. Those who come to Policy Conference have chosen to attend AIPAC’s gathering and do not have the right, I believe, to disrupt sessions or behave in a manner that is not in keeping with the expectations and approach AIPAC takes. It is not how we comport ourselves within an organization that is Bi-Partisan.

In addition, I categorically reject the notion that, as one rabbinic colleague said in an article in the Forward this week:

“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.”

Such a position reflects a total disregard for AIPAC’s mandate, decorum and the rights of those delegates who have chosen to remain in the hall. Moreover, rather than their “presence” condoning the candidate, I believe that, were Mr. Trump to take the stage and be received by a arena of 18,000 in absolute silence without so much as a sound it would be the strongest repudiation of his rhetoric and vileness possible.

I do wish that our political landscape was unfolding in a manner that is more in keeping with our values and highest selves. Sadly that is not the election cycle we are in. In the meantime, regardless of the current landscape, it is Pro-Israel Americans such as myself and the important work that AIPAC does in a bi-partisan manner, that will keep America and Israel safe. That is why I will be getting on a train to Washington Saturday and that is why I will leave the hall prior to Mr Trump taking the stage or I will sit stoically. I will protest him through my absence or with my silence. But my personal protest will show the kind of respect for my fellow delegates that Mr. Trump has not shown to so many he has attacked. His rhetoric is vile. I will not stoop to his level and I pray my colleagues who are planning an active protest will reconsider.

If he is indeed the Republican candidate there will be a time and place that I, and tens of thousands of other proud Americans will protest him. But that time is not this weekend at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen, DMin
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
South Orange, NJ

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Cohen was ordained in 1993 by the HUC-JIR and has served Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel since 1993. An avid technology geek, for fun he writes for the tech blog Gear Diary.
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