On March 21st, 2016, Donald Trump delivered a twenty-minute speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, which I attended as a student delegate. Many cheered for Trump, but many did not. Some boycotted the speech, some laughed throughout, and others sat quietly and listened. The wide range of responses to his speech demonstrated the microcosm of American politics that AIPAC supporters represent; aside from a common support of Israel, mixed political denominations led to a mixed reception of his controversial speech.
Despite this complex reality, many media outlets have focused on those who received Trump warmly to unfairly and inaccurately guide their readers toward false conclusions about the political leanings of AIPAC.
One Ha’aretz article wrote that Trump turned AIPAC into “gushing cheerleaders.” Brendan Gauthier of Salon went as far as to write that Trump received a “positive reaction and standing ovation from the AIPAC crowd.” In reality, Trump was the only candidate who did not receive a full standing ovation at any point during his speech. While there were warm responses to many of his pro-Israel remarks, Trump still received noticeably less approval than any other candidate for President of the United States. If the lukewarm reception for Trump implies that AIPAC supports the candidate, then the organization would also support Clinton, Cruz, and Kasich, each of whom drew even larger ovations. The cliché “actions speak louder than words” was true on Monday night; those who enthusiastically applauded Trump’s speech made considerable noise for the media, but were not more prevalent than those who sat quietly or walked out.
While implying that the reaction to Trump’s speech signals a rightward-shift in AIPAC, most media outlets conveniently ignored other content of the Conference which suggested otherwise. Vice President Joe Biden’s claim that “we need bridge builders, not wall builders,” drew tremendous applause. There were no major articles covering the Conference’s beautiful closing address, which was delivered by a Democratic Senator, Robert Menendez. And there was certainly no coverage of the multiple sessions which featured Israeli and American leftists who criticized Netanyahu, the Likud government, and the GOP. Instead, much of media continued to disproportionately focus on only one candidate, thereby turning a non-story into misleading articles and conclusions.
Indeed, Trump’s reception was disturbingly warm considering a crowd that knew the dangers of bigotry all too well. I was embarrassed to be a member of the same organization as the woman who sat in front of me during the speech, screaming in support of Trump and frequently calling President Obama a “traitor.” It is a mistake, however, to consider this a symptom of political shift solely within AIPAC. It is the result of political shift nationwide. As ideologies gain speed in America, so too do they within AIPAC; this is, by definition, nonpartisanism. AIPAC’s dedication to respecting the US-Israel relationship from both sides was proven the next morning, when AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus rebuked the applause Trump received for his anti-Obama remarks. “While we may have policy differences,” Pinkus passionately claimed, “we deeply respect the office of the President of the United States and our President, Barack Obama.” It is delusional to think that the subjective, non-quantifiable sound of applause by some AIPAC members signals a shift in ideology, but that an official statement by the organization’s President does not.
It was an unfortunate necessity for AIPAC to invite Donald Trump to speak at the Policy Conference; the Organization could not legitimately claim to be bipartisan without inviting the frontrunner from the Republican Party. AIPAC knows, however, that engagement is not the same as endorsement. By holding steadfast to their values of cooperation, even in a difficult time of extreme polarization, AIPAC succeeded in bringing a politically diverse crowd of 18,000 together to support the mutually beneficial relationship between the two nations.