There was a great deal of buzz and discussion at this year’s annual AIPAC conference about what to do when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump showed up. The controversy centered on whether it was right to invite him or not in light of all the insidious comments and disparaging remarks about minorities he has made. People questioned if AIPAC was making a statement by inviting him, and if so, was it appropriate to do so?
On the one hand, the mandate of AIPAC is non-partisan and the organization does not take a position on issues unrelated to its primary mission, which is to strengthen the Israel-American relationship. On the other hand, the circumstances were a bit different, because there were those who felt a Jewish group has a responsibility not to be seen as condoning or giving a platform to someone who has espoused such hateful bigoted and divisive statements. This was weighed against the very real possibility that Mr. Trump could become the nominee of the Republican Party, and therefore, could potentially become president. Would it be wise to shut him out of the process and not engage him?
As we all know by now, he was invited to speak.
Now the next dilemma for rabbis and individuals attending the conference was a personal one: to attend or boycott the speech. The same issues listed above were at play, as people grappled with whether to attend or to walkout on the speech.
I heard from some congregants and friends on both sides of the issue. Some encouraged me to walk out, and some felt it was not appropriate to leave the speech. I wanted to hear from those who felt strongly about each approach to understand their motives and reasoning, as I saw justification in both responses. I spoke with a number of people at the Policy Conference and solicited their opinions and asked what they planned to do.
And here is the untold story.
I was amazed that regardless of who I spoke with, and regardless of what their personal position was, each expressed respect for the other side.
When I spoke privately to leaders of AIPAC, expecting to hear from them why I should not walk out, they responded with a courteous, “You need to do what you think is right.” And when I sought to understand the other side, and spoke with rabbis who were organizing the protest, and expected them to try to encourage and pull me to their side, they responded in a similar fashion, and said, “This is what I am doing, but I cannot tell you what to do.” Each of the people I spoke with went on to say that they understood the dilemma and appreciated the position of those who disagreed with them.
Granted I did not speak with everyone involved in the discussions, but I was genuinely surprised and pleased to see what could be a model for discourse in the Jewish community when disagreeing on issues of conscience. I encountered a sincere respect for the integrity of the other side. There appeared to be a genuine recognition that even those with whom one disagrees came to their conclusions after serious reflection and were guided by principle.
And for those who wonder what I did I decided that since he had been invited to address the conference I should stay so I could hear what he had to say. Even though the hall was dark and there were thousands of people at the Convention Center, and no one other than those right next to me would have noticed, although I chose to say, I did not stand or applaud his comments. It was my small protest of showing how I feel about the way in which he has pursued the highest office in the country and to show respect for the two opposing views about how to treat a divisive figure – by not allowing him to divide us.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Congregation B’nai Tzedek