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Why I Attended the Jewish-Azerbaijan Event in Trump’s DC Hotel

He has his qualms about the president elect, but boycotting last week's party was the wrong strategic choice

I attended last Wednesday’s pre-Chanukah reception cosponsored by the Embassy of Azerbaijan and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. I understand this is a sensitive topic within the community of Jewish organizations; several progressive groups were openly boycotting the event, and a few centrist agencies cited “scheduling conflicts” – though it was scheduled specifically to not conflict with the official White House Chanukah receptions.

On what basis did I justify crossing a formidable picket line, both real and metaphorical?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Azerbaijan this past week was years in the making, and promises important strategic and financial dividends to both countries. This reflects decades of Jewish organizations risking political capital to promote U.S.-Azerbaijan relations and closer cooperation between oil-rich Azerbaijan and Israel.

If the incoming administration does tally brownie points for those patronizing Trump businesses, then that is a severe ethical violation – one that rests exclusively on the shoulders of President-Elect Donald J. Trump. A boycott by major Jewish organizations puts the Trump team on notice generally and risks our relationship with Azerbaijan specifically – ironically, not for anything intrinsic to that Islamic nation, which shares a border with Iran.

It is worth dispelling the notion that last week’s boycott had anything to do with Azerbaijan’s human rights record. In the last 25 years, there have been hundreds of Jewish community celebrations with representatives of Azerbaijan’s government, and nary a protester in sight. For some of the protesters and boycotters, apparently, this clash of interests only became relevant last week, against the advent of Donald J. Trump.

As we peer down the rabbit hole into the next four or more years, it’s ever more important for us as a community to uphold our principles. This time, for me, the principle of Israel’s place in the world, and of showing we stand with our friends – especially at such a perilous turn for America’s global role – was more important than thumbing my nose at Donald J. Trump.

As my longtime friend Norm Eisen, a leading authority on government ethics, told JTA: “The solution to these kinds of issues is for Trump to divest through a blind trust, not to target or condemn those who patronize the hotel.” I would argue that Jewish groups looking to ensure Israel’s security, and to find some working relationship with a potentially minimalist and vindictive White House, should start learning to count to ten.

It is obvious that many organizations and their funders share my own distaste for Trump’s behavior and stated intentions. Citing “ethical” concerns or – more candidly – outrage against Trump writ-large to justify boycotting a legitimate business enterprise seems rash and misguided.

Israel and Jews are typically the targets of boycotts: When has a boycott ever advanced our interests? Trump was neither honored nor even mentioned at last week’s event.

Just when a new and unpredictable team is taking over the reins in Washington, and so many key policies and programs are being considered for “reform” or outright elimination, the premise of a joint front seems more indispensable than ever. If member agencies have concerns about the Conference’s decision-making apparatus, can’t they take this up more effectively through internal channels?

And most of the protesters outside the hotel were not just anti-Trump – they were anti-occupation (i.e., West Bank), also supporting the BDS movement. Honoring such a picket should at least give pause to major pro-Israel organizations. Several groups, once so eager to utilize Azerbaijan for Israel’s purposes and for their own branding, were suddenly willing to set that aside for the compelling – but distracting – goal of avoiding any Trump connection.

I encourage organizations without financial or political “asks” from the next administration to speak out and take a stand. But please be very clear and candid about what – and against whom – you are protesting. And when friends are honoring friends, the rest of us should weigh our actions carefully.

About the Author
Shai Franklin, a consultant with U.S. and overseas clients, has served as an executive with American and international Jewish organizations.
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