March 22, 2016
Just as Donald Trump has dominated the recent news cycle, so too did he overshadow all the nuanced presentations that took place at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, this week.
I was one of many who walked out on Monday evening when Mr. Trump, the Republican frontrunner, addressed the crowd of over 18,000 Israel supporters. I’d like to explain why.
AIPAC, the premier pro-Israel lobbying organization in America, has remained remarkably on-message over the years. The organization has a singular mission: to advance the security and well being of the State of Israel with the U.S. government. AIPAC does this in a disciplined bipartisan manner; it consistently balances its programs with Republicans and Democrats. During an election year like this one, its policy is to invite every candidate for President to address its annual forum. This year Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich spoke in addition to Mr. Trump. (Only Bernie Sanders did not accept the invitation to speak.) AIPAC—quite correctly, in my opinion—believes that a secure, democratic State of Israel is consistent with American national security and foreign policy goals, and that those goals transcend partisan politics of left and right. Overwhelmingly, the U.S. Congress and the majority of the American people agree.
So Mr. Trump’s invitation was consistent with AIPAC’s agenda and past behavior. Still, I was compelled to leave when he came to the stage. Many others did likewise. We objectors gathered in the hallways of the Verizon Center to voice our spiritual protest by studying Jewish sacred texts on the themes of human dignity and derech eretz (kind and decent behavior towards others).
“To walk out or not?” was the question Conference participants asked one another. I felt compelled to do so, for a variety of reasons.
I walked out because this protest was about the tone and attitude of the campaign, not the content of Trump’s policies. Again, AIPAC is a single-mission organization, and a remarkably consistent and effective one. Understanding their nonpartisan policy, I would not walk out on other candidates, even when I aggressively disagreed with their policy positions.
But Trump is different. He’s an outlier; a once-in-a-generation (God willing) phenomenon. He has injected overt racism, vile sexism, and the insinuation of violence into the Presidential campaign. (Other candidates, left and right, have played the race card in the past, but none with the overt bigotry that Trump and his supporters have displayed towards Mexicans, immigrants of many backgrounds, and Muslims. For that matter, his comments last fall at the Republican Jewish Coalition were also overtly anti-Semitic.)
I have Muslim friends. How could I look them in the eye by attending an event where Trump was celebrated and applauded—this man who grotesquely has called for banning Muslims from our shores and monitoring those who are our neighbors?
Likewise, there is the tone of violence that he has injected into the campaign. Fierce words unsurprisingly spilled over into physical violence at Trump rallies in recent weeks, and the candidate not only refuses to condemn it, but winks and encourages it, saying, “I’ll pay the legal fees” of his supporters who assault protesters.
I walked out because Donald Trump is bad for Israel. Unquestioned, uncontested association with Mr. Trump is bad news for Israel, no matter how vociferously he proclaims that he will be “the best friend Israel ever had.” So-called friends (earlier in the campaign declared his “neutrality” on Israel’s conflicts) who are thugs and bigots do not promote Israel’s cause. Mr. Trump’s slow disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, only benefits those who cling to slander that “Zionism is racism.” Israel’s democracy is vigorous, but her political enemies would love nothing more than to link Trump-style demagoguery with the Jewish State.
Ultimately, I walked out because I needed to walk out—for me. Watching our politics ossify into hyperbolic displays of idiocracy should be distressing to Americans of every ideological persuasion. There’s a coarsening of the national soul taking place—and I don’t want my soul succumb to it. Moreover, I don’t want my community or my country to succumb to it, either.
The electoral process should be an impassioned, vigorous, and freewheeling debate about differing visions of our mutual future. American democracy is built upon that principle and so is Jewish tradition. “Both these and these are the words of the Living G-d,” says the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) about the virulent debates that took place 2,000 years ago between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Judaism holds a healthy reverence for argument, as well as recognition that the other person is entitled to their point of view. But yesh g’vul: there is a limit. Mr. Trump and his followers, with their coarse rhetoric and propensity towards violence, must be held accountable.
The politics of vitriol, of scapegoating and shaming, of bigotry and violence, should have no place in our discourse. It’s the responsibility of all of us to get up and turn our backs on it.