Jewish Self-Interests Must Not Trump Basic Values of Humanity
I left my first AIPAC Policy Conference with a strong feeling of optimism and inspiration, on the whole. The major takeaway for me was AIPAC’s ability to compel people to “come together,” as was the conference way, with respect and kinship, in a way that is not replicated almost anywhere in the United States. 18,000 people came together with the shared goal of supporting the United States-Israel relationship, representing an extremely diverse makeup of religious, political, and ethnic backgrounds. As part a program for the Leffell Fellowship for rabbinical students, an Orthodox rabbi and Reform rabbi sat together on panel, discussing why they love Israel, drawing from their own set of values and experience. The theme for the Leffell segment of the conference was “Unity vs. Unanimity” – and indeed, the sort of achdut (unity) that we preach about becomes more real at AIPAC than any place else I’ve been. This is what I like to think about when people have asked me about the conference.
Before Donald Trump took the stage at the Verizon Center on Monday night of the conference – 72 hours after I arrived in DC – his appearance was not a popular topic of conversation, and I was happy that this was so. It would be a pity for his divisiveness to block out all that was good at this conference. I have generally felt that media and social media have turned Trump into a hock (chatter) that only fuels all that is undesirable about him, and thus I would not have wanted to focus an entire article talking about him. But I feel that what happened at Policy Conference when Trump spoke requires comment. While the internet has been saturated with commentary on this incident, I feel compelled to speak to an audience of what perhaps will be the future leadership of the Modern Orthodox community, the Jewish community, and even the larger American society. As our institution encourages us to be engaged with the world while remaining grounded in Torah values, we must remain acutely aware of our mandate in this context.
First, let us remind ourselves about whom we are talking. The New York Times, as of March 4, had documented a “complete list” of “The 202 People, Places and Things Donald
Trump Has Insulted on Twitter.” That, as columnist David Brooks reports, amounts to 33 pages of Donald Trump insults. It is clear that Trump is not someone who deals with substantive policies, but rather stoops to bigotry (racism, misogyny, xenophobia) to attack people with whom he disagrees. This is a man who the former ADL chief Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, fears is successful specifically because of his hate mongering. When Trump asked supporters to raise their hands and pledge their allegiance to him, Foxman commented “to see an audience of thousands of people raising their hands in what looks like the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is about as offensive, obnoxious and disgusting as anything I thought I would ever witness in the United States of America… to see it at a rally for a legitimate candidate for the presidency of the United States is outrageous.”
With all of this in mind, it goes without saying that AIPAC’s invitation to Trump met controversy. While I cannot speak for AIPAC, the following thoughts reflect my own perception of the situation. Generally speaking, AIPAC invites all presidential candidates to speak during an election year. In its commitment to serving as a bi-partisan organization focused on the single issue of the US-Israel relationship, AIPAC invited the leading Republican candidate. Its several warnings issued to delegates to be respectful throughout the conference suggests that AIPAC was aware of the negative feelings in the air surrounding this issue at the very least, and perhaps it even suggests that the organization itself felt some discomfort dancing this dance of having to invite a candidate whose values counter their own. Many who lean liberal or progressive believe AIPAC, in this laser focus on the bi-partisan support of the US-Israel relationship, lacks moral backbone in standing for other important values. While none of the religious movements dissented with AIPAC’s decision, many Reform and Conservative rabbis organized a walk-out to study Torah on derekh eretz to counter Trump’s messages, their movement arms issued statements warning against Trump’s values, and Orthodox rabbis wrote an open letter to Trump calling on him to use this opportunity to recant his many problematic statements.
My personal opinion is that AIPAC, as an organization, can only remain successful if it remains bi-partisan and stays out of other issues because “tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta; tafasta mu’at, tafasta” – take on too much, and the whole thing is guaranteed to fall apart. There are many organizations that can, and do, lead the effort in dealing with whatever political or moral issues face our society. It is vital that we maintain bi-partisan support for Israel, which is not to be taken for granted anymore, and therefore AIPAC must maintain relationships with all politicians to the best of its ability. There are few other places, if any, where all of the presidential candidates come to speak, where both Yitzhak Herzog and Binyamin Netanyahu come to speak, and where the House Majority Leader and Minority Whip speak in conversation. It is also clear that AIPAC’s invitations to candidates do not serve as endorsements of their views. It simply provides an important opportunity to get candidates on the record regarding policies affecting Israel, and it also acknowledges that whoever gets elected president is with whom AIPAC have to work. The need to secure the US-Israel relationship will not disappear even if we have to fight a president on other policies he maintains that we must abhor. None of this means, though, that AIPAC as an organization buys into what Trump believes whatsoever, and I think it would be absurd to suggest so.
At the same time, I felt that the people who make up AIPAC’s delegation have the power and responsibility to act as individuals aware of Trump’s problematic character. I chose to walk out quietly as Trump approached the stage. Loud demonstrations only add fuel to fire, yet I did not want to have to tell my grandchildren one day that I sat complicit as a dangerous demagogue was rising to power. My experience this past summer on the Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics engrained in me the moral obligation, as a future rabbinic professional, to smell evil where it is to be found – what Professor Donald Nicholls termed the “discernment of spirits” – and I see this issue through the prism of my experience in Europe. But many rabbis across the denominational spectrum chose to remain inside for the speech, knowing that they were not going to applaud or cheer Trump and concerned with what he would say, and I respect that decision. And in that vein, I expected that the crowd in general would at best politely applaud while remaining relatively lukewarm in comparison to other candidates. I have already received pushback for my nuance on this issue, but I thought it could work. In short, I understand why people stayed in for his speech, even though I did not, and I understand why some people were upset that AIPAC invited in him the first place, even though I see the merits.
To my utter shock (I have been naïve before), however, I heard the eruption of applause and saw standing ovations on the screens outside the arena as Trump pandered to the crowd, despite his disclaimer that he did not come to pander. Granted, it’s unclear exactly what proportion of the audience cheered, but all reports indicate that it was significant that it cannot be dismissed. For some people, it only mattered that they heard what they wanted to hear (regardless of glaring contradictions with reality or his own previous statements). For some people, it only mattered that he was entertaining. What did not matter was that the context of this speech was his campaign that stands antithetical to American or Jewish values. It did not matter that he himself has never, in his entire career, been someone we would want our children to see as a role model. There was a pervasive myopia in the room as a man, who has a strong record of denigrating others, received so much applause because it seemingly serves our own purpose. The story could have been that AIPAC invited Trump out of its necessity to fulfill its mission, while its constituency faced him with critical minds and hearts. Instead, some delegates made it seem as if the Jewish community is blind to the risk of other minorities in our country. Interestingly, someone I know overheard two people in conversation the next day, expressing their embarrassment that they had applauded. It is scary how quickly Trump was able to win over hearts when he, in an unprecedented manner, presented what he believed from a well thought-out script.
To be sure, the next day, AIPAC issued an apology, chastising delegates for cheering when Trump said, “this is Obama’s final year of the presidency – yay!” because it does not condone ad hominem attacks on leaders. What’s telling, though, is the last sentence, which states, “Let us pledge to each other that in this divisive and tension-filled political season that we will not allow those that wish to divide our movement—from the left or the right—to succeed in doing so.” While one particular comment seemed to cross the line, Trump’s unique ability to be as divisive as he is, when elections are always divisive, is extremely frightening. One person I encountered after this episode was upset that the AIPAC president was expressing what was “personally offensive to her.” Perhaps, though, there is a slight possibility that the leadership was genuinely concerned that AIPAC’s mission was in the process of being undermined by people letting their emotions and opinions overcome the serious importance of maintaining an atmosphere of derekh eretz towards the leadership of our country in this setting.
I assume that this readership generally cares about Israel strongly, and many of AIPAC’s concerns are our concerns also. There are two final things to note. First, as carriers of the “Never Again” slogan, we must be extremely sensitive when someone presents bigoted views against other groups. Whether or not Trump is comparable to Hitler, we must take him seriously when he shares ideas about discriminating against Muslims and Mexicans, and as a student of history, there is what we must learn from our past in this respect. There were Catholic leaders in Germany who stayed away from criticizing the Nazi party, even though it was opposed to its values, because they feared it would be self-defeating, and they figured the Jews would help themselves. We must not repeat that mistake by leaving our brains at the door when such a demagogue panders to our own interests. Second, what I see not just in the context of AIPAC, but also in the context of the Orthodox community and Religious Zionist community, is a plaguing inability to stand for nuanced and civilized conversation. I am also scared of apathy often found in our generation, and so I believe in the importance of passion for important causes, and Israel’s security is one of them. But we desperately need to learn how to check our own cynicism and self-certainty when we engage with others if we truly desire to fix what is broken. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out how we will rally behind leadership that can deal with these issues in a way that does not cause strife and division, but instead allows people to “come together.”