Will there be anyone be in the room when Donald Trump speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference on Monday?
Several Jewish groups are weighing the best way to show their disapproval of Trump when he speaks at the massive pro-Israel gathering. Last year roughly 16,000 people attended the annual conference.
Leaders of the Reform movement plan to stage a protest, but aren't sure yet what form it will take. They issued a statement condemning the Trump campaign’s “naked appeals to bigotry” and “offensive” remarks about “women, people of color and other groups.” They promised to “engage with Mr. Trump at the AIPAC Policy Conference in a way that affirms our nation's democracy and our most cherished Jewish values. … [and] will find an appropriate and powerful way to make our voices heard.”
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the URJ’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told The Jewish Week that there would be thousands of Reform Jews in attendance at the Washington, D.C., event who will want to send a message to Trump that Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry are not acceptable.
Asked how they planned to communicate that, Rabbi Pesner said, “I don’t know – we’ll see. … We’re trying to balance living out our values and making them clear in a respectful environment to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Another Jewish group criticizing Trump, Ameinu, called on delegates to the AIPAC event to “raise a collective voice of Jewish outrage and make an unequivocal denunciation of Donald Trump’s bigotry.”
A third organization, Come Together Against Hate, which said in a press release that it represents rabbis, cantors and Jewish leaders who hope to convince thousands of attendees to stage a silent walkout before Trump speaks and then gather at a separate location for a discussion about human rights and dignity.
But a member of the group, Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I., said he disagrees with that approach and believes attendees should just sit in silence when Trump speaks.
“We can quietly protest about what he said about women, Mexicans, Muslims and reporters – whom he hates as much as Mexicans,” he said. “He wants to change the libel laws in America, which is something that should make us tremble as Americas.”
Yet another group, the Workmen’s Circle, is circulating a petition calling upon AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to withdraw its invitation to Trump. AIPAC has extended an invitation to all presidential candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Ted Cruz have also accepted.
The Workmen’s Circle petition, which had nearly 800 signatures by Thursday afternoon, pointed out Trump’s “deeply disturbing pattern of hate speech, alongside explicit calls to violence over the past several months.”
“If Trump were denouncing Jews in the same terms as he has used over and over in denouncing Muslims, Latinos, and #BlackLivesMatter activists, is there even the slightest possibility that he would have been invited to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference?” the petition asks.
Although supporters of AIPAC’s invitation to Trump defend his right to free speech, Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen’s Circle, rejected that argument.
“No one is suggesting denying the right to express oneself,” she explained. “Trump has ample opportunity to make his views known, on Israel or any other topic. That does not mean that prominent Jewish organizations need to provide the platform.”
It is not known whether Trump will take the opportunity in speaking before a Jewish audience to respond to the calls of various Jewish groups to apologize and clarify several comments he has made, including his equivocal repudiation of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He has also been asked by the Anti-Defamation League to address the comments of televangelist Mark Burns, who said at one of Trump’s rallies Monday that Sen. Bernie Sanders “doesn’t believe in God …. [and] got to have a ‘coming to Jesus’ meeting.”
Rabbi Zeplowitz said there is a “big debate among rabbis as to what to do [at the conference].”
“Some say silence is consent — that if you walk out, that is silence,” he said. “In this case, I take the words of the Rambam, who says silence is the rampart of wisdom.
“There will be some 18,000 people there. I work with a sacred community — a synagogue — and I’m going to try to convince as many delegates as I can to sit and not applaud. Imagine the press the next day — yes, he spoke and the Jewish community greeted him with absolute silence. I think it would be more effective to be in the room rather than walk out.
“The truth is, there is probably not any right way. Clearly we, as rabbis, recognize the dangers of attacking those who are ‘the other’ — because ultimately it will be a challenge to us as Jews. … What will be the best approach that will be heard the day after? Yelling? Walking out? Those things have happened before and only given him energy. I want a different path.”
Rabbi Zeplowitz added that Trump’s remarks Monday will come just three days before Purim and the reading of the Book of Esther, which tells the story of someone who is unhappy with “one individual and says let’s get rid of them all. … Ultimately, if no one stands up for … [one group that is attacked], there will be an attack against the Jews.”
The founders of Come Together Against Hate, Rabbis David Paskin and Jesse Olitzky, said in a statement that they plan not only to walk out, but to also distribute thousands of stickers and flyers at the AIPAC conference condemning “the bigotry, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny expressed by Mr. Trump, and violence promoted by him.” They said their aim is to ensure that Trump’s “hateful message” does not become part of the conference and to make clear that he “does not speak for us or represent us, and his values are not AIPAC’s values.”
Hundreds of college students are expected to be in attendance. One of them, Zach Reizes, posted on his Facebook page that he plans to stage his own form of protest.
“When Donald Trump walks to the podium, I will stand in silence with my head lowered,” he wrote. “I will then silently exit the room, where I hope to encounter many of you and perhaps some members of the media.”
AIPAC policy, as stated on all delegate badges for the past four years, is that the organization “reserves the right to deny access to participants who behave in a manner AIPAC deems disruptive.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Hollywood, Fla., and an organizer of the rabbinic group that plans to walk out in advance of Trump entering said he expects several hundred Reform and Conservative rabbis to participate.
Asked if he could speculate how many of all the delegates would stage some form of protest, he replied: “When you combine all of the people who are critical of Trump’s positions, it is hard to know. But it is fair to predict there will be significant static over Trump’s presence.”