Despite a carefully crafted speech to the pro-Israel group AIPAC Monday in which Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump pledged that as president there would be “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, he again sowed divisiveness when he went offscript — prompting a rare rebuke from his host.
In a tearful statement she read at the beginning of Tuesday’s proceedings, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus chastised not only Trump but also the delegates who applauded when Trump suddenly stopped speaking and let out a “Yay” after having just said that President Barak Obama has only one year left in office.
As the delegates cheered and applauded, Trump said: “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me. And you know it, and you know it better than anybody.”
In her statement, Pinkus said that AIPAC does not “countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the president of the United States of America from our stage. While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama. We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said he was “heartened” by the statement. He said he and hundreds of other delegates — including many rabbis and cantors — chose to “respectfully” walk out of the arena as Trump entered and to congregate in the hall to study Jewish texts about affirming human dignity.
“While we were studying, we could hear loud applause and our discussion was drowned out by some loud cheering,” he told The Jewish Week.
He said he later learned that the cheering occurred when Trump disparaged Obama.
“The bipartisan foundation of AIPAC’s work was called into question,” he said. “The takeaway for too many people is that despite his hate and bigotry, he was warmly welcomed into the largest pro-Israel gathering in our country.”
Rabbi Jacobs noted that Trump has yet to respond to URJ’s request for a meeting “so he could hear our deep discomfort and outrage at the way he disparaged Muslims, women, immigrants, Mexicans and people with disabilities. … It still seems that he does not share our values of equality, pluralism, and humility.”
But Rabbi David Nesenoff, founder of the newly launched Twitter account, @Rabbisfortrump, said he found the AIPAC statement upsetting because had the crowd “booed Trump, AIPAC would not have cared. It was a totally partisan statement. Since when can’t you speak for or against something in a public forum? Maybe it showed there is discontent among American Jews to what our president has done to Israel. … AIPAC cannot police individual people for their emotions when they hear the truth.”
The dustup over Trump’s comments appears to have overshadowed a day of speeches to the AIPAC Policy Conference by four of the presidential candidates.
Only Democratic Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, missed the event. He was campaigning in the West and was denied an opportunity to appear on video, something that candidates have done at previous AIPAC conferences. Instead, he sent a speech he had delivered that evening in Salt Lake City. And it was nothing like what the AIPAC delegates heard from the other candidates.
After affirming that he would “work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend to Israel,” he said success can only be achieved if the U.S. is a friend to the Palestinian people, too.
“You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side. … Peace will require the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist. It will require an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel. Peace will require that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah renounce their efforts to undermine the security of Israel. It will require the entire world to recognize Israel. Peace has to mean security for every Israeli from violence and terrorism.
“But peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people. Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed-upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza — once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part. … Peace will also mean ending the economic blockade of Gaza.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the last Republican presidential candidate to speak, said many of the same things as his fellow Republicans and added that he would work to defund any university that supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
And because he went last, he had the chance to correct Trump for using the word “Palestine” in his speech instead of referring to the Palestinian Authority. “Palestine has not existed since 1948,” he said.
He also took a swipe at Clinton, reminding the crowd of 18,000 that in 2014 Clinton had said Israeli rockets had occasionally hit civilian areas in Gaza during the Israeli war with Hamas because Gaza is densely populated.
“Well, Madam Secretary, with all respect, the reason the missiles are in schools is not because Gaza is small. The reason the missiles are in schools is because Hamas are terrorist monsters using children as human shields.”
[The speeches of Clinton, Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are reported on The Jewish Week website, thejewishweek.com.]
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he found some of the candidates’ speeches “more understanding of the Arab war against Israel and what steps must be taken about it. One must look at the history and background of each candidate’s long-term record on Israel … and not rely on a single speech to a pro-Israel audience where pandering may well be a factor in what a candidate says. And one of the candidates fervently supported the Iran nuclear deal, which is a disaster for Israel and one that 90 percent of Israelis oppose.”
His reference was to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who said in her remarks that she believed the agreement is a good one but that as president she would ensure that Iran did not cheat.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, agreed that “there is an element of cynicism” in the statements candidates make to a pro-Israel gathering.
“Both Hillary and Trump said the same things to win the AIPAC electoral base,” he said. “But Hillary Clinton has a mixed record on Israel and the image of her sitting quietly while Suha Arafat accused Israel of gassing Palestinians is still strong.”
The incident occurred in 1999. Suha Arafat is the widow of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat; Clinton was then first lady.
Steinberg said Clinton changed her positions on Israel and the Middle East between the time she served as a New York senator and when she became secretary of state. And he said recently released emails Clinton received while secretary of state included many from an adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, and others that espoused what he considered to be anti-Israel positions.
But Peter Joseph, a Democratic donor and Clinton supporter, discounted those emails and said she “hears from many voices and makes her own decisions. She is well-informed and a strong decision maker.”
He also discounted the “political rhetoric” heard from the other presidential candidates at the AIPAC conference, saying their words “are not an indication of their experience, depth of analysis and pro-Israel instinct. … I think there are grave differences among the candidates with respect to Israel, and so I think Israel is very much” an issue in the election.
After watching and providing commentary on the speeches for the Jewish Broadcasting Service, novelist Thane Rosenbaum said he believes everyone in the hall expected each candidate “to say the right things — that it is in America’s interests to treat Israel as a special ally.” Coming into the conference, he said, only Trump was the “wild card.”
“He has made for a charismatic candidate who was grossly ill-informed,” he said. “If you are just watching CNN and reading The New York Times, you may think it is all Israel’s fault. … He is staking his reputation on not being politically correct, but by doing so, he naturally alienates and frightens those who believe civility is an important ingredient in what we want as a president.”
The AIPAC event, Rosenbaum said, forced Trump to consult with others and for the first time as a presidential candidate write a speech and read it from a teleprompter.
“That forces a clarity — you have to be very specific and unequivocal,” he said. “Enough improvisation. The audience wanted to hear declarative, unambiguous statements of support from a person having a full appreciation of the complexities of the Middle East. This audience was not to be persuaded with mere platitudes and empty clichés but wanted to know whether they have a full understanding of what happening in the region.”
In his AIPAC remarks, Trump made no reference to his previous position that he would remain neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asked about that, Rabbi Nesenoff, the Trump supporter, said: “After last night, the neutrality word will never be uttered again. Donald Trump realizes that the two most important things concerning Israel are Iran’s nuclear weapons and Islamic radicalization. … The Israeli-Palestinian situation is a non-issue. There is nothing to be discussed when Palestinians are stabbing and killing you.”ste