I was at AIPAC Policy Conference, only eight rows from the stage when the Republican candidates spoke to the delegates on Monday. I listened to Governor Kasich and House Speaker Ryan before Trump came in (and returned to hear Senator Cruz following). When Trump entered and stood on the podium, I stood up, turned my back to him … and walked out.
I told those in the row beforehand that I would be doing this. The man next to me said, "Shame on you." I responded, "Let's talk about why you say that" … and we had a wonderful 20-minute conversation that focused less on our differences and more about our shared love for Israel. We disagreed about how to respond, but certainly agreed on so much more. Our conversation was a reminder what AIPAC provides – a chance for people of widely different positions, but who share a love of a strong American-Israel relationship, to engage one another respectfully.
After I left I was out in hallway so I heard – and later got fuller reports from friends who stayed – about Trump's remarks and response from the crowd. Although the greeting for him was strong, it certainly was not the same as for Secretary Clinton or Governor Kasich. But he was skilled in riling up the crowd. There was a moment when the delegates laughed at (and not with) him, but many other times when he was cheered — even to some standing applause (such as when he said the "president has only one more year — yay!").
It is not Trump I’m upset with, but the crowd. I am ashamed that they allowed themselves to be whipped into such a frenzy. I am embarrassed that this candidate could manipulate them to cheer an attack on a sitting president – not on an issue or policy, but simply for being in office. I spoke to many Millennials after the speech and they were shocked and disheartened by what they witnessed. Many bridges AIPAC have built with African-Americans, Latinos – to say nothing regarding Progressive Jews – will now need to be mended. AIPAC's leadership reminded delegates the next day that we were there to speak to both parties with respect, and that as a whole the crowd failed in its duty to do that. But, sadly, the damage was done.
Many stayed in the room during Trump’s speech and stayed silent. I respectfully disagreed — and felt that such an approach was wrong, because it offered tacit agreement with his rhetoric of hate and violence. It is not enough that the candidate offered things about Israel many agree with. His rhetoric and stance that vilifies others, embraces violence, seeks to quell journalistic challenges and is belittling of the “other” creates a political discourse that is not only unbecoming of a candidate for president, but undermines the democratic values that AIPAC (and I) stand for in America and in Israel.
Though only a few did what I did, I hope I was acting on behalf of many others who feel like I do that America and Israel should have political leaders who speak of tolerance, eschew violence and engage in reasoned discourse. I hope I was not alone in turning my back to a world of walls and, instead, work for a world where people seek to bridge their differences. At a time where our enemies use hate, fear and violence (witness what happened in Brussels) we must not allow ourselves to become like them. We are better than that. I truly believe that. And we need to remind ourselves – and others – to allow the righteousness within us to triumph over our fear.
Make no mistake about Trump. He is a masterful politician, and one that plays on the anxieties that are in all our hearts. As I have been saying for a few months now, he should be taken seriously. I believe he is compelling and dangerous. America must find a way to create greater equity in its wealth and address people’s fear of the very real evil of Islamic fundamentalism without pandering to hate and violence. But we must come together against hate, violence and divisiveness, which have no place in this great land or in Israel — the two nations I love and which need one another more than ever.
It will demand deep soul-searching and no small amount of humility from us all.
Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz is spiritual leader of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY.