So much for sending Donald Trump a clear signal that most of the American Jewish community finds his campaign — anchored in bigotry, racism and mean-spirited incivility — untenable for a presidential candidate.
AIPAC officials appear to have done too good a job of cautioning the 18,000 delegates attending the pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference in Washington to treat each speaker with respect, clearly fearful of embarrassing Trump when he spoke.
To the dismay and disappointment of many of us watching and listening to the address Monday, the majority of the audience appeared to applaud most enthusiastically when the leading Republican candidate mocked President Obama. “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me,” Trump said. “And you know it, and you know it better than anybody.”
He may have known his audience better than we imagined. One of the dirty little secrets of the AIPAC annual affair in recent years is that for all of the organization’s emphasis on bipartisanship, the mood among the attendees is decidedly hawkish. And it was on display Monday evening in the warm reception Trump received, indicating that for many delegates, pro-Israel pandering trumps (yes, trumps) all else, including such basic Jewish tenets as ethics, truthfulness and compassion for “the other.”
In a dignified action, hundreds of rabbis and other delegates chose to boycott the talk as a means of expressing their deep dissatisfaction with the tenor of the Trump campaign over the past many months. But the majority of attendees seemed to experience a sense of moral amnesia regarding past Trump behavior demeaning to Muslims, Mexicans, women and people with disabilities while seeming to encourage violence at campaign rallies.
Though Trump pledged at the outset of his remarks not to pander to his audience “because that’s what politicians do: all talk, no action, believe me,” that’s precisely what he did as he proceeded to touch every right-of-center pro-Israel button, from moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to denouncing the Palestinians to tearing up the Iran nuclear deal — and then ended his talk by declaring his daughter Ivanka was “about to have a beautiful Jewish baby.”
The following day, AIPAC’s president, Lillian Pinkus, pointedly told the assembled: “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” most specifically in reference to Trump’s direct shot at Obama.
In truth, each of the presidential candidates who addressed AIPAC — Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich — did their share of playing to the crowd. But for the most part they were reiterating views they have been preaching all along during the campaign while Trump has offered few details on Israel. He had expressed neutrality on a U.S. role in Israel-Palestinian talks and resisted calling for moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No explanation on why he changed his views was forthcoming.
Holding candidates to campaign pledges has always been, and will always be, an exercise in futility. But in Trump’s case, the enthusiastic reception he received Monday night may lead him to believe that if you just tell American Jews what they want to hear about Israel, all else is forgiven. And that would be a shame, as well as a lie.