You’d think a presidential frontrunner who once served as the grand marshal of a pro-Israel parade would be welcomed to the annual gathering of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee with open arms.
Instead, hundreds of protesters are expected to walk out of Donald Trump’s appearance before the powerful pro-Israel group as a form of silent protest to the Republican frontrunner’s address, organizers said, revealing new details about their unprecedented demonstrations.
And in an unusual development, major Jewish institutions like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center told The Daily Beast that a walkout would be an acceptable form of protest, even as they stopped short of endorsing such a move.
The theme of this year’s AIPAC conference is “Come Together”—a sad irony since this year’s event, which is said to draw some 18,000 attendees, could be the most discordant annual meeting in recent memory.
“I would be surprised to see less than 300, 400 people walk out,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who is supporting one group of protesters, citing conversations among organizers and with those who have committed to this form of protest.
The controversy over Trump’s visit could be seen as a break with AIPAC’s recent past. For the past decade, the organization has been known for its support of the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. This protest, in some ways, is about an older set of values—like tolerance and care for outsiders—that predate Netanyahu, and even the State of Israel. It’s also a nod to several thousand years of Jewish history. Clownish demagogues and strongmen have, after all, traditionally been bad for the Jews.
Demonstrators plan to speak out given the tone, nature and substance of Trump’s campaign, which they argue are contrary to Jewish values. Trump and his campaign have proposed banning individuals from the United States based on their religion; justified allegations of violence against protesters and reporters; and, at one point, declined to immediately disavow the endorsement of the KKK. Trump’s use of anti-Semitic stereotypes hasn’t exactly helped him with this crowd, either. Nor has Trump’s less-than-full-throated support of Israel in recent months.
In a sign both of how divisive Trump’s attendance has become and how many people are interested in protesting his appearance, even those participating in the demonstrations cannot agree on how best to oppose the billionaire businessman’s address to thousands of attendees.
Some are planning to avoid attending completely; others plan to leave during his introduction; some have suggested turning their backs during Trump’s speech; and still others are planning to silently walk out during his speech.
Rabbi David Paskin is an organizer of one such effort to protest Trump’s appearance. Along with other rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders, he has set up a Facebook group that as of this writing has 1,700 members, called “Come Together Against Hate.” Paskin has also set up a texting-based mailing list so that updates can be sent to protesters in real time.
Paskin and his supporters will be distributing thousands of stickers and fliers at the conference, urging attendees to find a way to respectfully protest “the ugliness that has pervaded” Trump’s campaign, he told The Daily Beast.
“We are not protesting AIPAC… we are in full support of the work they do to enhance the Israeli-American protest. We are protesting hate. Some people will absent themselves altogether. Others will respectfully and quietly walk out,” he said. Protesters will then meet elsewhere so that rabbis can speak about two Jewish concepts: derech eretz—common decency—and sinat chinam—senseless hatred.
“Mr. Trump embodies senseless hatred because what we’ve seen throughout this campaign is that whoever isn’t like him, he attacks: women, immigrants, the disabled, the press,” Paskin said.
Separately, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin has organized at least 40 rabbis who will protest in a different manner: by skipping Trump’s speech altogether.
“We are urging people not to disrupt the [speech] in any way… we are asking to absent themselves from the hall before he speaks… I recognize there are various styles of protest here. We wanted ours to be as respectful to other conference attendees as it could be,” he told The Daily Beast. “We want our absence to be eloquent.”
“Zionism means owning and standing up for Jewish values,” Salkin added. “In many ways AIPAC is the largest gathering of Jews and Gentiles who are sympathetic to the Jewish state. We believe that the Trump candidacy… and the outrageousness of his positions merits a Jewish response.”
However, the absence of some protesting attendees could have an unintended outcome, leaving the remaining attendees to give Trump a warmer welcome than he would have otherwise received.
Major institutions within the Jewish community felt compelled to speak out and legitimize the protests. These groups, as opposed to the pro-Israel advocacy community, typically stay out of presidential politics—making their comments all the more glaring.
The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, gave his blessing to those who chose to walk out, even as he declined to specifically endorse it.
“We believe AIPAC was right to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee for the highest office in the land… Having said that, we believe that those attendees who might be offended by Mr. Trump’s message have every right to walk out on him should they choose to do so because they believe that his offensive statements deeply clash with their Jewish values. Just as others have the right to remain in the audience and hear him out,” Greenblatt told The Daily Beast.
On the day before Trump’s speech, the Anti-Defamation League announced that it was redirecting $56,000—the sum of donations from Trump and his foundation over the years—to fund new “anti-bias and anti-bullying education programs” in the United States.
The founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that a silent walkout was a “reasonable” approach, even as he stressed he was not endorsing such a form of protest, and was “fearful” that protests will develop into something more disruptive. The center is a human-rights organization that confronts anti-Semitism and terrorism, with a history of aiding in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
“Every political season is rough. This one particularly so. We have to remember that the greatness of America is that America is the leading democracy in the world… let’s not change the script and make America a place of ridicule, where people are going to say it’s like going to a boxing match… where all that takes place is chaos,” Hier urged.
Liel Leibovitz, a writer for The Tablet magazine, a self-described “big tent” Jewish publication, endorsed the concept of a protest walkout earlier this week. As a conservative who supported Marco Rubio for president, he told The Daily Beast that he had “deep, deep, deep disgust with the fact that Trump has made such an open appeal to bigotry, and incited this kind of behavior, and has at least failed to stop it… I support a walkout because regardless of where you stand on political issues, there is a baseline of civility that has been violated by this candidacy.”
Leibovitz’s call for a walkout, which was greeted on Twitter with a number of anti-Semitic tweets, was supported by his publication in a broader editorial Sunday.
Despite the unrest surrounding Trump’s appearance at their annual conference, AIPAC stuck to their tradition of inviting all of the presidential contenders to speak to attendees.
“As is our longstanding policy during presidential election years, we invited all of the active Democratic and Republican presidential candidates—so far, Clinton, Trump, Cruz, and Kasich have confirmed that they will participate,” said a spokesperson for the organization.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The prospect of protests at a pro-Israel conference is a weird position for a man with a Jewish daughter to be in—Trump’s daughter Ivanka married businessman Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, and converted.
But the businessman’s history of support for Israel has been uneven. While he has cited serving as a grand marshal of a pro-Israel parade as part of his credentials, his statements in recent months have been far more neutral.
Asked whether Israelis or Palestinians were at fault for the lack of a peace accord, Trump has said he wants to be “sort of a neutral guy” on that question.
In December, Trump questioned whether Israel really wanted peace, telling the Associated Press: “I have a real question as to whether or not both sides want to” come to a peace accord, he said. “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal—whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.”
And that same month he was booed at a speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition, after he declined to support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, a critical position for many in the pro-Israel crowd.
At that speech, Trump also alluded to a number of anti-Semitic stereotypes: “Stupidly, you want to give money... But you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money… You want to control your own politicians,” he told the mostly-Jewish crowd. At another point, he said, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t renegotiate deals? Probably 99 percent of you… I’m a negotiator like you folks.”
Trump was originally scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, but his trip to Israel was postponed after the prime minister criticized his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.
On Monday evening, Trump will have an opportunity to clarify his positions on Israel—absent a number of protesting dissenters.
“He is going to be addressing some of his toughest critics in the Republican and Democratic parties. He has made a serious effort to be neutral on Israel, and he is going before an audience which promote stronger U.S.-Israel relations,” said Aaron Keyak, a Democrat who was formerly the spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council. “The problem with Trump is he has at least rhetorically a weak record on Israel, and he is so unbelievably offensive when it comes to non-Israel issues that it’s a step too far for some of these attendees.”