Washington – It was the “yay” heard around the Jewish world—and beyond.
When rank-and-file members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee cheered Donald Trump’s attack on President Obama—“in his final year—yay!” the GOP frontrunner declared—with roaring applause and a standing ovation, leaders of the powerful lobby were mortified.
Within 24 hours, they felt obligated to apologize publicly from the podium at the group’s annual Washington policy conference, for Trump’s remarks and their own members’ open support for a “sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”
But taken together, Trump’s performance, the AIPAC audience’s response, and the AIPAC leaders’ response to both was a public demonstration of the delicate balancing act AIPAC has been trying to maintain, between keeping open access to all political players and staying in sync with the broader Jewish community.
At the Verizon Center on March 21, something went wrong, with ramifications for the broader Jewish community’s relationship to the lobby that have yet to play out.
“It was a very painful and damaging moment for those of us who love Israel and work to strengthen it,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Jacobs praised AIPAC’s leadership for their apology, which he described as courageous, but said the lobby needs to acknowledge it is facing a real problem. “AIPAC has a lot of work to do to show that bipartisanship is not only a slogan, but a day to day practice.”
With 69% of Jewish voters supporting Obama in the 2012 elections and 78% in his first run in 2008, Trump’s personal jabs at Obama and promise to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” would hardly unify most Jewish audiences. The latest American Jewish Committee poll from 2015 found that 48% of American Jews identify as Democrats, 32% as Independent, and only 19% say they are Republican. The same poll, conducted shortly after the signing of the nuclear agreement with Iran found that 50.6% of American Jews approved of the deal, while 47.2% disapproved.
But AIPAC’s crowd is different, and the growing gap between the Jewish establishment’s main lobbying organization and broad swaths of the Jewish community, was on vivid display. Leaders of the Reform Movement, America’s largest Jewish denomination, and several dozens of clergy members stepped out to read Jewish texts in the lobby in protest of Trump’s rhetoric. Other individual walkouts were spotted across the Verizon Center arena, which hosted AIPAC’s largest ever conference. But the vast majority of pro-Israel delegates stayed in, cheering at Trump’s applause lines on Jerusalem, Iran, and Palestinian incitement, laughing at his mention of his pregnant Jewish daughter, and, at least for many thousands of participants, cheering Trump’s attacks directed at Obama.
“He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me,” Trump said of Obama, later accusing the president of treating Israel like a “second class citizen.” AIPAC’s rank and file may have connected with Trump’s message. But the lobby leadership is made up of both Republican and Democratic major donors. According to two sources close to the lobby, a night of tense consultations following Trump’s speech led AIPAC leadership to take the unusual step of issuing its apology from the same stage that hosted Trump a day earlier.
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the United States and our president, Barack Obama,” said Lillian Pinkus, who has just taken over as president of the lobby. Pinkus went on to “unequivocally” reject “ad hominem attacks” against the president. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night,” she said, adding that the group was disappointed to see so many of its members applaud Trump’s attacks.
It was easy to see the practical politics that necessitated Pinkus’ public act of contrition. Obama, after all, will remain president of the United States for 10 more months, and the powers of his office and his administration remain formidable, even in the lame duck stage, up to the end. But the internal politics of American Jewry were a less visible factor driving the lobby’s public apology.
Trump’s speech and the uproar it caused ran counter to AIPAC’s urgent effort to win back its bipartisan credentials, severely damaged during last summer’s battle over the Iranian nuclear deal. This was the organizing theme of the conference itself. In all major speeches and statements, leaders of the lobby stressed the importance of ensuring that AIPAC remains relevant for both sides of the political divide. “Bipartisanship is the only way to create stable, sustainable policy,” said AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr in his March 20 opening plenary remarks.
Ann Lewis, a former Clinton administration official who has been working with AIPAC in recent years to help its outreach attempts to progressive and liberal constituencies, cited a silver lining she found in the lobby’s leadership response to Trump. “The fact that the first thing the next morning was for AIPAC to say that he crossed the line can turn out to have a more lasting effect than Trump’s speech,” Lewis said. “They drew a line that in the past there was no need to draw.” She praised the lobby for trying to be bipartisan at a time of increasing divisiveness. “It’s hard to do and AIPAC is working at it,” Lewis added.
On the sidelines, rivals of AIPAC from the left viewed the crisis as an opportunity to recruit members and raise funds. In a message to supporters, J Street president Jeremy Ben Ami said: “Shamefully, nearly 18,OOO people cheered for Trump last night. Today, we need 18,OOO people to show the world that they don’t represent us.” The New Israel Fund, a progressive civil society funding organization, challenged supporters to make a donation for every round of applause the AIPAC crowd gave Trump.
Meanwhile, within AIPAC itself a subtler attempt at bridging the partisan gaps took place behind the scenes, as the lobby prepared its legislative agenda for the upcoming year. While Republican presidential candidates have vowed to annul the nuclear deal if elected (Trump vowed to “dismantle the disastrous deal, and Cruz promised he would “rip it to shreds”) AIPAC chose not to endorse these calls. It is instead backing congressional action that would re-authorize the Iran Sanctions Act in order to use it in case Iran breaks the deal.
“Re-authorizing does not mean revisiting the nuclear deal,” said AIPAC’s director of policy and government affairs Brad Gordon as he briefed delegates before going off to their lobbying meetings with their elected officials, many of them Democrats who supported the Iran deal.
In its new post-Iran, post-Trump reality, AIPAC now faces the need to prove itself on two fronts: to Democrats who are still recovering from the lobby’s battle against the nuclear deal, and to Jewish liberals and democrats who were offended by the Monday night’s scene. “We have to make sure the balance is not tilted as it appears to be,” said Jacobs. “We have some repair work to do here, and we’re willing to help AIPAC do it.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanguttman