Washington – With 18,000 delegates, hundreds of breakout sessions, and dozens of keynote speakers, one issue dominated the chatter at AIPAC’s annual policy conference over the weekend: Donald Trump.
“He’s horrible for Israel, the United States and the world,” said Nancy Resnik, a participant rushing with her husband to the next session at the Washington Convention Center Sunday morning. But while the attention before the official kickoff was grabbed by hundreds of rabbis and activists planning protests and boycotts of Trump’s speech, many rank and file delegates, like the Resniks, say they feel bound by decorum to welcome guests, despite their feelings about Trump and his rhetoric.
“We will not walk out. That is not who we are,” she said, and her husband Alan Resnik added: “I will be polite. It means I’ll neither applaud nor boo.”
And this is pretty much how AIPAC would like their delegates to react to in the contentious moments awaiting them tomorrow. In an email to all participants before they descended on Washington, the pro-Israel lobby asked for a respectful welcome of all guest speakers, with no specific mention of Trump.
“I wish that Donald Trump were not running for president and beyond that I’m not sure it would be good to say what I think about him,” said Debbie Poliner.
What will she do when Trump takes the stage? Polliner has yet to decide.
“I think there’s a possibility I will just get up and walk out. I will not be applauding for him. I’m sure of that,” she said.
Offering some guidance Sunday morning were leaders of the Reform movement, who came up with their own way of making their distaste to Trump known.
“I plan to leave the arena to go out into the lobby area right before he’s introduced. My goal is not to disrupt the gathering but to actually remove myself from the physical presence where he’ll be speaking,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I’ll be joined by many colleagues to study a few very key Jewish texts and to frame not only his words tomorrow with these texts, but also the words he and other candidates may speak in the coming days, weeks and months.”
These texts includes reading from the Talmud saying that upholding human dignity is the highest mandate, as well as a text from Abraham Joshua Heschel about how Jewish integrity is eroded if Jews don’t speak out against wrongs being done to others.
Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz at AIPAC: when Trump gets on stage, I’ll stand up, turn my back and walk out #AIPAC2016pic.twitter.com/O8zBlexscK— Nathan Guttman (@nathanguttman) March 20, 2016
The Reform leaders and others will follow, however, Trump’s speech from the video screens outside the arena.
“We’re not walking out,” clarified Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. He noted that the decision not to attend the speech was made in a way that would not disrupt the event. “AIPAC is doing their job and we have our job to do,” he said.
“There’s going to be a Jewish communal and an American national conversation about Donald Trump and what he has said and what he has stood for and how we live up to not just our Jewish values but American values around dignity and equality and diversity,” Pesner added.
On Friday, Pesner sent a letter to Trump requesting a meeting to discuss issues of concern to the Jewish community. The Trump campaign replied, expressing the candidate’s desire to connect, though such a connection has yet to take place.
African-American and Latino participants at the conference, whom AIPAC has gone to great lengths in recent years to woo, are planning to listen first and draw their conclusions later.
“Me personally – I don’t favor Trump, but I cannot wait to see the reaction of the crowd,” said Jaylan Matthews from Alabama State University. This is his second AIPAC conference. Matthews said he got involved with the pro-Israel lobby because he “always looks at the fairness and equality of people and always reach out to humanity,” and said he does not feel that inviting Trump to speak at the conference changes his view on the lobby.
Fellow student Alexandria Green, also from Montgomery Alabama, said she is not a supporter of Trump, but believes “everyone deserves a voice.”
Will she protest his message?
“It’s best I keep my mouth shut and just listen,” Green said.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.