“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …”
As jarring as it was to see the adulation Donald Trump received from the crowd at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, that wasn’t the most startling moment in the lobby’s encounter with the billionaire Republican front-runner.
No, the real shockeroo came the next morning, when incoming AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus read a statement denouncing Trump’s verbal attacks on President Obama — and castigating her membership for cheering.
“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”
Watching her read the seven-minute statement from a bare stage, flanked by the lobby’s top officials, it was hard not to imagine what she was bemoaning: not just the previous night’s display, but also the thing that AIPAC’s leaders have created.
Full disclosure: Last week I wrote that AIPAC was right to invite Trump to speak. Allow me a moment to reconsider. I may have failed to account fully for the magic Trump seems to work on his audiences. For his uncanny ability to read a crowd and capture it. And for what AIPAC has become.
Editor’s note: See Apology at the 45:25 mark
To understand fully what happened between Trump and AIPAC, it’s helpful to know something about the tenor of the crowd. Alas, I can’t tell you much, because the press wasn’t allowed anywhere near the crowd. For the first time ever, AIPAC shunted the media to a separate balcony, high above the darkened arena. We couldn’t even chat with attendees en route to our seats. We were chaperoned through the building in small groups, like kindergartners heading for a picnic.
To probe audience reactions, we had to eavesdrop on conversations on the sidewalk afterwards, or try buttonholing delegates headed for their hotels. Most refused to talk once they saw we were press. Those who agreed mostly wouldn’t give their names.
Times change. In 2004, President George W. Bush addressed AIPAC and received some 22 standing ovations, making headlines nationwide. Wandering through the hall that day, I saw nearly half of every row sitting with arms folded while the other half applauded. In 2016, watching Trump from the skybox, you could barely make out individual bodies.
In 2012, two of the three Republican candidates who addressed the conference — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — appeared remotely from the campaign trail via live video. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, the only Jew ever to mount a credible presidential candidacy, asked to speak to his community by video from the West Coast, pleading that he faced votes the next day in three western states where he had his best shots. He was told video appearances weren’t possible. The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the conference — by video.
In 2012, incidentally, all three Republicans took the opportunity to attack President Obama bitterly, by name. Nobody from AIPAC officialdom saw any need to apologize for the candidates’ disrespect to the presidency. Then again, none of them was Trump. None ever urged crowds to attack protesters. Of none was it ever said, as Vanity Fair quoted ex-wife Ivana Trump saying in 1990, that he kept a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. (Trump’s reply: “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.”)
Much has changed since 2012 — in AIPAC, the Jewish community, America and the world. For AIPAC, part of the story is growth. In 2004, close to 5,000 delegates were present. By 2012 attendance was up to 12,000. This year it was about 18,000.
The growth has wrought other changes. Speaking impressionistically, and judging by headgear, there’s been a steady, gradual growth in the proportion of Orthodox Jews, which points, every survey shows, to increasing political conservatism. That might have set off alarm bells among the leaders, given their oft-stated commitment to bipartisanship. But it took until this year’s performance for the penny to drop.
To a degree, you can blame the slow, steady rightward shift on the influence of Netanyahu. He’s never made a secret of his GOP sympathies. Followers follow leaders.
Don’t pin too much on Bibi, though. AIPAC’s Republican tilt has been noticeable since the 1980s, when the hawkish government of Yitzhak Shamir met the conservative administration of Ronald Reagan. To be an effective conduit, the lobby had to match itself to its receptors at both ends.
Lately, the drift is accelerating. That’s largely due to a much-discussed change in the broader Jewish community. Israel is gradually becoming an asset of the conservative minority while the liberal majority disengages. Some blame this on Israel’s behavior. Others blame it on American Jewish assimilation. They’ve both got a point. The worst part is, we can barely talk to each other.
In a larger sense, we’re merely reflecting the society around us. We’ve become warring tribes, each convinced the other is blind to the existential danger. One side sees a rising religious bigotry threatening our civilization’s core values; the other sees a murderous holy war threatening our civilization’s survival. And all around, sea levels rise, lunatic armies rampage, terrified millions flee in a mass stampede. We’re afraid and angry, and we blame each other.
These times recall William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem, “The Second Coming,” written in the wake of World War I, keenly foreseeing the horrors ahead:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Donald Trump isn’t Hitler. What’s frightening is not what he is, but that he’s shown us what we are. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.
[Note: This article has been corrected to note that of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates who addressed that year’s AIPAC policy conference, only two appeared via remote video and not three as originally stated. Rick Santorum appeared in person. — JJG]
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JJ_Goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).