Controversy has followed Donald Trump from the moment he announced his run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Why should his speech at the annual AIPAC policy conference this week have been any different?
Trump’s March 21 address in front of 18,000 Israel supporters in a Washington, D.C. sports arena was met with catcalls and walkouts as well as cheers and standing ovations. Republican candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich and Democrat Hillary Clinton also spoke to the powerful lobbying group that day.
Many people from the Bay Area were inside the Verizon Center for the speeches, including rabbis, students, Jewish community leaders and political activists. Several took part in planned walkouts during Trump’s speech, while others boycotted it outright. Others preferred to remain in the room and hear what the GOP frontrunner had to say.
Daryl Messinger of Palo Alto, chair of the North American board of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in the United States, said she had pondered boycotting Trump’s appearance because of what she called “his vituperative speech, his Islamophobia, his disdain for women [and] his incitement of violence.”
Instead, she opted to attend and remain silent because, as she wrote in a blog post, “I want to be able to meet with Mr. Trump and to say I was there, that I did not leave. I want to be able to say that I heard from him in person, not via the media.”
U.C. Berkeley student Lily Greenberg Call took a different approach, walking out of Trump’s speech.
“I felt I had to let the world know that the pro-Israel community is not racist,” Greenberg Call said, “that we don’t align ourselves with someone with his rhetoric. At Berkeley, we [Israel supporters] are constantly called racists, imperialists and white supremacists. Trump affirms that. When he did come out and there was lots of applause, I felt completely sick. I couldn’t stand in a room with thousands of other pro-Israel people and watch them support this bigoted neo-fascist.”
Greenberg Call is an active member of U.C. Berkeley’s pro-Israel community on campus, as is fellow Cal student Naomi Movshovich. But while Greenberg Call walked out of Trump’s speech, Movshovich chose to stay and listen.
Though she agreed with Greenberg Call that Trump is bigoted, she felt his speech was “incredibly calculated“ and his delivery “masterful.”
“He knew his audience,” she said. “It was very difficult for us not to agree with him. I had plans to be completely silent and not clap at all, but at times I found myself clapping.”
Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley was one of nearly 80 rabbis from around the country who walked out as Trump began speaking. Last week, he helped form an ad hoc group of 18 East Bay rabbis who denounced Trump in an open letter, decrying the candidate for creating “hate and fear, animosity and anxiety.”
In a Times of Israel blog posted after the speech, Creditor blasted Trump’s speech as “a rehashing of remarks” heard before, but reserved his greatest ire for attendees who were “willing to applaud a hatemonger, inviting him to speak in our largest gathering, adulating him. It was multiple standing ovations for someone with no political leadership, rambling rhetoric and a readiness to bully his way into the greatest office in the United States. These aren’t Jewish values. This isn’t the America I love.”
The next morning, AIPAC screened a video presentation on Creditor, touting him as a progressive Jew who supports the pro-Israel lobby.
Trump read most of his speech off a teleprompter, reciting the pro-Israel message expected of those who address conferences of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s longstanding pro-Israel lobbying group. But he strayed into prohibited partisanship with an ad hominem attack on President Barack Obama, which prompted an emotional apology to the president from AIPAC’s leadership.
Launching a critique of Obama’s United Nations policy, Trump began a sentence by saying, “With President Obama in his final year …” Then he stopped himself and said, “Yay!”
Cheers and laughter and applause arose from the crowd as Trump continued. “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.”
AIPAC leadership sprung into action and issued an apology to Obama the following morning.
Lillian Pinkus, the newly installed president of AIPAC, said that, while the organization has its differences with Obama, they respect him and his office. It was disappointed, she said, that sentiments “we neither agree with or condone” received such enthusiastic applause.
Sam Lauter, a San Franciscan and decades-long AIPAC activist, said he, too, was disappointed by the crowd’s reaction not only to Trump’s cutting remarks about Obama, but also his comments about Hillary Clinton.
“When you grow to over 18,000 people, you have many there for the first time and who don’t necessarily know the way AIPAC approaches things and the proper way to behave,” he said. “I was not remotely alone in my disappointment. I don’t mind them standing up and applauding some of the calls he made for things on our platform. My issue was when he said things that were inappropriate.”
He added that he had never seen anything quite like Pinkus’ apology for the behavior of some attendees.
Rabbi Leslie Alexander of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga attended the conference as a member of AIPAC. In a Facebook post, she wrote that people shouldn’t misinterpret the audience applause to mean everyone there supported what Trump had to say.
In fact, she wrote, some things Trump said were “so far-fetched that those listening burst into laughter. People applauded when he made statements that were pro-Israel the way they do for any candidates, no matter what party. He said the right things about Israel and the United States for a straight-up pro-Israel person like me. But despite that, his presentation, manner and ego make it clear that he is not balanced.”
Another AIPAC member from the Bay Area in attendance was Moses Libitzky of Piedmont. Afterward, he lamented that the Trump speech overshadowed the speeches of the other candidates. He thought Clinton’s speech earlier that day was “excellent, well-delivered and had the most substance,” and that Kasich’s speech was also “excellent, but his delivery was horrible. It’s too bad that to be president, you also have to be an orator.”
While he felt parts of Trump’s speech were laughable — in particular, Trump saying he knew the Iran deal “better than anyone” — Libitzky said he felt that, overall, Trump put on a good show.
Still, he felt the cheers given to Trump’s Obama-bashing were in bad taste. “It’s very un-AIPAC-like,” he said. — jta contributed to this report.