As most of you know, Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, spoke at the annual Policy Conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, on March 21. On that same day, the two other GOP contenders, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also addressed the conference attendees, as did the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democrats’ nomination, did not attend because of campaign commitments elsewhere, but did issue a written statement of his views on Israel and the Mideast.
Not surprisingly, AIPAC’s decision to invite Trump to its annual gathering angered many American Jews. The leadership of both the Reconstructionist movement and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, among others, urged AIPAC to rescind its invitation, given Trump’s repeated bigoted statements, especially with regard to Mexicans and Muslims, as well as his blatant misogyny, all of which repudiate long-established Jewish values.
These values, enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, declare: “The state of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all the inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture ....”
Other groups, while mindful of Trump’s character flaws, acknowledge that AIPAC is the only Jewish organization that, every four years, as a matter of principle, invites all viable presidential candidates of both parties to its annual conference. Thus, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, while issuing a joint statement stating, “At every turn, Mr. Trump has chosen to take the low road, sowing seeds of hatred and division in the body politic,” nevertheless affirmed the appropriateness of AIPAC’s invitation:
“We respect completely its decision to invite all the viable candidates to speak at the forthcoming Policy Conference. By inviting the candidates to speak, AIPAC does not support or oppose their candidacies, nor does it condone nor condemn their policies. AIPAC has, as it must, a single focus: the US/Israel relationship ....”
I agree with those who have held that it was in keeping with AIPAC’s mission to extend an invitation to Trump, but I am appalled at the standing ovation given to him by large numbers of AIPAC supporters who witnessed his pandering presentation. I find it particularly galling to learn that many of the attendees stood and applauded when Trump disparaged President Barack Obama with “in his final year ... yea! ... He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me.”
For decades AIPAC has defined itself as nonpartisan, but Trump’s center-stage sniping at Obama has only furthered the mounting suspicion that it is losing its nonpartisan identity. I am happy to report that the very next morning after Trump’s speech, AIPAC’S new president, Lillian Pinkus, issued a public apology from the podium: “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry. We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.
“We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that were levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Pinkus underscored AIPAC’s position by adding, “While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama.”
In her opinion piece in the April 1 issue of the Forward, Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner gave voice to what many of us consider to be the defining issue of our American Jewish community: “We could be the community that gives a thoughtful reception to a diversity of voices but doesn’t fail to stand up to bigots or bullies.
“Or we could cheer what fits into only a narrow prism of self-interest, and disregard how our values shape our interactions with the rest of the world.”
That is to ask: Is our understandable and necessary loyalty to our fellow Jews balanced by an equally necessary and compelling loyalty to the larger circle of communities of which we are a vital part?
Balance. Finding a proper balance of loyalties is the key to survival. More than 2,000 years ago, our great sage Hillel put this need for finding a healthy balance between competing loyalties in the form of the well-known questions: “If I am not for myself, then who is for me? But when I am only for myself, then what am I?”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.