Thursday, March 4, 2021

After Trump at AIPAC, rejecting hate and standing up for our values

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When I marked my calendar for the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference, I didn’t expect that the agenda would include a text study on leadership and human dignity in the hallway of the Verizon Center. But that’s where I found myself on Monday night, with other members of the Reform Movement, while Donald Trump spoke to thousands of pro-Israel attendees inside the arena.

I have been a supporter of AIPAC for more than thirty years and always look forward to joining with thousands of Americans who prize the vital relationship between the United States and Israel at Policy Conference. The activists there transcend party lines and religious boundaries, and their message is clear: America and Israel are stronger and more secure when they work together to pursue our shared interests.

This year was utterly different. And utterly disappointing.

One of the highlights of every Policy Conference is the opportunity to hear from our elected leaders and presidential candidates. On Monday, I heard strong messages in support of Israel from all of the presidential candidates who addressed the conference.

Yet for many of us, this message of unity was also accompanied by deep anguish over Donald Trump’s appearance at the conference. I understand AIPAC’s strategy of engaging with all presidential candidates and its decision to invite Mr. Trump. At the same time, I refuse to accept his hateful comments against women, Mexicans, people with disabilities, Muslims and others. His campaign has thrived on fear and resentment. Such divisive rhetoric has no place in a pluralistic democracy as vibrant as ours.

As a religious movement, we do not endorse or oppose political candidates. Still, along with several other rabbis and lay leaders, I decided that I had to register my opposition and growing concern with the tone, rhetoric, and violence that have come to define Donald Trump’s campaign by not staying in the arena when he spoke.

I respect those who chose to stay in the room. Some were surely drawn by the spectacle.  Others stayed because they felt it necessary to hear and see Mr. Trump, whose rhetoric we may find intolerable, but nonetheless could lead our government.

Still, the response in the room to Mr. Trump was deeply discouraging. Some parts of Mr. Trump’s speech were so disparaging to President Obama that AIPAC had to issue an unprecedented apology the next day.

AIPAC does not represent the entire Jewish community. No one organization does. Yet, each year the media and political establishment scrutinize the reception that candidates receive at Policy Conference.

I fear the strong, positive message that was clearly sent by the nearly 18,000 people appreciatively clapping, laughing, and offering repeated standing ovations for Mr. Trump. That blasé attitude in the face of bigotry does not represent the American Jewish community. Despite the several thousand cheering in the arena, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews across America reject the divisive and hurtful messages that have been central to Mr. Trump’s campaign. As a community, we know what it is to be targeted because of our faith and to be treated unfairly. We know what it is to experience a dearth of compassion.

As this presidential campaign continues, people of good will have a responsibility to resoundingly reject disrespect and xenophobia coming from any candidate. We must lift our voices in support of inclusion, equality and the dignity present within every individual. 

The Reform Movement has sent a letter to Mr. Trump asking for an urgent meeting, and I hope that our leaders will soon have the direct opportunity to make sure our concerns are clear. Mr. Trump has significant work to complete in repairing the damage done by his words – a brief apology or clarification will fall short.

When a candidate abandons our shared commitment to the spirit of pluralism that underpins our democracy and engages in hateful rhetoric, we must speak out. Though I am appalled by what I saw and heard at AIPAC, I have the utmost faith in our community’s ability to respond to the moral imperatives our tradition sets out, even in this fraught election season.

Rabbi Pesner is the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

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