January 23, 2019

Trump and AIPAC

This year was the hardest yet to come up with ideas for our Purim joke cover. 

How do you spoof Donald Trump better than John Oliver? How do you poke fun at Bernie Sanders when Larry David roams the earth? How do you mock Trump Steaks when there is such a thing as “Trump Steaks”?

Finally, and most distressingly, how do you crack jokes when one of the most important Jewish organizations in the world invites Donald Trump to speak at its annual policy conference?

Because that’s just not funny.

Last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) announced that Trump will speak at its conference, which takes place March 20-22.

The conference isn’t some closed-door, meet-the-candidates policy confab. It is the largest gathering of pro-Israel activists in the world. Some 15,000 people converge on Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials, attend panels with scholars and foreign affairs analysts, and to hear keynote addresses from presidents, prime ministers and, yes, leading presidential candidates.

AIPAC has confronted the immediate and expected backlash to its Trump invite by explaining that it is a nonpartisan organization with a long tradition of inviting the candidates who look to be the likely Republican and Democratic nominees to speak. It stresses that the invitation is not an endorsement.  

This is true. AIPAC’s goal is to make deep and lasting connections with policymakers across the political spectrum. I know many of its board and rank-and-file members, and they are hardly right wing or left wing.  

And from AIPAC’s perspective, I get it: If there is a chance the man might be the next president, or even the Republican nominee, why not engage now in order to exert a positive influence on him and his policy team?

That would seem to be the reasonable, pragmatic and bipartisan approach. And agree or disagree with some of AIPAC’s positions or tactics, the group has been extremely effective because it has always operated from the pragmatic center.

But in this instance, AIPAC misjudged. By extending an invite to Trump with no additional comment, no caveats, no reproach, AIPAC is helping Trump erase the many lines he has crossed.

Just last week, Trump declared, “I think Islam hates us.”  Earlier in his campaign, he called for a temporary travel ban on all Muslims — all — from entering the United States. His campaign’s exact words are, “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Here’s a thought experiment the leaders of AIPAC might want to try for a second. Substitute the word “Jew” and “Judaism” for “Muslim” and “Islam.” If Trump had said those words instead, would he still have been invited? Of course not.

Bigotry is bigotry. Racism is racism. A demagogue willing to defame or threaten an entire religion or nationality just to rile up voters could easily redirect his venom to some other group when the time is ripe. That’s the line Trump crossed. He is creating an atmosphere and a precedent for winning votes by fanning hate and discord. The near-riots last weekend at Trump rallies in Chicago and St. Louis show what will happen in a Trump America — and what might happen at the AIPAC conference.   

By giving Trump a platform without taking a stand on outright hate speech, AIPAC is helping to fuel this discord. That’s the core moral mistake AIPAC is making.   

But there is another oversight that is even more surprising, considering how pragmatic AIPAC leadership normally is. Inviting Trump is a slap in the face to two ethnic groups whose goodwill and understanding are critical to the survival of the State of Israel.

Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Muslim. They are integral to the economy, culture and politics of the nation. As a Middle Eastern country, Israel’s future peace and prosperity will depend on its relations with Muslims, from Palestinians to Jordanians, from the Emirates to India to Indonesia.

That’s why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to meet with Trump on the candidate’s planned visit to Israel last year, prompting Trump to scuttle his trip. And it’s why this week, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hosted the principal Muslim religious leaders of Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zambia on a five-day visit to Israel with civic and religious leaders from the spectrum of faith communities in Israel. 

For AIPAC to lend its imprimatur to a man who defames Islam is an affront to Islamic leaders courageous enough to reach out to Israel.

The second group is the Latino community. By calling Mexicans “rapists” and insisting on mass deportation and a penitentiary-like wall, Trump is alienating the largest and fastest-growing minority group in America — a group whose support and understanding Israel and the American Jewish community has assiduously cultivated over the past decade. Inviting Trump is not an endorsement, but it is an affront to these groups.

Should AIPAC retract? Not necessarily. But the organization needs to state clearly and publicly that it does not condone Trump’s incendiary statements regarding Mexicans, Muslims and others. It must denounce his clear incitement to physical violence at his rallies. It must make clear that those who foment hate and violence have no place in American politics, or on an AIPAC dais. 

Or it can continue to pretend that Donald Trump is just like every other candidate — and allow his stain to spread over AIPAC’s good name. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @RobEshman and Instagram @foodaism.