Trump promises a US policy on Israel, but who at AIPAC will listen?
Some rabbis and writers have encouraged AIPAC attendees to turn away or leave Monday evening when Donald Trump makes a major policy speech about Israel.
Cliff Owen/ AP
What will Donald Trump say about US-Israel policy – and how will the most powerful Jewish lobbying group in America respond?
Before Mr. Trump takes the stage at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference Monday evening, he'll likely have made some big decisions: Will he waffle on the standard pro-Israel lines, or back up his "We love Israel" assertions?
Trump has repeatedly called himself pro-Israel, but held back from policies typically thought of as pro-Israel, such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or calling for Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel; he also said that, as a negotiator, it's important to stay "neutral," even when brokering an Israel-Palestine peace deal. Such comments set him apart from most conservative US politicians.
But Trump won't be the only one making tough calls at Monday evening's AIPAC meeting. Some 18,000 attendees are faced with a choice: to stay or go; to turn their backs or listen; to applaud or boo — options that Jewish leaders have been fervently debating.
Jewish Republican Coalition leaders were unimpressed in December, when Trump told them, "You're not going to support me because I don't want your money," and painted the room as financial dealmakers like himself.
But for many Jews, like many Americans, their opposition is based on Trump's record of belittling language towards women, Mexicans, and Muslims, which he has said he would require to "register." Trump also told Time that he wasn't sure if he would have supported sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II.
Many American Jews find such comments troubling – regardless of Trump's position on Israel.
On Sunday, the Anti-Defamation League, a century-old agency that fights bigotry and anti-Semitism, announced it would donate $56,000, the amount Trump has donated to the League over the years, towards its No Place for Hate school programs across the country.
CEO Jonathan Greenblatt praises Trump's former philanthropy, and his mid-1990s decision to open his Florida Mar-a-Lago resort to anyone who could afford its $100,000 initial fee and $14,000 annual dues, regardless of race or ethnicity, over alleged pushback from the Palm Beach community.
But Mr. Greenblatt writes in an opinion piece for Time that "our history, our faith and our values teach us that we cannot sit idly by when others are singled out for derision and when intolerance is fed."
For many Jews in particular, the scapegoating is too reminiscent of the fascism some of their families fled in Europe decades ago.
Trump was criticized for a Florida rally stunt this winter, in which he asked the audience to raise their hands and pledge loyalty to him, evoking memories of Nazi salutes for many. But whether or not it was meant to imitate that is beside the point, former ADL director Abraham Foxman told Time.
"To face an audience of thousands and to ask them not to raise their hand to pledge allegiance to the flag, to the Constitution, to the United States, but to pledge allegiance to him, it’s a fascist gesture. You see the way he and his people treat dissenters and protesters at his rallies. That’s very reminiscent of rallies in Europe in the '30s," he said.
But Trump does have Jewish fans, in a demographic that, despite its diversity, has consistently favored Democrats for decades; 69 percent voted for Barack Obama in 2012. A growing exception, however, are ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, and Conservative Jews, for many of whom Israel's claim to land is paramount.
If Trump can put together a more amenable Israel policy, however, he'll still have to prove his credentials are better than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's strong pro-Israel stance, one shared by many evangelical Christians. Some 84 percent of Orthodox Jews and 82 percent of white evangelicals say they believe God gave Israel to the Jews, according to the Pew Research Center, compared with 40 percent of American Jews overall.
And that conservative slice is poised to grow, given that ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox families tend to have more children, and are more likely to raise them as observant Jews.
Many of Trump's Jewish supporters are drawn to him as an alternative to Hillary Clinton. "This is to me more about who I don’t like than who I like," one Los Angeles attorney told the Times of Israel for a piece called, "Why in the world would American Jews support Trump?"
Trump has promised to lay out a policy at Monday evening's speech, which he prioritized over another Republican party debate, effectively canceling the event.
"This speech is an important opportunity for him both to pivot to a more serious approach on foreign policy, and to provide the kind of specifics that people are looking for from each of the candidates," Josh Block, the president and CEO of The Israel Project, and a former AIPAC communications director, told NPR.
But some AIPAC listeners say that their response to Trump is more important than his remarks, whatever they may be.
Leaders from Reform rabbis to Jane Eisner, editor in chief of the progressive Jewish Forward, have suggested that the audience protest in some way; "Come Together Against Hate," a planned protest, has attracted more than 1,800 members on Facebook.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he would be leading a scriptural study outside the main auditorium during Trump's talk, with a focus on texts about human dignity.
Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, a board member of Partners for Progressive Israel, recommended in a scathing piece for the Forward that listeners walk out or turn away.
Either route would accomplish something Trump is unaccustomed to, editor in chief Jane Eisner wrote in a separate op-ed.
Don't Tweet, don't boo, don't clap, don't speak, she told readers: "One thing that Trump has not faced is the silent treatment from a group he desperately wants to love him. Deny him that love, that attention."