So there I was, settling in to listen (barring some huge surprises this summer and fall) to the future President of the United State speak at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., known to sports fans as the home of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals but the venue this week in which gathered more than seven hundred of my colleagues in the rabbinate and more than 17,000 other delegates for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, and wondering how I was ever going to succeed at describing this scene to you all. It’s a kind of a circus, the whole thing…and particularly the conference-wide plenary sessions. It’s not all talking, for one thing—and there are lots of infomercial-style presentations solely designed to remind the delegates just what an amazing place of accomplishment and potential Israel really is. Some of those presentations were truly touching—the two boys, one Arab and the other Jewish, who spoke to the convention about learning to be friends by playing baseball together; the poor girl born with no eyes who sang to the convention like an angel and reminded us all how powerful the artistic experience can be for young people seeking to find their place in the world; the paralyzed IDF veteran who demonstrated a new Israeli wheelchair capable of going down a flight of stairs without toppling over or endangering the person seated in it—and some of them less so. But the real point of the plenaries—as distinct from the countless sessions delegates sign up to attend and, obviously, other than the actual lobbying that goes on in the course of the delegates’ final day in Washington as all 535 voting members of Congress are visited by AIPAC delegates to press the case for maintaining the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and particularly as the ten-year strategic agreement, called the U.S.-Israel Memo of Understanding, comes up for renewal in 2018—the point of the plenary sessions was specifically to provide a venue for those vying for their parties’ presidential nominations this summer to speak clearly about their personal relationship to Israel and the kind of commitment level they feel regarding the special relationship between Israel and our nation.
Except for Bernie Sanders—who, to my mind at least, can’t conceivably have failed to understand the symbolic impact of being the only Jew among the final five to decline the invitation to speak in one of the plenaries—the finalists were all present: Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. For good measure, Paul Ryan—who I suppose must also harbor presidential aspirations focused on some future election—also came to call, as did Vice President Biden. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer were present and spoke in dialogue together. Other speakers who impressed me were J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, and Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal columnist. But for all the others had lots to say—and I was particularly struck by Goldberg and Stephens, who addressed the rabbis’ and cantors’ luncheon—it was the presidential hopefuls upon whom the full glare of the spotlight shone.
To paint with broad strokes, they all stressed the same points. But not exactly. Mrs. Clinton openly mocked Donald Trump for his lack of foreign policy experience and invited the delegates to compare his record to hers. Interestingly, she also made a point of distancing herself from President Obama by remarking that one of the first things she will attend to after being elected is inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to be her welcome guest in the White House. Knowing she would be taking an unpopular stance, she bravely chose openly to speak about the reasons she backed the Iran deal. The crowd was respectful and attentive as she stressed the degree to which our nation under her leadership will lead the world in verifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord and ignored the long-term implications of settling for a deal that covers only the next thirteen years. She lauded Israel for having elected a female prime minister decades ago…and got a good laugh by asking what exactly it could be that’s been keeping us Americans from following suit and electing a female president. And then she wished everyone a happy Purim too, her pronunciation (pure-rim) somehow adorable in its incorrectitude. But what was in a way the most interesting to me was the degree to which she didn’t even bother taking on Bernie Sanders or any of his policies, apparently not considering him her real opponent…or at least not in the senses that the future Republican nominee will be. (In that estimation, I suppose she is surely correct.)
As far as I could tell, John Kasich said nothing in his remarks that the other speakers didn’t all say. Bizarrely referencing himself as “the candidate with the deepest, most far-reaching foreign policy experience, he was either thinking solely of Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump (and thus setting the bar more than low to make his point)…or else it must have slipped his mind for the moment that Mrs. Clinton used to be the Secretary of State of the United States. Like his fellow Republicans in the mix, he spoke about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, about supporting Israel in the face of Palestinian hostility, and about his wish quickly to cancel the Iran accord. He was affable and eloquent; the crowd was polite and receptive.
And then we got to Donald Trump, who—at least for me personally—was the biggest surprise of the evening. I’ve heard many people speak in many different contexts, but I can’t recall any of them as having been mesmerizing. Trump was mesmerizing. He is not eloquent—certainly not in the same category of oratorical skill as, say, John Kasich or Mrs. Clinton—and there is a certain vulgar coarseness to his oratory even when he’s not insulting anyone in particular. But I’ve never heard a speaker able to hold the attention of that many thousands of listeners at once. When Ted Cruz was speaking (see below), people all around me were checking their email, talking to their neighbors, heading out to the restrooms, listening with all of one ear and some of the other. When Trump spoke, he had the full attention of every delegate I could see. That hardly makes him the best choice for president, but it was still remarkable to experience.
He’s a braggart, to be sure. (Mentioning that he sent Mayor Giuliani to Israel after 9/11 on his own jet was a nice touch. If he doesn’t end up as president, maybe he could just buy Air Force One and fly around the world in it anyway. And touting himself as the single living soul who knows more than anyone else—including, presumably John Kerry and President Obama—about the Iran deal generated some laughter, but it was far from clear to me that he was joking.) The rest of his remarks went to the heart of any number of matters, and the audience lapped it up. The responsibility for there not being peace between Israel and the Palestinians rests with the obstructionist Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem must be acknowledged as the capital of Israel. The United Nations is not a friend to democracy or freedom…and certainly not a friend of our nation or of Israel, and for that reason, he said, the United States under Trump’s leadership will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose any sort of agreement on Israel. The Iran deal, because it solely places limits on Iran’s military nuclear program for a certain number of years, put us all—and particularly Israel—in a “terrible, terrible situation.” The applause was thunderous.
So caustic and vituperative were Trump’s comments about President Obama that the AIPAC leadership felt the need publicly to apologize for them. Trump’s comments were insulting and I think many, myself included, were shocked that he would speak so disrespectfully about the President of the United States openly and without any apparent shame at all. But what was just as remarkable was the way the man had his finger on the pulse of the convention: it felt as though he somehow knew what to say to bring the audience to its feet again and again. His much-referenced neutrality regarding Israel and the Palestinians seems to have been completely dropped. His off-hand remark earlier the same day about having Israel pay for some part of the aid it receives (leaving unaddressed the question of whether that isn’t precisely what aid is: assistance you don’t have to pay for) was completely unreferenced in his remarks. The audience rose to its feet almost a dozen times in the course of his remarks. For those of us used to thinking of Donald Trump as a crass vulgarian, being present for Trump’s remarks was—to say the very least—a sobering experience. For someone like myself who keeps asking himself who exactly is voting for the man—and in such large numbers and why anyone would, it was instructive and more than a bit unnerving to see the man in action.
Trump was followed by Ted Cruz, who apparently wasn’t listening to Trump’s speech and so spent a serious amount of time lambasting him for his pledge of neutrality in the Middle East, a pledge Trump had more or less completely renounced moments earlier. His special twist on the Iran deal was to stress the connection he sees between that deal and the Munich Accord of 1938 that led to the Second World War and the Shoah. He mentioned Elie Wiesel by name, presumably to establish his own bona fides as someone who knows what the Holocaust entailed for its victims. And then, declaring that under his presidency, “the American people will stand together and say, ‘Never again means never again,” he more or less implied that a nuclear Iran will herald a new Holocaust…and that the Cruz administration will devote itself to preventing that from happening. He too was well received, although no one would describe him as mesmerizing. (I myself checked my email a few times while he was talking.) But he spoke passionately and clearly, intelligently too, and the audience was very respectful, rising to its feet for him too, and repeatedly.
So that was my trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference. I highly recommend the experience, including the day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, to all of you. It is a chance to become involved, to speak up and out, to join the ranks of people whose commitment to Israel is as practically-oriented as it is emotional or spiritual. Some have lately questioned AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanship, but I saw no traces of any wavering in that regard during my time at the conference: AIPAC stands with the government of Israel, regardless of who leads it, and represents Israel’s best interests to our own elected officials whoever they may be. And for that reason alone, I’m proud to be a supporter! I detected no secret agenda in the mix of things at AIPAC, only satisfying evidence of the vibrancy of our American republic, a democracy in which the people have the right to assemble as they wish and to set forward their views to their elected officials precisely so that the latter may represent their constituencies faithfully as they legislate and govern our great nation.