23 March '16..
Donald Trump surprised a lot of people on Monday night when he read a fairly standard pro-Israel speech at the AIPAC conference. But while his performance got mixed reviews as even those, like me, who were willing to give him some credit for repudiating his claim of “neutrality” and saying a lot of sensible things about the conflict with the Palestinians and the Iran nuclear deal, understood that the gap between scripted Donald Trump and the unscripted version that has said very different things is too great to be ignored. In the aftermath of the speech, Trump has gone on to say more outrageous things about different subjects (the latest being a thuggish threat aimed at Ted Cruz’s wife) but the pro-Israel lobby seems to have been shaken by the criticism the organization received for applauding the candidate’s address.
The best evidence of this came the morning after when Lillian Pinkus, the new president of AIPAC took the stage at the conference and tearfully apologized for some of the things Trump said. The GOP frontrunner had taken some harsh shots at President Obama about his policies toward Iran and Israel. He cheered the notion that it was the president’s final year in office and then added, in a deviation from his script, that Obama was, “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.” Obviously, that last line was a piece of classic Trump hyperbole. If compared to Yasir Arafat, Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas, Obama doesn’t seem quite so bad even to his critics.
But Pinkus’s apology wasn’t so much about what Trump said but the fact that the vast majority of the 18,000 AIPAC conference attendees applauded him. The expectation prior to the speech was that a great many of those at the event would walk out as the candidate spoke or that he might be booed or heckled. That was a not unreasonable expectation since Trump is despised by a great many Jewish conservatives as well as liberals. But while a few staged a symbolic walkout or stayed away — something that was barely noticed in a packed arena — the AIPAC crowd gave him a respectful hearing as they did the other candidates.
More than that, when Trump told them things they wanted to hear about support for Israel, the Iran deal or even Obama, they didn’t sit on their hands. They laughed at his jokes and applauded. Trump’s appeal as a performer is a lot greater than his critics, including me, have been willing to acknowledge. And for some, including apparently some of AIPAC’s leaders, that applause was an unforgivable sin for which the organization must make amends.
Let’s specify that by naming Obama in the way that he did, Trump used what we might term unparliamentary language in a setting where even partisans understand that bipartisanship is the order of the day. But, to be fair, despite Pinkus’ tearful apology about “ad hominem attacks” that were “levied against the president of the United States from our stage,” this wasn’t the first time a sitting president was criticized at an AIPAC conference. Moreover, by Trump’s admittedly debased standards, merely saying Obama was the “worst thing” or saying “yay,” about the prospect of him leaving office barely registered even as a mild insult. But Pinkus’s apology for a guest speaker that spoke only for himself and not AIPAC was, as the Washington Post noted, unprecedented.
Why did she do it?
The first reason is as obvious as it is understandable. AIPAC’s influence is based on its rigorous bipartisanship. Its leadership has always come from the ranks of supporters of both major parties. The whole point about the way it operates is that AIPAC activists look to cultivate up and coming politicians on both sides of the aisle and its donors pitch in to help any member of the House or the Senate that is pro-Israel regardless of party. If anything, like most groups that cultivate Congress, AIPAC donors tend to be members of the incumbent protection society.
Though it is often bashed as leaning to the right or embracing Republicans, that has more to do with the way that the GOP has embraced in Israel in recent decades while the liberal base of the Democrats has become less supportive. COMMENTARY magazine pieces by Tevi Troy and myself in our December issue detailed the history of this development and as I noted earlier today, President Obama and Bernie Sanders have helped redefine the term “pro-Israel” in a way that allows those who are virulent critics to still claim to care about the Jewish state.
But there’s more to AIPAC’s Trump hangover then concern about the appearance of partisanship. The level of disgust with Trump’s dog whistling about race, prejudice and violence among both pro-Israel Republicans and Democrats is intense. Some, like the Forward’s Jane Eisner took a dim view of Trump’s points on Iran and the Palestinians and didn’t like them when they came out of the mouths of Ted Cruz or John Kasich either. But she, like our John Podhoretz, who shares her dislike for Trump if not her opinions about the issues, think that Trump is so terrible that nothing he says deserve respect or applause.
I happen to share their disdain for Trump, as regular COMMENTARY readers know. But the whole point of AIPAC’s efforts is not to merely support politicians that have already demonstrated their pro-Israel bona fides. It’s also to cultivate and educate those whose backing for Israel has been shaky. So it’s hardly surprising that when Trump read from a pro-Israel script, activists that work hard to get politicians speak in this manner should applaud. While Trump is not the sort of person who ought to be a major party candidate, the hyperbole about him has oversold his faults as much as his supporters have overestimated his virtues. He is a con man selling the country empty slogans but he is neither a Fascist nor a second Hitler. Eisner is wrong to say that AIPAC “legitimized” Trump. Millions of voters that have made him the likely GOP presidential candidate have done that. I may question the judgment of those voters but all AIPAC and its members did was to recognize reality and to offer him the same forum they have given to every other candidate. That includes someone like Hillary Clinton, whose legitimacy as a potential president is also questioned by many on the right.
Others, like the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, blame the willingness to listen and even cheer Trump on the drift to the right within organized American Jewry. He noted more Jews wearing kippot at this year’s conference than in the past. Whether that’s true or not, there’s little doubt that those who care about Israel, are more likely to be religious and conservative than once was the case. Given the Democrats’ drift away from Israel and the higher rates of assimilation on the part of liberal Jews, it wouldn’t be surprising if AIPAC activists were more likely to be on the right than the left these days. Blame this on the results of the Pew Survey of Jewish Americans not on AIPAC, Republicans or Trump.
But none of that affects AIPAC’s mission as the pro-Israel lobby. Its job is not to fight the political battles of either liberal critics of Trump, like Eisner, any more than it is to pick up the cudgels for conservative opponents of him, like me. Its job is to work with both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. If that means paying homage to a dubious friend of Israel like President Obama, then AIPAC’s right-wing critics (and they are more numerous than you think) have to swallow it just as liberals must accept that a President Trump (something that I doubt will happen, but which is also no longer a science fiction scenario) will have to be given the same respect.
The job of a bipartisan lobby in age of hyper-partisanship is not easy. But it must be done. Pinkus should save her tears and her apologies. Once the Trump hangover wears off friends of Israel are going to have their work cut out for them in trying to maintain the alliance between these two great democracies no matter who wins in November. That’s going to mean working with lots of people that a lot of don’t like. AIPAC activists and their critics need to get used to it. It’s called democracy.
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