The moral crisis exposed at AIPAC

What happened at AIPAC was shameful and frightening. Liberal Jews are horrified and the ones who are not seem pretty smug in their lack of self awareness. Welcome to the schism.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the 2016 AIPAC Police Conference in Washington D.C., March 21, 2016. (Photo courtesy of AIPAC)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the 2016 AIPAC Police Conference in Washington D.C., March 21, 2016. (Photo courtesy of AIPAC)

On Monday night 18,000 Israel supporters, mostly Jews, sat in a Washington D.C. stadium and applauded for Donald Trump, a man whose candidacy for president of the United States is supported by neo-Nazis.

Let’s leave aside Trump’s misogyny, his vulgarity, his racism against non whites and his encouragement of violence. Let us leave aside, for a moment, the point that he is unabashedly a spectacularly ignorant man who has the attention span of an adolescent with an  addiction to junk food and first-person shooter video games. Let’s just focus on one salient, astonishing and monumentally shameful fact: a stadium full of Jews sat, (and sometimes stood) and applauded for a man who does not deny that he sleeps with a book of Hitler’s speeches next to his bed, and who refuses to disavow his neo-Nazi supporters.

The organized, actively pro-Israel American Jewish community has been teetering on the edge of a full blown crisis for many years. You can’t vote Democrat, recycle your waste, buy your kids gender-neutral toys, advocate for immigration, and look the other way as the Israeli army kills over 500 children in Gaza — and not be at serious risk for a moral crisis. But, let’s say these Progressives Except for Palestine (PEPs) are just misguided. Because they don’t speak Hebrew and never lived in Israel and are badly informed. For the sake of argument, I will cut them that slack.

But not for those who sat and let Donald Trump speak.

The excuse of ignorance or having been misguided does not work for the educated American Jews who sat and applauded for Donald Trump at the AIPAC conference. And when you suspend not only your liberal social values but also your basic self respect (Jews who sat and listened to a man who won’t disavow his neo-Nazi supporters! Jews who gave a standing ovation to a man whose followers give Nazi salutes and tell opponents “go to fucking Auschwitz!”) — all in the name of nationalism and Zionism, you have at the very least a moral disgrace. But I think what we really have here is a crisis. The “leaders” of the Jewish community have lost their way and they have led astray those who look to them for guidance.

The truth is that Donald Trump’s speech was not significantly different from those delivered by Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan or John Kasich. They all followed the AIPAC template: some of my best friends are Jewish; I cry at Holocaust memorials (never again!); I was so moved when I visited Israel; and let’s not forget that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is America’s best friend; our two countries have an unshakeable bond, etc. etc.

The only thing different about Trump’s speech was his style — including his tendency to blurt out whatever spontaneous remarks he doesn’t really believe —  just because his sociopath’s sixth sense informs him that the audience will like them. Hence, he got a standing ovation for saying, “Obama is the worst thing that ever happened to Israel”; and another standing ovation when he wrapped up with a reminder that his daughter Ivanka would soon give birth to a “beautiful Jewish baby” (um, mazel tov?). And, truthfully, I thought Ted Cruz was more sinister than Donald Trump. Cruz is demonstrably more intelligent and undeniably better educated than Trump, and he seems to truly believe the extremist views he expresses. Cruz even pronounces his Hebrew words with a perfectly comprehensible accent; the man came well prepared.

But overall, all the candidates read from variations on the standard AIPAC speech. And that includes Hillary Clinton, who should be truly embarrassed at having debased herself with a shamelessly sycophantic keynote address. Even the promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (which will never happen) is one that we have, as Israeli political analyst Tal Schneider reminds us, heard from every U.S. president and presidential hopeful since the early 1970s — including Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and even Jimmy Carter.

This is what happens when the most powerful lobby in  Washington and the biggest political donors give orders to politicians. They pander. And, embarrassingly, a lot of people are quite happy to be pandered to. Maybe it makes them feel important.

According to received wisdom, the ascendance of Donald Trump is rooted in the rage and despair of the hollowed out middle class and the impoverished working class, as well as the racism that continues to bubble so close to the surface of American society. I believe this is true. Disappointed nationalism and poverty caused by the great depression were certainly major factors in the rise of Hitler during the Weimar era. Which led to the Holocaust. Which wiped out two thirds of the Jews of Europe. And became the single most important issue influencing Jewish identity since 1945.

And yet, 18,000 Jews heeded the conference organizers’ admonitions and sat politely and/or applauded for Donald Trump, the man who reads Hitler’s speeches for inspiration. They did not protest that the only Jewish candidate, who also happens to be the only candidate to have expressed criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policies, was denied the opportunity to speak via video hookup. But they were polite to a Nazi sympathizer. And the only thing that upset the Democrats at AIPAC was the insult to Obama. Not even the fact that Trump’s neo-Nazi followers have been sending death threats laced with anti-Semitic language to his Jewish critics.

So Lillian Pinkus, the president of AIPAC, wept as she read out a statement about how sorry the organizers were over the fact that audience members applauded Trump’s insulting remarks about Obama. But Pinkus did not even have the courage to say Trump’s name. She did not say “We reject the statements made by Donald Trump.”  Instead she made the relatively anodyne statement: “We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.” If you didn’t know who had made the statements that upset Pinkus, you would have no way of learning that information from her statement.

What happened on Monday at AIPAC was shameful and frightening and I don’t really see how the organized Jewish community in the United States can recover from this. Liberal Jews are horrified and the ones who are not horrified seem pretty smug in their horrific lack of self awareness. Welcome to the schism.

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