On Monday, Donald Trump is set to address AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Some think that he should never have been invited. Others want Trump’s appearance at AIPAC to be vigorously protested. Both of these positions are eminently understandable, and I will be very surprised if Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is a smooth one, marked by nothing more disruptive than a smattering of polite applause. Republican Jews’ attitudes toward Trump appear to range from nonplussed to horrified, and Democratic Jews’ attitudes probably start at the horrified end of the spectrum and continue further out. Trump should not expect the adoring, genuflecting audience that is typical of his rallies, even if Sheldon Adelson and the editors of Yisrael Hayom appear to be eager to fill the role of Lionel Bengelsdorf to Trump’s Charles Lindbergh.
There will be plenty of time next week to dissect Trump’s AIPAC address after the fact, but there are some important points to make ahead of time. First, Trump’s very appearance at AIPAC turns the thrust of Jewish history on its head. For centuries, Jews lived according to the whims of demagogues and tyrants. Not only were their opinions not relevant, it was often dangerous for the entire Jewish community for their opinions to be expressed at all. Jews were an exceedingly silent minority, just hoping to get through life without being noticed by the Gentile majority. If anyone would be expected to reinforce the idea that Jewish opinion doesn’t matter, it would be Trump. Leaving aside his comments in December about Jews not supporting him because he doesn’t want their money, Trump doesn’t appear to care about winning over anyone’s opinions, Jewish or not. This patron saint of blowhard braggadocio has offended too many groups to count, and while the only things bigger than his ego seem to be his monumental insecurities and desire to be praised, he is also either incapable or unconcerned with telling people what they want to hear. Yet, the man who blows off debates, refuses to do television interviews in person, and retracts the press credentials of reporters who challenge him still feels it necessary to show up at AIPAC’s annual gathering despite what is likely to be a less than welcoming crowd. To the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists that seem to make up Trump’s core base of support, this will cause a contagious outbreak of confirmation bias that Jews control the country. To the rest of us, we should revel in the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel causes are deemed important enough to the bully-in-chief – who, like all bullies, cannot handle being denigrated or confronted – that he is willing to show up at the risk of being bullied himself. It says something about Jews in America at this moment of history, and while Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is distasteful, this is still something remarkable to note.
Second, while I agree with Jonathan Tobin’s assessment that AIPAC had little choice but to invite Trump when it invites every other presidential candidate, it is vitally important that AIPAC not be seen in any way as validating Trump’s candidacy. Here is a plausible, but hopefully far-fetched, scenario: Trump walks out onto the convention hall stage to widespread boos, gives a stem-winder of a speech about how wonderful Israel is and how crucial it is to stand with Israel, does his best insult comic routine targeted at the Obama administration and its policies toward Israel, and leaves the stage to applause and convention attendees remarking that Trump isn’t nearly as bad as they thought. Should this happen, not only will it be a disaster for this country, it will be a disaster for American Jews who will be seen as providing Trump with a springboard toward the Oval Office. AIPAC cannot be seen as legitimizing Trump, even if it provides him with a pulpit. If this means allowing the crowd to boo, or multiple anonymous quotes to journalists from AIPAC grandees about how odious they find Trump, or some other way of signaling that Trump is outside the boundaries of what is acceptable in the American political arena, it must be done.
The reason for this has nothing to do with Israel, which brings me to my final point. As I wrote last week, Trump has not provided a shred of evidence that he is committed to democratic governance beyond collecting votes in order to assume power, which is why his utterances are quite literally indistinguishable from Middle Eastern autocrats (and if you think I am exaggerating and didn’t read me on this subject last week, click on the link at the beginning of this sentence and take my quiz). Trump is a vicious race baiter who singles out religious and ethnic minorities, a misogynist who thinks nothing of belittling women with crude insults, a wannabe strongman who encourages his supporters to employ violence against those who look or think differently than they do, and a majoritarian demagogue who darkly warns of dangerous consequences should he and his supporters not get their way. He represents democracy’s nightmare, and the fact that he was the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel parade or has Jewish progeny or won an empty Jewish National Fund award means absolutely nothing. Jamie Kirchick said it best: “He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.” AIPAC is not only the largest annual gathering of Israel supporters in the U.S., but so far as I can tell it is the largest annual gathering of Jews in the U.S., and it is important for the American Jewish community to send a message. Trump must be rejected not on the basis of his approach to Israel; he must be rejected on the basis of everything else. What he does or does not think about Israel is ancillary to the conversation, because American Jews and the state of Israel do not need a friend who looks like this.