The stage at the 2017 AIPAC conference..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- Try as it might to remain out of politics, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will find itself at the center of debate on Monday when it hosts Donald J. Trump, real estate tycoon and frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, at its annual policy conference, drawing attention to Israel from some hostile corners.
Where Trump goes, so go camera crews from America's largest television networks, usually present at AIPAC strictly to film well-tailored remarks from Washington's pro-Israel establishment politicians. This year is different: Their focus will not only be on a sensational man whose speeches are notoriously unpredictable, but on a combustible group of protesters anxiously opposed to the GOP frontrunner.
AIPAC saw no choice but to invite Trump to its conference: Its influence in Washington is predicated on bipartisan support, and each election year, the group is committed to inviting candidates from both sides of the aisle. But the lobby's decision to host Trump inevitably creates an association between the two entities in the eyes of those inclined to oppose both. And those groups are set to show up on Monday night in full force.
In a typical year, relatively small protests greet AIPAC's annual convention, comprised of anti-Zionist ultra Orthodox Jews in one corner and, in the other, a larger group of anti-Israel activists in favor of boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning the state.
The additional groups set to appear on Monday are in sync on their opposition to Trump, considered an enemy of liberal democratic values. But these activist groups are opposed to one another on the issue of Israel.
American Jewish groups, led by Reform rabbis, will convene upwards of 1,600 protesters against AIPAC's decision to host Trump. The "Come Together Against Hate" protest– named after the theme of AIPAC's 2016 conference, "Come Together"– will be visible both inside and outside of the venue. "Many will be standing up before he speaks and silently leaving the room," the group's leadership says on social media.
Up to 40 rabbis participating in the conference have said they will respectfully walk out on Monday night. Some fear what they see as elements of neo-fascism in Trump's campaign, while many oppose the candidate's openly xenophobic policies– in particular, his proposed ban on Muslim entry into the US.
"The values of our Reform Jewish Movement include equality, diversity, justice, humility, and civility," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in a joint statement. They both plan on walking out of Trump's speech. "Thus far, Mr. Trump has conducted his campaign as if those are not his values."
But while many Jewish groups largely supportive of AIPAC specifically, or Israel generally, plan to protest Trump's appearance, many others plan on using the high-profile opportunity to highlight their opposition to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Activists with the 'Black Lives Matter' movement– who have been at the forefront of protests against Trump nationwide – have acknowledged on social media their intention to be seen at the DC conference, with some apparently seeking access inside the event itself.
Last year, Black Lives Matter inspired an off-shoot movement– 'Palestinian Lives Matter'– based on a shared narrative of racial disenfranchisement. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause within the black American community has strengthened that connection: A Pew Research Center poll from March of last year shows support for Israel amongst African Americans at 50 percent– far lower than amongst American whites– and support for Palestine at 20 percent, double the national average.
AIPAC declined to formally comment on its security arrangements for Monday's events. But officials with the group say they are preparing for protests both within and without the massive Verizon Center at Gallery Place in downtown Washington, one of the city's largest venues.
The convergence of these interest groups and activists– all opposed to Trump, but all over the spectrum on the contributions of the Jewish State– risks propelling debate over Israel onto the national stage during a particularly fractious presidential contest. At a minimum, such an outcome will be a headache for AIPAC– during a conference it had hoped would bring its people together.