Presidential candidates and their views of Israel dominated much of the discussion among New Jersey delegates to “Come Together,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference, which took place March 20-22 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC.
Preoccupying much of the conversation was Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. While many of the NJ delegates who spoke with NJJN before and after his March 21 speech deplored the divisive rhetoric and outbursts of violence that have characterized many of his political rallies, all were pleased that he was treated with respect and tolerance at the conference.
“We are here to show civility and respect for anyone who is speaking. When people come here they should be respectful,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ, several hours before Trump’s speech to the 18,700 people in the audience.
“The essence of how AIPAC operates is we are receptive to hearing both sides of the aisle. Whether you agree or disagree with them, they should be free to speak and you should listen to what they have to say,” said Sam Pepper of West Orange.
But three rabbis from South Orange held two different opinions on how Trump’s address should be received.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of the Conservative Congregation Beth El led “Come Together Against Hate,” a protest action that had a small number of people walking out of the convention hall just before Trump’s speech. “As a rabbi, I feel like I have a responsibility to not stand idly by when I see hateful rhetoric,” he told reporters. “We need to consider what the ethical values are that we hold dear as Jews and what is our responsibility to stand up to the bigotry that Mr. Trump has spread during his campaign.”
Olitzky was unavailable for comment.
But two religious leaders of nearby synagogues strongly disagreed with his position.
“Showing respect, even in silence, for whoever is there is really important,” Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel told NJJN. Earlier, in a Times of Israel blog entry, Cohen wrote, “The culture of hate and intolerance that has been created by the Trump Campaign is unacceptable. The misogyny, Islamophobia, racism, and overall crassness are just part of what makes Mr. Trump’s candidacy so troubling.
“At the same time,” Cohen wrote, “I understand and support AIPAC’s decision” to invite him to speak.
Before the convention began, Rabbi Mark Cooper of the nearby Conservative Oheb Shalom Congregation addressed Trump directly in his own Times of Israel blog.
“If people who vehemently disagree with one another genuinely listen to each other, it becomes possible to bridge the gaps between them. Turning my back on you and refusing to listen to what you have to say will accomplish nothing,” Cooper wrote.
Delegate Howard Tepper of West Orange told NJJN that he found the Trump protest “very offensive. When it is done by rabbis it is to me the most offensive, insulting thing, and I am embarrassed as a Jew. Rabbis are leaders, and they are teaching the wrong message.”
Trump did receive a standing ovation from members of the audience as he delivered his message of support for Israel, but his attack on President Barack Obama — Obama, he said, “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel” — elicited from many the same reaction as that of AIPAC’s leadership, which later issued an apology delivered by AIPAC’s new president, Lillian Pinkus, for the positive response from some delegates.
Sheri Goldberg of Livingston, CRC Israel and World Affairs chair, applauded what Pinkus said. “I was deeply hurt last night and I tremendously appreciate president Lily Pinkus’s statement,” she told NJJN.
To Cohen, “the thunderous applause Democrat Hillary Clinton received for her strongly supportive speech was a strong indication of AIPAC’s bipartisan spirit.”
For Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, the highlight of the conference came an evening earlier when Vice President Joe Biden addressed the crowd.
“To be frank, the Israeli government’s steady process of expanding settlements and expropriating land is eroding the possibility of a two-state solution,” said Biden. “[Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu thinks he can accommodate it. I don’t, because trends on the ground are moving toward a one-state solution, and I feel that’s dangerous.”
Biden “spoke about the settlements, and it was impressive,” Bernstein told NJJN. “He told it like it is. He believes like I do that expansion of the settlements is a problem.”
Roth Gorelick said the AIPAC conference underscored the Jewish community’s strong support of Israel.
Activists who attend the conference, she said, “want to ensure there is movement toward a two-state solution and peace talks, and we want to see violence ended. It is important to get behind that effort as efforts to delegitimize Israel increase on the international stage.”
Another focus at the conference was “working with the African-American community and how one African-American legislator after another opposed the [anti-Israel] Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions resolutions.”
Conference sessions also reinforced a positive message about Israel, including the country’s “helping other nations in conservation of water, about the aid work it is doing in Africa,” said Roth Gorelick. “There are relationships being built. There have been moving, thoughtful presentations on Israel’s contributions to the world and the strong diversity of support for Israel.”
After the conference adjourned, many delegates headed to Capitol Hill to lobby Senate and House members. The items on their agenda included support for $3.1 billion of military aid to Israel, a reauthorization of tough sanctions against Iran, and opposition to bringing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute before the United Nations Security Council.