According to delegate Robert Davidson of Princeton, the intense focus on one presidential candidate’s appearance distracted attention from the real impact of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference last month.
Davidson, an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and a member of AIPAC’s national council, said that what was “so spectacular” about the March 20-22 gathering in Washington “was that it was a mass education about a multitude of subjects crammed into three days,” and a forum for learning “about the wonderments of what Israel contributes to the world.”
But what he termed a distraction did grab the attention of many of the AIPAC delegates and conference watchers.
A walkout protesting Donald Trump’s March 21 speech “was the major talk of the convention,” said Rabbi Benjamin Adler of the Conservative Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.
Led in part by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, some 50 delegates left the convention hall in Washington when Trump began speaking, objecting to the Republican candidate’s negative remarks about Muslims, Mexicans, women, and immigrants.
Adler did not participate. “It is not my style to walk out on someone speaking, even if you disagree with them,” he said.
And despite the dissension over Trump’s appearance, it was, said Adler, “heartwarming to hear all the candidates support Israel in very strong terms. It is probably the only place in our political system where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will get standing ovations in the same room with the same people. That is a positive thing.”
GOP candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich also addressed the March 20-22 gathering.
Avi Wolf, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering, was one of eight Princeton University students to attend the conference. He also viewed the walkout as inappropriate.
“I know Trump bothers a lot of people with comments that are not politically correct for many people in this country, and I think it is scary to have him say the things he has,” he told NJJN. “It is important to speak out against those words when you feel offended by them.”
But, said Wolf, he was “proud” that only a relative handful of the 18,700 delegates left the hall. “I think the walkout was a shanda. I don’t think we should walk out on somebody who is sharing his thoughts with the Jewish community.”
And while Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor said he respected the actions of those who did walk out, he felt Trump “was an invited speaker and it was important for me to actually hear what he had to say.”
“As I expected,” continued Kornsgold in a March 30 phone interview, “the candidates knew who they were talking to, and they stated the positions that the group wanted to hear. All of them said in their own way how important Israel is to them and would be to their administration if they were to be elected. I like the idea of bipartisanship at the AIPAC conferences.”
During his address, Trump received a standing ovation from audience members as he declared his support for Israel, but his attack on President Barack Obama — who, he said, “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel” — elicited a strong reaction from the leadership of AIPAC, which later issued an apology delivered by its new president, Lillian Pinkus, for the positive response from some in the audience.
“We say unequivocally that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States…,” Pinkus said. “While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president….” She went on to chide those who appeared to welcome Trump’s remarks. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone,” said Pinkus.
Turning to the “multitude of subjects” that Davidson cited, experts presented workshops on such topics and issues as Iran, Russia, Syria, water, immigration, anti-Semitism, and the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
One that particularly impressed Davidson was a session on “lawfare,” a nonviolent tactic used to confront adversaries. “It is what the Arabs are using when they try to take Israel to the International Court of Justice for war crimes,” he said.
Among the “wonderments of what Israel contributes to the world and what it provides for its own citizens,” Davidson said, was a project called Sulamot, run jointly by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Tel Aviv University in collaboration with the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit for Outstanding Musicians.
The program has soldiers teaching music to at-risk and poverty stricken children. “When a young girl who plays in Sulamot appeared on stage and sang, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Davidson.
The federation leader was also impressed with another military-related program — one that enlists people with autism to be trained to study surveillance maps, noting that “they are adding real value to the IDF.”
Another important moment for Davidson was the appearance of Pastor Chris Edmonds of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tenn. The minister spoke about his father, the late Staff Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, a Nazi prisoner of war who was captured in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
“As the highest ranking prisoner in the camp,” Davidson said, “when the Nazis asked him to identify the 200 Jews in captivity, the next morning all 1,000 Americans lined up and identified themselves as Jews.”
Davidson said the pastor told the delegates that when a soldier put a gun to his father’s head and threatened to shoot him if he did not identify the Jewish troops, he said, “You can shoot me but you will have to shoot every one of us. We are all Jews.” With that declaration he saved the lives of all the prisoners in the camp, and in December 2015 he became the first U.S. soldier and one of only five Americans to be recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Another honoree who impressed Davidson was Gloria Jacobson. Her late father, Eddie Jacobson, was a Jewish friend and business partner of President Harry S. Truman. It was Jacobson who convinced Truman to recognize Israel as an independent nation in 1948.
The conference also saluted IsraAID, the rescue organization that has sent medical professionals and emergency workers to respond to natural crises in 21 countries.
Another notable presentation was made by Gilad Woolf, an Israeli farmer who, Davidson said, “reinvented the wheel.” He was confined to a wheelchair, and “every time he went on gravel it hurt his back.” So he devised a shock absorber system for wheelchairs. Now, Davidson said, this “soft wheel” invention is being applied to cars and bicycles.
“The conference was all about what this little nation the size of New Jersey contributes to the world,” Davidson said.