There was a very special episode Monday of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), starring presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
All had come to Washington, D.C. to speak to thousands of members of the lobbying group. I didn’t apply in time for press credentials, but I covered the circus of cops and journalists and protesters and AIPAC members outside. A group of rabbis had said that they were going to walk out on Trump during his speech, so that was one of the things I was waiting for, along with a dozen other journalists. The AIPAC members filed into the Verizon Center, which also hosts hockey games, basketball games and, starting March 31, four whole days of an actual circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. There will be real live elephants. Elephants are conscious creatures, able to recognize themselves in mirrors. The candidates can probably say the same.
The only Jewish candidate for president, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, declined the invitation to speak in person, preferring to submit his statement in the form of an open letter, published on his web site. Sanders was campaigning in the West on Monday, in preparation for primaries and caucuses Tuesday. He lost to rival Democrat Hillary Clinton in Arizona, but beat her in Utah and Idaho.
Sanders’ absence is remarkable because Israel, in case you are unaware, is home to millions of people of the Jewish faith. AIPAC is also composed primarily of Jews, mostly Americans. I spoke to some of them, and they were willing hear what Trump has to say. Trump has earned the support of thousands of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, who also express hatred against Jews.
David Duke, former head of the KKK, has endorsed Trump. After some consideration, Trump “disavowed” this, and said he has no control over who endorses him. Meanwhile, America’s white supremacists are excited, according to reports, because they finally have an anti-immigrant candidate to rally around. And by rally around him I mean attend his rallies.
“It was very good. He had some very good points,” said Mike Fried, 68, from Massachusetts, who spoke to me after the conference was over. It was his 11th AIPAC conference, Fried said.
Fried was a friendly guy, eating a slice of pizza at a not-half-bad pizza and wings spot called Fuel across F street from the Verizon Center. The flare on the walls at Fuel were old gas station signs (Shell, Esso, Mobil, etc. etc.) and was filled with young AIPAC attendees chowing down on some ‘za as they listened to top 40 hits pulsing from the ceiling.
“Trump received seven standing ovations,” Fried added.
When I asked him about endorsements Trump has received from white supremacists, Fried said that wasn’t Trump’s fault.
“He can’t control who endorses him or what they say. Now, if he were to say those things [i.e. white supremacist speech] himself, that would be a different thing,” Fried added. Several other attendees told me the same thing.
As a non-partisan organization AIPAC prides itself on maintaining good relations with both Democrats and Republicans (Clinton earlier in the day had gotten even more standing ovations than Trump). This is part of the reason they’re so influential on Capitol Hill, and they can help maintain the flow of billions of dollars in aid to Israel, which they insist is the middle east’s only democracy. Clinton called it a “bastion of liberty.” That went over big. Many people disagree with this sentiment, as you probably already know, but that’s another story too long to tell here.
“We have to show respect. No one walked out,” Fried said.
Fried also said that AIPAC made announcements to the assembled audience warning them against walking out in protest of Trump, as some rabbis had promised to do.
“If you want to protest, don’t show up, is what they said,” he added.
Unlike Fried, who’d been before, for some people at the annual meeting, all of this was new. Earlier that day, Scott Engel, 63, an art framer from Atlanta, told me he doesn’t have any strong opinion on Israel, but came with his father to see what the big deal was. Trying to make sense of it all, Engel squinted into the low spring sun as a gaggle of orthodox Jews protesting against Zionism stood nearby. From time to time, AIPAC members would walk up to the demonstrators from the Neturei Karta movement and challenge them. One middle-aged woman, with a British accent, called them “disgusting,” adding “you’d be dead without Israel.” The Netuerei Karta folks replied, jeering in unison: “Shiksa! Shiksa!”
“What this place really needs is the mass administration of psychadelic drugs,” the soft-spoken Georgian said. “I’m into that.”
The promise of the anti-Trump rabbi walk out had bounced around multiple editorial meetings in Washington earlier that day. Multiple reporters had been assigned to film and interview these rabbis. I decided to go as a freelancer. We waited outside the Verizon center as the sun set and the weather got chillier.
Of course, pictures of men and women in business attire and sensible shoes leaving the Verizon Center doesn’t make for exciting television, but that kind of logic has never stopped an editorial meeting. It was a pretty slow news day otherwise.
But the only thing more boring than a bunch of people walking out of a building is nobody walking out of a building. So the story became about how there were about a hundred anti-Trump and pro-Palestinian protesters outside the convention, and also how Trump used a teleprompter instead of just winging it and talking about whatever he wants.
Anyway, it turned out Fried was wrong, sort of, about no one walking out on Trump.
Washington D.C.’s local ABC affiliate, Channel 7, did some good reporting on this story, and managed to find a rabbi who had protested the candidate. Tucked away at the bottom is his quote. The story doesn’t go into detail on why D.C.-based rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld was protesting, but he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on Wednesday that goes into more detail.
“I was sitting six rows away from Trump and as he got up to speak I felt the need to raise my hands up high and declare ‘this man is wicked. Do not listen to him,'” said Herzfeld, as quoted by ABC 7.
And then security escorted Rabbi Herzfeld out. Whether that counts as walking is a matter of interpretation.