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The AIPAC rabbi walk-out that wasn’t

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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.

Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin and two other protesters assembled on the sidewalk next to the Verizon Center, imploring AIPAC members to see Donald Trump as a common enemy. Many attendees told me they just wanted to hear what Trump has to say. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin and two other protesters assembled on the sidewalk next to the Verizon Center, imploring AIPAC members to see Donald Trump as a common enemy. Many attendees told me they just wanted to hear what Trump has to say. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

“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.

Demonstrators sing a song as part of a protest organized by "If Not Now," a Jewish youth group that describes its mission as working for the "freedom and dignity of all Palestinians and Israelis." Instead of at the corner, these folks were clear across F Street from the Verizon Center, separated by rows of barricades. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

Demonstrators sing a song as part of a protest organized by “If Not Now,” a Jewish youth group that describes its mission as working for the “freedom and dignity of all Palestinians and Israelis.” Instead of at the corner, these folks were clear across F Street from the Verizon Center, separated by rows of barricades. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

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.

AIPAC members perform a traditional Jewish dance and sing a Hebrew song, in a display of opposition against the Code Pink protesters just to their right. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

AIPAC members perform a traditional Jewish dance and sing a Hebrew song, in a display of opposition against the Code Pink protesters just to their right. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

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.”

AIPAC attendees stand in front of the Neturei Karta protest.

Here, orthodox Jews, members of Neturei Karta International, who oppose Zionism for religious reasons, get mocked by some teens attending AIPAC. The kid with the “people need jobs” sign was with a few friends who cackled and took pictures, making fun of the alleged joblessness of these folks who drove all the way from Monsey, N.Y.. I asked one teen, wearing a suit and two rhinestone earrings, what he thought of the orthodox protest. “I don’t want to talk to the press,” he replied. By reflex, I asked: “Do you think unemployment is funny?” He answered: “No, I don’t.” So that’s settled. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

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.

On the left, protester Emily Siegel, and on the right, AIPAC member Eliezer May, 66, from Rockville, Maryland. May and thousands of other AIPAC attendees shuffled in a blocks-long line past a corner where protesters had set up its picket line. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

On the left, protester Emily Siegel, and on the right, AIPAC member Eliezer May, 66, from Rockville, Maryland. May and thousands of other AIPAC attendees shuffled in a blocks-long line past a corner where protesters had set up its picket line. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

About Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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11 Responses

  1. ckg
    ckg on March 24, 2016, 1:37 pm

    “The only Jewish candidate for president, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, declined the invitation to speak in person…”

    Ahem, don’t forget Dr. Jill Stein. Sen. Sanders said he wanted to speak in person but had a calendar conflict. Dr. Stein, who was not invited to speak, said she didn’t want to speak to AIPAC anyway.

    • lysias
      lysias on March 24, 2016, 2:09 pm

      Did they give any reason for not inviting her? (When she ran for the presidency in 2012, I wonder if she was the first Jewish candidate for the presidency to ever appear on the ballot.)

      • ckg
        ckg on March 24, 2016, 2:19 pm

        lysias–I am not aware that any third-party candidates were invited. I think most, but not all, third-party candidates would welcome the opportunity for greater campaign exposure by speaking to AIPAC.

        https://twitter.com/DrJillStein/status/712122824329011200
        https://twitter.com/DrJillStein/status/712103172395765760

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus on March 24, 2016, 3:28 pm

        Sure, some third party candidate would welcome the exposure but AIPAC (and JStreet) fear htat same exposure like the devil the holy water.
        Sanders is not a danger for AIPAC. He is on the same common minimal platform of being intra-tribal and acknowledging all the basic requirements of the Zionists.
        Stein is a whole nother kind of candidate. She has no common ground with the Zionists. In fact, she doesn’t even welcome that kind of doubtful exposure. Better campaign against the Zionists from outside.

  2. Citizen
    Citizen on March 24, 2016, 8:54 pm

    You’d think one of those main news media cable tv honchos would get the bright idea of having a two hour show, or one hour even, allowing third party candidates public exposure–both to rake in audience from the oddity and actually aid the bedrock of democracy: informed consent. Jill Stein would capture the audience. Her foreign policy re Israel is right on the money.

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus on March 25, 2016, 1:16 am

      Ah, but the real bright idea was another, true-and-tested one: don’t rely on censorship and two-party legal chicanery only, especially with such a large number of people for whom your game is up. Trot out an uber-populist friend to draw large crowds and keep them busy with playing at being “Left” (Domestic US only, like an 800 number) till the last minute (all the while guaranteeing you the support.) Send out another old friend (who already paid you) to draw big crowds of Rep-Amalekites and play the Cookie Monster to them so we have a real scary Greater of Two Evils.
      It’s called Insurance and Re-Insurance.

  3. An American Critic
    An American Critic on March 25, 2016, 12:11 pm

    For what it’s worth, here’s the comment I posted on The WaPo site in response to Rabbi Herzfeld’s essay. Obviously, I think this would apply to any Israel/AIPAC strong supporter, whether or not they walked out on the Great Bloviator:

    “The Rabbi, a self-admitted “strong supporter” of Israel and AIPAC, declares that Trump is “wicked…inspires racists and bigots…[and] encourages violence…” and concludes: “If a person inspires bigotry and racism, we should not overlook those character traits just because he says something with which we agree.”

    As an American Jew and son of an Israeli father, I agree with all of that.

    But what the Rabbi and so many that share his beliefs, fail to grasp, is that “strong support” of Israel and AIPAC constitutes direct support of discrimination based on race, ethnicity and/or religion, violence, ethnic cleansing, and a host of other acts and policies that constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity under international law. A state self-defined as one dedicated to the rights and interests of a SINGLE ethnicity or religion, that, ever since its founding, has sought to replace one ethnic or religious group with another through use of violence, and its laws, policies, institutions, and de facto practices, and that oppresses in countless ways the original inhabitants of that state, is also wicked. From the 1917 Balfour Declaration until the 1947 UN Partition Resolution, the Jewish “national home” or state was repeatedly and expressly conditioned on the principle and express condition that has since been ignored and repeatedly breached – “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” [Balfour Decl.]

    I would be far more impressed with the Rabbi if he applied the principles of “speaking truth to power” not just against Mr. Trump’s patent “wickedness,” but also against the wickedness manifest daily in Israel, and the perfidy of those who blindly support it here.”

  4. Mooser
    Mooser on March 25, 2016, 12:21 pm

    “The Netuerei Karta folks replied, jeering in unison: “Shiksa! Shiksa!”

    And broke into a chorus of “My Little Jewish Coop, (You don’t know what I’ve got”) while dancing a lively hora.
    Always helpful, those NK guys.

  5. Scott
    Scott on March 25, 2016, 10:08 pm

    In terms of American politics, Trump is essentially a liberal Zionist, meaning that he believes America should exist with moderate concessions to multiculturalism. That’s essentially my position with regard to Israel. Perhaps the most typical AIPAC position is that Israel should be a totally Jewish state with apartheid features, while any American attempt to control its borders is racist/fascist. Or perhaps that’s the Rachel Maddow position, whom we’ve been discussing this evening in my house: Trump is a fascist, Israel is never mentioned.

  6. Pretext
    Pretext on March 26, 2016, 12:50 pm

    I thought Rabbi Herzfeld’s comment on WaPo was interesting:

    “I am a strong supporter of Israel and [AIPAC] … But besides being the spiritual adviser to my congregation, I am also a father of seven children. As a father, I teach my children that when there is wickedness in our midst, we must stand up and recognize it. Sometimes we will just be another voice in the wind, but even so, we have a religious imperative to call out that wickedness and declare that it is wrong.”

    Doesn’t the Torah have the equivalent of Matthew 7:3? It seems like the kind of wisdom that belongs there: “And why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but not notice the beam in your own eye?”

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