WASHINGTON — In the face of threats by some conference attendees to protest Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s appearance at its annual policy conference next week, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) staffer sent out an email missive to student activists warning them that any disruption could result in the rescinding of their conference credentials and blacklisting from all future AIPAC events. The organization later distanced itself from complaints that it was unfairly targeting students, and said that the email was sent in error and without authorization.
In the email, received by a number of college students on Monday and seen by The Times of Israel, the AIPAC staffer wrote that “I am acutely aware that there may be speakers at this year’s Policy Conference whose views you do not agree with.” The email did not specify which speakers might be objectionable to attendees. The organization announced on Friday that Trump would address the annual gathering in Washington, DC, which takes places this year from March 20-22.
“If you choose to disrupt the program, understand that you will be removed, your conference credentials will be taken, and it will be the last AIPAC event you attend,” the email warned. While the letter was sent to some students registered for the conference, it was not sent to all students registered, and the criteria for inclusion were not clear.
“You are welcome to disagree with a speaker,” the email continued, “but you are expected to do so silently and respectfully, in a way that reflects the higher order values of AIPAC and of yourself as an activist.”
One student responded to the email by asking the organization to clarify whether signs or banners would be allowed as a form of silent protest, and also set up a Facebook group, “Come Together Against Hate,” to organize a silent protest against Trump.
The AIPAC staffer responded, in a second email on Tuesday morning, that signs and banners were off-limits, and admonished students not to use the email’s distribution list to organize student protests or discuss the situation.
Later Tuesday, AIPAC disavowed the correspondence. AIPAC Spokesman Marshall Wittman said that the “student email unfortunately went out in error and without authorization.”
“There is only one policy concerning disruptive behavior at Policy Conference – which has been our policy for the past four years – and it applies to all delegates whether students or non-students,” Wittman told The Times of Israel. “That policy has been indicated on delegate badges this year and in past years, “AIPAC reserves the right to deny access to participants who behave in a manner AIPAC deems disruptive.”
Ohio University student Zachary Reizes complained that AIPAC’s warning placed him in an ethical dilemma.
“Over the past three years, AIPAC has been instrumental in my education about Israel, teaching me to stand up for security and speak out against hate. AIPAC has also taught me to take pride in being Jewish,” Reizes wrote in letter to the organization on Tuesday that he then posted on Facebook. “I do not want to do anything that would jeopardize my relationship with AIPAC, so I write this email with trepidation. However, your organization has also taught me to speak up for myself and for my values.”
Reizes said he was “dumbstruck” by the Monday email discouraging protest during the conference. “This e-mail explained that, under penalty of never being invited to an AIPAC event again, my fellow students and I must sit quietly in tacit support of a man who speaks against every value I hold close.”
‘As Jews we must be prepared to demonstrate that Donald Trump does not represent the values of our community’
In recent days, a small minority of Trump’s followers have been involved in violent altercations with protesters at election events and have been filmed giving Nazi salutes and telling anti-Trump protesters to “go back to Auschwitz.” The Republican frontrunner was also widely criticized for failing to decisively distance himself from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s endorsement.
Like many other attendees who are critical of Trump’s rhetoric and positions — which have included a call for travel restrictions for Muslims, appreciation for the oppressive policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a statement of neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an unwillingness to commit to full recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — Reizes stressed that he understood the need to include Trump among the presidential candidates invited to the conference in an election year.
“I do not fault the organization for inviting him, or allowing him the time to speak,” Reizes explained. “But as Jews we must be prepared to demonstrate that Donald Trump does not represent the values of our community. If we do not, we run the risk of being complicit in the repeat of history that AIPAC exists to prevent.”
“As pro-Israel advocates, we have a moral obligation to prevent authoritarian rulers from achieving ultimate power,” Reizes wrote.
In a conversation with the Times of Israel, Reizes stressed that he did not think his position violated AIPAC’s commitment to bipartisanism, arguing that opposition to Trump was itself a bipartisan issue.
Reizes said AIPAC should “make a statement denouncing bigotry, or give us the means to demonstrate that there is no place for hateful rhetoric in the Jewish community.”
Reizes was later contacted by a senior AIPAC official who spoke with him at length about both the Monday email and Reizes’ response. The AIPAC official told Reizes that the email did not reflect a message that the organization wished to send to its student activists.
Still, Reizes said that he didn’t think the situation was resolved and that he still didn’t feel comfortable with the position that AIPAC had taken on Trump. “If you have a moral objection to Donald Trump and his hateful rhetoric, then you have an obligation to stand up against it.”
Reizes said he plans, together with others, to stand silently as Trump speaks and leave the hall with his head lowered.
Although AIPAC officials could not comment Tuesday on whether they were planning any additional security protocols for Trump’s speech, it has been the organization’s policy since 2012 to reserve the right to deny access to delegates who disrupt the conference.
Over 18,000 delegates are registered for the conference this year, making it the largest Policy Conference in the organization’s history.
While it drew fire from some Democrats last year for opposing the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, AIPAC prides itself on being a non-partisan organization. It extended invitations to all of the presidential candidates, both Democrat and Republican, to speak at this year’s conference. Trump and Democratic frontrunner former secretary of state Hillary Clinton both accepted the invitation.
AIPAC officials emphasized Tuesday that the conference provides a unique opportunity for the candidates from both parties to share their views and discuss their policy objectives regarding America’s relationship with Israel and the broader Middle East.
In an election season marked by jam-packed schedules, the AIPAC conference is one of the rare venues, other than the official debate circuit which will follow the parties’ respective nominating conventions, for candidates to address a bipartisan audience.