WASHINGTON — The morning after Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump delivered a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy forum to ringing applause, the pro-Israel lobby’s leadership took to the stage to castigate delegates for supporting what it described as his “ad hominem attack” against US President Barack Obama.
AIPAC lay and professional leaders stood in a line before delegates during Tuesday morning’s closing plenary session, while AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus read a prepared statement excoriating delegates’ response to Trump’s criticism of Obama.
“Last evening, something occurred which has the potential to drive us apart, to divide us,” Pinkus told delegates, stressing that she spoke on behalf of AIPAC’s leadership, professional staff and board of directors. “We say unequivocally that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks and we take great offense at those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage,” she added in a voice shaking with emotion.
The audience responded with applause and a standing ovation, as AIPAC’s leaders stood on stage, demonstrating their solidarity with Pinkus’s words.
On Monday night, many of the 18,000 delegates cheered enthusiastically when Trump proclaimed that “President Obama [is] in his final year — yay!”
“He may be the worst thing that ever happened to Israel,” he continued.
Such language, Pinkus stressed, did not reflect AIPAC’s message – or its rank and file.
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama,” Pinkus, who took office earlier this week, continued.
“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night,” Pinkus continued, her voice continuing to crack. “And for that we are deeply sorry. We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.
“Let us close this conference in recognition that when we say ‘come together,’ we still have a lot to learn from each other and we still have much work to do, because broadening the base of the American pro-Israel movement is essential and unity is our strength,” she said. “Let us take this moment to pledge to each other that in this divisive and tension-filled political season, we will not allow those who wish to divide this movement from the left or from the right to succeed in doing so.”
For Pinkus, the acrimony evident in Monday’s plenary session was not simply embarrassing; it also countered the initial message of her presidency.
A week before she took office, the Dallas resident told the Texas Jewish Post that she believed that AIPAC must “grow the number of people who are involved in AIPAC and we need to grow the number of people that are involved in pro-Israel politics.”
During the interview, she warned that “our political environment today is perhaps more polarized and more divisive than at any other time in recent memory.”
“Working in a bipartisan manner becomes difficult and challenging in that environment,” she added.
AIPAC faced scrutiny for inviting the controversial Trump to the annual policy conference, but the organization’s leadership said that in the name of equity, all candidates had received invitations.
While some delegates protested the real estate mogul’s speech by leaving the evening plenary, others cheered his pugilistic message, in which he repeatedly attacked the administration — and Democratic contender Hillary Clinton — for the nuclear deal with Iran and their position on Israeli-Palestinian relations.