WASHINGTON — As Republican front-runner Donald Trump was delivering his much-anticipated address before some 18,000 people at AIPAC’s 2016 policy conference, a small group of rabbis assembled in a restaurant within the Verizon Center to study Torah instead.
In response to the manner and tone of the real estate mogul’s campaign, dozens of rabbis felt they could not in good conscience be in the room while he sought the support of the American Jewish community at the world’s premier pro-Israel gathering.
“We are here right now because, in truth, we are people who cannot and will not tolerate hatred, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny and calls to violence to reach the highest office in the land,” Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minnesota, told the flock of those boycotting Trump’s speech.
But Allen stressed that their decision to congregate in such a fashion was not directed at AIPAC, but solely at Trump. “This is a stand against a man who has campaigned in a way that has only used detraction and negativity to elevate his own candidacy,” he said. “But we are standing here in the inside of this arena. We are not protesting AIPAC. We are supporters of and believers in the work that AIPAC does.”
The gathering was organized through a campaign called Come Together Against Hate, a play on the conference’s theme of “Come Together.” Originally organized by rabbis David Paskin and Jesse Olitzky, who created a website and Facebook group to orchestrate the event, the planned demonstration against Trump accumulated more than 300 rabbis, cantors and others in the American Jewish community who expressed a desire to voice dissent. Paskin even went so far as to tell CNN he was hoping “thousands of people” would join.
When it came time to step away from the Trump Show, however, roughly 30 people — mostly rabbis, but also young people — united to absent themselves from the address happening just across the hallway.
Despite falling short of turnout expectations, the group kept to its plan, which was to counter the language from Trump they consider pernicious by studying and teaching Judaism’s most sacred text.
Specifically, Allen said, they wanted to reflect upon the biblical notion of derech eretz, which literally means “the way of the land” but is used to denote a standard of decent behavior.
“When we say someone has no derech eretz, it means he’s not a mensch, he’s not a decent human being,” Allen told The Times of Israel. “That’s what I thought we needed to remind ourselves of, that decency precedes everything else, and you can’t campaign for the highest office of this land lacking the common decency of promoting inclusion and of how we should treat one another.”
Trump’s rhetoric demonizing minorities and policy proposals targeting marginalized populations in America has made his candidacy and persona unpalatable for those at the protest. Among them was Zach Reizes, a 19-year-old student from Ohio, who specifically cited his labeling Mexicans as “rapists” and proposing to temporarily ban all Muslim entry into the United States.
“I am very uneasy with listening to Donald Trump,” Reizes said, “and that comes from my heritage as a Jew and from being a descendant of Holocaust survivors. I don’t want to be in the room while he’s speaking, because I don’t want to be complicit in any kind of hate speech or hate rhetoric directed at minorities.”
While Trump has not said anything that targets Jews directly, Reizes said his proposals that do target other minority groups resonated with him as a Jew: “One, because we have been historically discriminated against, but also because discrimination against minorities goes against all the Jewish values I have been taught over the course of my life.”
“Listening to Donald Trump speak, it’s clear that he does not reflect the values I’ve been taught,” he added. “And that’s why I decided to spend my time now instead studying Torah.”
Concurrently, the controversial Trump speech was notably anticlimactic. And as if unaware of all the AIPAC urging throughout the conference that he be given a civil reception, Trump managed to impress his audience enough to elicit a warm reception, which included a series of applause, laughs and even standing ovations.
Trump gave his first scripted speech this campaign by reading off a teleprompter, and he delivered a fervently pro-Israel message, almost but not quite explicitly backtracking on his most unpopular pledge with the AIPAC crowd: to remain neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and said that if he is elected president, “the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end.”
Meanwhile, some 30 Conservative-movement affiliated protesters — and another group led by the Reform movement elsewhere in the arena — were taking a stand in response to rhetoric they feel makes a host of Americans feel like second-class citizens. And for the 26 minutes during which Trump gave his speech, the distance from inside the arena to a small restaurant just across the hall was farther than it may have physically seemed.
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