WASHINGTON — Delegates to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Policy Conference stared out the windows of the Walter Washington Convention Center in the American capital as hundreds of protesters converged in the street in front of the building on Sunday afternoon, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and protesting both the conference and, more broadly, Washington’s support for Israel.
A diverse collection of groups were represented among the protesters, including those claiming affiliation with the hacker group Anonymous, the Black Panthers, the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta and a number of pro-Palestinian organizations. Together, they effectively closed the front entrance of the massive building, where a thin line of Metropolitan Police kept protesters out – and conference attendees inside.
Sunday’s protesters included prominent anti-Israel activist Max Blumenthal, whose father Sid Blumenthal is a former adviser and strong supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself is expected to address the annual confab on Monday morning.
At least one protester sported a t-shirt expressing his support for Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is the only presidential candidate who will not address the conference this week. Sanders said that he would spend the time campaigning in upcoming primary states, and offered to do a video address instead – an offer rejected by conference organizers.
Sanders has been accused of avoiding discussing his position on Israel-related issues in what may be a strategic choice given the divide among progressive Democrats between those who support Israel and those who do not.
Although this year’s protest seem larger than in previous years, anti-Israel protests are a longstanding feature of AIPAC’s annual gathering. Members of the Neturei Karta sect maintain a protest outside of the conference throughout the three-day event, joining pro-Palestinian activists for organized protests.
But while Sunday’s protest did little to disturb the breakout sessions and panels, attendees watching the marchers wondered aloud whether Monday, when Republican frontrunner Donald Trump takes the stage at the Verizon Center to address delegates, would be different.
The protests expected within the hall are expected to take attention away from those taking place outside it.
AIPAC has reached out to delegates it believes may be planning to protest Trump’s speech, in an attempt to ensure a civil reception for the Republican candidate, despite the rancor of an unusually fraught election year. At the opening session on Sunday morning, AIPAC President Robert Cohen reminded delegates that they were expected to behave with decorum even in cases in which they disagreed with speakers.
Such messages are not without precedent – in the midst of the furor over the Iran nuclear deal last year, a similar warning was issued to audience members as administration officials spoke in defense of the agreement.
While last year’s confab was tightly focused on the Iranian nuclear talks, this year’s conference does not have as clear a direction – and so attention has been drawn to Trump’s controversial appearance.
Although AIPAC will not discuss logistical arrangements, security seems tighter than ever at the annual event.
Still, many attendees greeted Cohen’s warning with applause, even as others finalized their plans for an anti-Trump protest.
Rabbi David Paskin, one of the organizers of the Come Together Against Hate group founded to protest against Trump, stood in a crowded concession area Sunday handing out stickers and information to attendees.
Would-be protesters are divided on the best way to make their protest heard, with some planning on absenting themselves from the Monday evening plenary, leaving empty seats in the immense hall to greet the controversial Republican, while others plan on standing and exiting the Verizon Center arena after Trump begins to speak.
Reform Movement leaders Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the DC-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said they planned to join those leaving the convention hall. Instead of hearing Trump’s remarks, they would lead a “conversation about human dignity,” noting that “the Reform Movement has expressed particular concern about candidate Trump’s statements about women, immigrants, Muslims, people with disabilities, freedom of religion, and violence.”
“The values of our Reform Jewish Movement include equality, diversity, justice, humility, and civility,” Pesner and Jacobs wrote in a statement issued Sunday. “Thus far, Mr. Trump has conducted his campaign as if those are not his values.”
Even among those who were not planning to protest, Trump’s message seemed likely to rile.
The last time the real estate developer-turned-politician addressed a Jewish organization in the nation’s capital, the speech did him few favors. Back in December, Trump appeared at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Candidates’ Forum, where he was booed by a generally polite audience when he refused to commit to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv.
During the same speech, Trump raised the hackles of some attendees when he seemed to appeal to anti-Semitic stereotypes, telling the audience that “I’m a negotiator — like you folks,” and, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t negotiate deals?” He also suggested that because he would not accept their money, the Jewish audience wouldn’t support him.