The periphery of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center has always been somewhat of a circus when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes to town for its annual policy conference.
This year was no different: There was, for instance, the Greek Orthodox-looking guy holding a sign reading, “Occupy AIPAC with Jesus Christ!” That was on Monday morning just after Democratic president front-runner Hillary Clinton wrapped up her speech before delegates. The day before saw an army of pro-Palestinian protesters hoisting flags and chanting, keeping attendees inside the convention center for several minutes. And, like clockwork, the Neturei Karta pro-Iran, pro-Palestinian Chasidic minority camped out on the lawn outside.
But with the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Monday night at the event’s other location, the Verizon Center stadium, it became clear that the circus — at 18,000 delegates, AIPAC’s largest-ever conference — came indoors.
“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” the billionaire developer said, to a chorus of alternating boos and cheers. “That’s what politicians do. All talk. No action.”
When he took the podium, some attendees kept their promise, despite instructions from officials, and walked out, although outside, the anticipated protesters, whether anti-Trump or anti-AIPAC, just didn’t materialize to the levels expected. Still, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, donned a tallit and tried to rush the stage only to be ushered out by security. (“I had to declare his wickedness,” the rabbi later told reporters.)
Trump largely delivered what many in the crowd were expecting and promised to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the “eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” And yet, the standing ovations were fewer and smaller than for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another Republican presidential hopeful.
Looking back, it didn’t take the presence of Trump to demonstrate the divisions within the pro-Israel community. As reported by the Washington Jewish Week, just 24 hours before, when Vice President Joe Biden literally ran onto the dais at the Verizon Center, he was hailed as a true friend of Israel. For most of his speech, he enjoyed waves of applause, especially when he roared, “I condemn those who fail to condemn terror,” an obvious dig at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others in the Arab world.
When the vice president turned to castigating Israel for provocative moves in the area of settlement construction, though, several in the audience told him to shut up. And when he ran a victory lap, as it were, on the successful passage of the Iran nuclear deal and American military support of the Jewish state — claiming that “Israel is stronger today because of the Obama/Biden administration” — many got up from their seats and walked outside in the cold.
Make no mistake, many at AIPAC were still smarting from the Iran deal, which they fought tooth and nail against and spent millions of dollars to defeat. But when a montage of past speakers showed such faces as President Obama’s and former Vice President Al Gore’s — the one the author of the Iran deal, the other an outspoken backer of it — their presence on the Jumbotron elicited some of the loudest applause.
A hallmark of AIPAC has always been its ability to bring disparate factions of the pro-Israel community together: Republicans, Democrats, all of the Jewish denominations, evangelical Christians. But when its army of grassroots lobbyists took to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, their No. 1 issue, according to official talking points, was getting Congress to pass new sanctions on Iran. There was a palpable questioning of that strategy, with many wondering aloud if it was better to move onto other winnable issues, such as securing a new memorandum of understanding between the United States and Israel on military spending, a cause relegated to the No. 3 position on AIPAC’s agenda.
If there’s one clear takeaway from the just-concluded conference, it’s not to marvel at AIPAC’s ability to bring 18,000 supporters of Israel together under one roof. In the light of how different blocs reacted to such different front-runners as Clinton and Trump, the takeaway must be how despite all of what keeps people in disparate camps, they can all agree on the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance and a Jewish state able to defend itself in a turbulent Middle East.
As the circus moves on, remembering that point of unity is more important than ever.
Joshua Runyan is the editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of the Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.