Yes it is true that AIPAC has a long standing habit of inviting presidential candidates to speak at its annual conference. McCain, Clinton, and Obama spoke at the conference in 2008, Romney did it in 2012 (via satellite), and the list goes on and on. So it was no surprise that yesterday (3/21/16) on the AIPAC main stage there was a parade of potential presidential power with each of the remaining candidates, (except, oddly, Bernie Sanders, the only Jew in the bunch) giving their two cents to the crowd, in various and sundry ways repeating the same mantra over and over again – America will always stand by Israel. It was business as usual at AIPAC, and even if the candidates jabbed at each other in the course of their remarks, they all stuck to the central AIPAC talking points, as expected – or is that required? Anyway, you get the picture.
What was different this time, however, was the controversy surrounding AIPAC’s invitation to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he is the leading Republican candidate – how could they not invite him? On the other hand, there are many in the Jewish community who feel that his public statements are often in direct conflict with Jewish values. A group of rabbis organized a silent protest to Trump’s AIPAC talk, getting up and walking out just as he began his remarks. The leaders of the Conservative Movement (Chancellor Arnie Eisen and Rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Steve Wernick) published an Op Ed the day before Trump’s speech, raising four objections to Trump’s character and candidacy, and wondering whether it was wise to highlight him at a conference that is in many ways about Jewish community. (you can read the text of their statement here: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/jewish-americans-wary-trump-takes-aipac-stage-article-1.2570993)
It was an interesting conundrum for the AIPAC leadership to navigate. It is true, everything is a trade off, and politics makes strange bedfellows, etc. etc. But did we really have to go there? Are we prepared to set aside core communal values for political expediency, for a potential leg up should the unimaginable happen and Trump actually ascend to the presidency? By inviting Trump AIPAC answered that question in the affirmative. I wonder if they were surprised at the references to ‘Palestine’ in his remarks? For someone who ‘studies the issues, who knows them better than just about anyone,’ that was a noticeable slip that gave the faithful in the crowd pause. I have no doubt it will be corrected and explained in the days ahead.
If you are a lover of roots music, you have probably heard of Robert Johnson, the original blues man. Johnson came from the Mississippi delta, a poor black man who somehow almost singlehandedly created a style of music that would become famous world wide. He only lived into his late 20s, and recorded a mere 30 or so songs in his entire career. But without Robert Johnson it is possible to argue that you wouldn’t have the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers, possibly even Bob Dylan. The question about Johnson was this: how did one man have such a huge influence? Where did his almost preternatural talent come from?
The legendary answer to that question is that Johnson one day met the Devil at dry and dusty crossroads in the deep delta. A deal was made – Johnson secured his short term talent and a long term legacy. But he lost his soul. Whether you believe the story or not, it is hard not to read it as a cautionary tale.