A Dispatch From AIPAC

March, 24 2016

by George E. Johnson

As soon as I approached the up-escalator of the Washington Metro’s Verizon Center station, hearing indistinct chants above ending in “. . .Trump!” that soon turned into a simpler “Dump, Trump! Dump Trump!” I could sense the electricity in the air. This was not going to be your ordinary evening of politicians pandering to the ingathered AIPAC legions—over 18,000 this year—from the “four corners of this great land.” As waves of well-dressed folks, six to eight abreast, pressed passed me toward the main F Street Verizon Center entrance, I wove my way in the opposite direction toward the press entrance. Security guards were everywhere, including ominous-looking uniformed Secret Service agents dressed in black, with SWAT team-type vests and equipment. Writers, photographers, and other members of the press lined up in the alley to get their names checked off the list of credentialed journalists. We were released, seven at a time, to go through airport-style security stations just inside a side door. Once through security, my group was held in place and told to follow an “event” chaperone on a serpentine route up stairs, through hallways, and eventually to an elevator tucked in a corner. The chaperone also accompanied us to the sixth floor, where we were finally released on our own recognizance into the press gallery, at the top of the arena, the place with the best view of the red Washington Capitals’ Southeast Division Championship banners—silent reminders of years of perennial Stanley Cup failure.

Was this what the Republican National Convention will look like in Cleveland? A fortress surrounded by heavily armed security police and flanked by protesters? My mind took flight and imagined that an inter-stellar visitor might think that this was the Republican convention, where all the candidates would appear and say whatever it took to win over the delegates—but a convention composed 100 percent of Jews!

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Except that this was not the Cleveland convention, this is pretty much what happened. They all spoke; they all delivered, albeit with different skill and different impact, the “red meat’ lines that guarantied raucous applause and yells from the crowd.

Of course, Trump was the main event. Everyone was wondering, “How will the throng react to Trump?” There was talk of rabbinic walk-outs. Would there be a demonstration? Would there be some kind of confrontation? We had to wait. Kasich was the first to declare his love for Israel. Kasich, the easiest among the Republicans to like, spent a great deal of time describing his relationship with and admiration for Natan and Avital Sharansky. The effect was somewhat dulled, however, by his mispronunciation of their names. Kasich touched on AIPAC’s “must-have” points—the Iran deal, BDS, Jerusalem, and so on—but seemed to be speed-reading his speech. There were many applause lines, but little fire.

After House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke briefly, it was Trump’s turn. A warm welcome. Much raucous applause when Trump trumpeted his “record” of support of Israel—when he provided a jet to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to fly to Israel; when he decried Palestinian glorification of killing Israelis and Americans on the streets of Israel; when he condemned the imposing the terms of a peace with the Palestinian through a UN resolution; when he said Obama “may be the worst thing ever to happen to Israel” (a statement repudiated the next day by the AIPAC president); when he said there is “no moral equivalency” between Israeli and Palestinian behavior; when he said there would be no “daylight” between Israel and the U.S. when he is president. But he also drew loud laughter when he claimed that he knew more than “anyone else” about the Iran nuclear deal, and when he claimed that his The Art of the Deal was the best (or, half-heartedly, maybe just one of the best) books on deal-making. Even the claim that Clinton was a “total disaster” as secretary of state drew applause. The pandemonium was so great that only a handful of people saw or heard a lone rabbi, from a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, DC, wrapped in a tallis, rise up six rows from Trump to declare, “Do not listen to this man! He is wicked! He inspires racists and bigots,” before being peacefully led out of the arena.

It all was disconcerting. It didn’t seem to matter that Trump had told multiple rallies that they should punch protesters and that he would pay their lawyers’ bills, had said that a “lot” of Muslims hate America and their immigration to the U.S. should be suspended, had said he would be “neutral” in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It didn’t even faze the audience that Trump repeatedly referred to Israel’s counterpart as “Palestine.” As long as Trump delivered the “red meat” lines, Trump had the crowd in his pocket.

By the time Cruz took the platform, all the “red meat” lines had been uttered. But this did not stop him from saying them again, perhaps with even better delivery and even greater applause—finishing with “Am Yisrael Chai!” (the nation of Israel lives!). The candidates were there to deliver their lines, and the crowd reacted with ever more enthusiasm.

The takeaway was telling. Deliver the “red meat” lines people want to hear, and it does not matter who else you are or what else you say. It worked with AIPAC, and it is working in the Republican presidential primaries.

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