A prior version of this piece, posted on this site earlier this afternoon, channeled what I think is a rage many of us share and called on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to disinvite Donald Trump from speaking at its annual conference on Monday night. That, sadly, is not a possibility: AIPAC has always provided equal opportunity to all political candidates to participate in its policy conferences. The group extended their traditional invitation to everyone, and Trump said yes.* There’s little more AIPAC can be expected to do.
But that doesn’t mean that Trump’s speech at a major American Jewish gathering should pass quietly. Donald Trump—this can’t be said loudly, clearly, or often enough—is appealing to sheer and unmasked bigotry to fuel his incendiary political campaign. You can approve of his policies, if you can discern what they actually are. You can find his narcissism funny, even charming. You can even turn your head away from the assaults on journalists, if not sanctioned by his campaign than at least supported by it. But the repeated and vile denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and others for no purpose save for the inflammation of electoral nervous systems is more than we ought to tolerate.
Whatever else he may do to our political landscape, Trump also presents us, particularly us American Jews, with a golden opportunity. For decades, we’ve allowed our core ethical principles to ossify into talking points. We spoke of tikkun olam, a principle so ephemeral and universal it equally applies to Jews, Zoroastrians, and fans of the Detroit Tigers, offering little by way of real theological guidance. When we took up real causes—Israel, say, or the economy, or racial justice—we often chose to do it from within the well-dug trenches of party lines or ideological divides. Trump gives us a chance to come together over a very basic principle and say that as Jews—secular and religious, Democrats and Republicans, poets and podiatrists—we feel compelled by the very tenets of our faith to reject a man who lacks any respect for the very principles of pluralism that have made this country such a welcoming home for Jews and have allowed us to thrive here for more than two centuries.
There’s not much we can do, sadly, to curb Trump’s rise; democracies let voters make their own choices, even if these choices are ruinous for them and for the nation. But there’s one symbolic action we can, and must, take: when Trump swaggers on to the podium Monday night, let us leave. Not one or two but all of us, not a trickle but a torrent. Let him speak to an empty room, and let the cable news channels carrying the latest Trump spectacle marvel that one group of Americans—not particularly large, not particularly influential—had the courage to say enough to this shameful circus of lies and violence, turn its back, literally, to this dangerous demagogue, and walk out. This gesture may mean nothing. But it may inspire other Americans, liberal or conservative or anything in between, and it will remind us all that somewhere, obscured by talk of delegates and endorsements and big walls and short fingers and other trivialities, the better angels of our nature—to borrow a phrase from a real Republican—quietly stand, waiting for us to turn to them once again and, once again, make America great.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that AIPAC was a 501(c)3 and therefore legally mandated to invite all political candidates. Rather, it is a 501(c)4, and is therefore technically free to choose who to invite to speak at its conference. But to do so would break with the organization’s longstanding internal policy.