When businessman and Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump took the stage for his controversial speech to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference on Monday evening, the largely Jewish crowd at the Verizon Center stadium erupted into raucous applause. Trump grinned as he waved and shook hands with attendees of the massive gathering convened by the influential Israel lobbying group, beaming in the spotlight as he waited several seconds to allow the cheering to subside.
But when The Donald finally stepped up to the podium to deliver his remarks regarding America’s relationship with Israel, a smattering of attendees—some wearing kippot, others without—quietly exited their seats and filed out into the largely empty hallways. Their exodus was small, and hard to make out in the dim light. But participants say it was meant to represent a significantly larger Jewish opposition to Trump, a man who many Jews—including many prominent Jewish leaders—say is parroting rhetoric and policies that are out-of-step with Jewish values.
One of those who left the arena was Jeremy Markiz, a rabbinical student in Los Angeles who will be ordained in May. He told ThinkProgress that he and several other Rabbinical students met at a nearby bar before the speech to study the Torah and discuss the subject of “derech eretz,” which he described as “living the right way” and fighting back against hate.
For Markiz, the time to “live the right way” came the moment Donald Trump walked into AIPAC.
CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
“I left as soon as he entered the room—as he was walking to the stage,” he said, noting that two of his colleagues came with him. “I was already walking out.”
Markiz explained that the low-key protest was meant to counter Trump’s statements maligning immigrants and his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country, saying they intended their actions to model the “opposite to the rhetoric and vitriol that’s happening this year, in particular the language that’s coming out to hate towards Muslims, and Mexicans.” But he insisted that the move wasn’t a rejection of AIPAC itself, but of the rhetoric Trump has introduced into American political discourse.
“This was not a protest of AIPAC,” he said. “This is a protest trying to be dignified, to show that I’m not willing to let that kind of language be a part of the discourse. Instead of not coming at all, I wanted to get up and walk out and inspire others to do the same and show my specific displeasure.”
As it turned out, not many AIPAC delegates followed Markiz. Trump’s speech was well-received by the (relatively) conservative crowd, with the businessman garnering several standing ovations throughout his address. But if dissidents inside the event were quiet, the vibe outside the Verizon Center was a different story: a number of different groups of protesters lined up alongside the road near the entrance to the center, chanting loudly and waving signs protesting Trump, AIPAC, or both.
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Simone Zimmerman drove down to Washington, D.C. from Brooklyn, New York to protest the event with the group If Not Now. She expressed frustration with both Trump and AIPAC itself, which she accused of supporting Israel’s “destructive” occupation of Palestinian lands.
“We’re basically here today to say that Donald Trump’s racism and bigotry has no place in our our community, and neither do the polices that AIPAC supports, which are policies that are Israeli polices that are also based in racism and bigotry towards Palestinians,” Zimmerman said. “In a moment when Americans of conscience around the country are rising up to protest and condemn Trump, it was deeply, deeply disgusting to us that AIPAC would give him a platform at the biggest, most powerful, and influential platform in the Jewish community — that he would be welcomed with open arms.”
“We’re here to say to our non-Jewish brothers and sisters around the country that there are Jews who stand with you who also condemn Trump and who are speaking to our own community about that,” she added.
Another protester, Eliza Wasserman, held a sign that referenced a famous line by pastor Martin Niemöller describing the waves of oppression instituted under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, noting that the Third Reich “came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.” Wasserman’s placard inserted the word “Muslims” instead, a nod to rising Islamophobia within the United States and Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration.
“I’m Jewish, and it feels like my duty to not wait until my family or I are personally threatened,” Wasserman, who attended the protest as a part of the group Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ. “We see groups like Muslims are already not safe in this country, and I know that more and more people of color will not be safe if someone like Donald Trump continues to speak and have power.”
Nearby, Lori Bernstein held a large sign reading “Jews against Trump because we’ve seen this before.” She explained that Trump’s rise reminded her of how Hitler came to power.
“My father was born in Nazi Germany,” she said, explaining that her grandfather and the rest of her family narrowly escaped being sent to a concentration camp by fleeing to France. “I see these very troubling signs [from Trump], stirring up hatred and resentments. Hatred towards Mexicans…calling them rapists. [People who are black] being punched at his rallies…I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“He’s inciting violence, and a malignant narcissist,” she added. “I’m very concerned about the rise of fascism.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
The walkout and protests were the culmination of roughly a week of public outcry over Trump’s planned visit to the conference, with some groups calling for AIPAC to rescind his invitation and others threatening to loudly protest his speech. Come Together Against Hate — a group whose sticker Markiz wore — claimed that AIPAC told them anyone who protested would be removed from the arena, have their credentials revoked, and banned from all future conferences. AIPAC later clarified that they have a consistent policy that opposes all demonstrations, not just those levied against Trump.
Meanwhile, the Union for Reform Judaism — the largest Jewish group in the country — issued a firm rebuke of Trump’s rhetoric on March 14, noting that they rarely weigh in on the discourse of candidates but adding, “Mr. Trump is not simply another candidate.” The group announced over the weekend that they had requested a meeting with Donald Trump to discuss their “significant concerns regarding his campaign.” A representative from the Union told ThinkProgress on Monday that while his campaign had responded, no meeting has been set.
Back at the conference center, protesters had less to say about the other political leaders who spoke at AIPAC, which included House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as well as presidential candidates Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bernstein, however, did note that she was an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders, the only Jewish candidate running for president — and the only one who declined to speak before AIPAC.
“I’m a Bernie girl,” she said excitedly. “He speaks my language.”