NEW YORK – Dozens of rabbis are planning to boycott a scheduled speech by Donald Trump to the nation's largest pro-Israeli lobbying group to protest what they feel is divisive rhetoric by the Republican presidential front-runner.
The rabbis plan to hand out fliers requesting that hundreds of attendees at the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington either skip Trump's speech on Monday or stand up as Trump starts speaking and silently walk out.
"He embodies 'Sinat chinam' — senseless hatred," said Rabbi David Paskin of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, one of the protest's organizers. "We are against the ugliness that has engulfed this election season. And he has driven much of it, from his comments about Mexicans and Muslims to the violence at his rallies."
Trump, who holds a significant delegate lead in the quest for the Republican presidential nomination, has left some Jewish leaders uneasy with what they feel is a lack of understanding about the Middle East, his pledge to stay neutral during peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and his inflammatory speech that evokes totalitarian regimes.
One of the former leaders of the liberal Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, believes the walkout will signify that "American Jews are beginning to wake up. And they are getting ready to take on Donald Trump."
"The delegates to the AIPAC conference are there to cheer on Israel," Yoffie wrote this week in Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper. "But not this year. American Jews, looking around in stunned disbelief, are concluding that ... enough is enough."
Trump has frequently touted his warm feelings toward Israel, noting that his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism when she married into a prominent Orthodox family, and that he had been the grand marshal of a pro-Israel parade in New York City in 2004.
"He has been a major supporter of the Jewish community in New York and beyond. He has received numerous awards, participated in many events and made significant contributions to a variety of Jewish-related causes over the years," said Hope Hicks, Trump's campaign spokeswoman. "Mr. Trump has said, as president, there will be no one stronger on Israeli-American relations than him, and his consistent support and advocacy for Israel over many years is proof of this."
He has said that remaining "neutral" in the peace talks could help him negotiate a better deal, a stance that has upset many Zionists. He also drew some criticism when during a December appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said he was best positioned to get a Middle East peace deal because he's a negotiator, "like you folks." Many involved with the RJC said that formulating a response to Trump will dominate the group's annual convention in Las Vegas next month.
An AIPAC official declined to comment about the impending protest but noted that the group invites all active Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to address the conference. Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich have also confirmed their attendance.
Trump is poised to speak at the cavernous Verizon Center, with as many as 18,000 convention-goers in attendance, potentially creating a dramatic spectacle if there is a mass walkout. But organizers of the protest — organized online and, so far, largely drawing from the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, whose followers tend to lean left politically —say their goal is not to elicit an angry reaction from Trump.
"There's been plenty of times, he seems to enjoy when protesters interrupt his speech," said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of South Orange, New Jersey. "That's not our goal. We simply won't be complacent."