On Monday, thousands of supporters of Israel filed into the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, to watch the Republican presidential candidates address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most influential arm of the Israel lobby.
The line to get in spanned an entire block and wrapped around the corner, and was the scene of confrontations between conference attendees and an assortment of protesters, some chanting against Israel, others against AIPAC and almost everyone against Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner whose big speech was just hours away.
It was the perfect opportunity to engage with Israel’s most politically active supporters, so I pulled out my camera phone and began asking what they thought of Trump.
Most respondents expressed extremely negative views about the candidate, slamming his racism, xenophobia and incitement to violence.
So I decided to conduct an experiment to test for consistency by attributing racist statements made by Israeli leaders to Trump and asking respondents what they thought of such language.
Most people I spoke with energetically condemned racist statements attributed to Trump. However, when I revealed the statements had actually been made by Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, respondents immediately excused, justified or supported the rhetoric they had just condemned.
Migrants compared to cancer
One young woman said of Trump, “He’s terrible. He incites racist attitudes.” When asked, “What do you think about Trump’s comments comparing migrants to cancer?” she responded with disgust, “He’s awful. I hate Trump.”
Regev later apologized, not to Africans but to cancer survivors for likening them to Black people.
I revealed to the young woman that Regev was the source of that statement and added that Netanyahu had recently called for surrounding all of Israel with walls “to protect ourselves from wild beasts.”
“I think you have to step back for a second,” the young woman snapped. “Israel is next to Syria, which is, as you know, going through a civil war. So when [Netanyahu] says ‘wild beasts’ he means jihadis who can potentially be coming into Israel. So I think you need to be very distinctive about that.”
The cognitive dissonance on display was startling as one anti-Trump liberal after another transformed into a defender of hate-speech uttered by Israelis, reflecting the alarming degree to which Arabs have been dehumanized in the minds of many of Israel’s North American supporters.
A woman from Montgomery, Maryland, stood outside the Verizon Center holding a sign that read, “Jews against Trump because we’ve seen this before.”
Though outraged by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and his pledge to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, she seemed to keep her distance from the larger protests against both Trump and Israel. It was soon clear why.
Asked if she was similarly disturbed by Netanyahu’s “wild beasts” comment, her tone changed and she became defensive.
“I didn’t hear the context,” she said.
“Is there a context where that comment would be okay?” I asked.
She insisted she couldn’t respond without hearing the statement in full and verifying it for herself.
Ironically, her response was not unlike Trump’s answer to a CNN interviewer last month when the billionaire was asked to repudiate the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Trump refused to disavow Duke or his white supremacy.
Trump later tried to blame his response on a “bad earpiece.”
“Abusive and negative”
A man waiting in line to get inside the stadium told me Trump is “psychotic” and accused him of pandering to bigots. But he rolled his eyes and walked away when confronted with Regev’s cancer analogy.
Another man standing in line said he was “afraid” of Trump and called the “wild beasts” comment “abusive and negative.”
As I tried to explain that Netanyahu was the source of the “wild beasts” comment, the man raised his voice, “What does Donald Trump have to do with Netanyahu?”
He went on to blurt out standard pro-Israel talking points.
“Buses were exploding in Israel. Buses exploded! There were bombs exploding,” he argued. “Walls went up to keep Palestinian terrorists out because they’re killing people.”
While Israel insists that its apartheid wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2004, is vital to keep suicide bombers out, even Netanyahu has confessed that the true purpose of the “separation fence” is to protect Israel’s Jewish majority from “demographic spillover” of Palestinians from the West Bank.
And contrary to oft-repeated Israeli government claims, the wall was not responsiblefor a reduction in bomb attacks carried out by Palestinians.
Israel is “a light unto nations” with “the most moral army in the world,” the man insisted, ignoring decades of Israeli occupation and its attendant brutal violence against millions of Palestinians who remain without rights.
The lesson of the day, if there was one, seemed to be that violent demagoguery, no matter how reprehensible, is perfectly justified when it comes from the mouths of Israeli leaders.