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A Jewish Democrat’s dilemma
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A Jewish Democrat’s dilemma

Liberals can — and should — be pro-Israel

We are only weeks away from the 2018 midterm elections, which might have a huge impact on the second half of President Donald Trump’s term. If Democrats succeed in wresting control over one or both houses of Congress, there likely would be significant implications both for U.S. policy and, depending on the outcome, for Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Is a blue wave coming, as many predict? Readers who have followed Raffel’s Riffs these last two years will not be surprised by my answer — I certainly hope so! Yet, that hope is accompanied by some unease about the apparent erosion of support for Israel among Democrats.

In a survey last January, the Pew Research Center found that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on support of Israel is the largest it has been since 1978. Today, approximately three times as many Republicans as Democrats back Israel’s cause over that of the Palestinians’. There are multiple reasons for this trend, presumably not least of which is the warm embrace given Trump by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following years of rancor between former President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

The chasm between Republicans and Democrats found in the Pew poll revolved around the binary question of whether respondents felt more sympathy toward Israel or the Palestinians, but many observers have pointed out that this can lead to erroneous conclusions. For example, last January in The Atlantic, shortly after the Pew poll was released, Brookings Institution scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro wrote: “Americans are far more divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they are on Israel or the U.S.-Israel relationship — and so when Israel advocates and Israelis themselves use this poll question as a proxy for American support for Israel, they are not doing themselves any favors.”

Research suggests that most American Jews do not think primarily about U.S.-Israel relations when they go to the polls. In an American Jewish Committee survey carried out before the 2012 presidential election, 61.5 percent responded that the economy was the most important issue for them in deciding how they would vote, compared to 4.5 percent who prioritized U.S.-Israel relations, and 34 percent whose support was dependent on an assortment of other domestic and international concerns. The well-documented distancing between American Jews and Israel in recent years — especially in response to the disrespect shown by Israel’s government toward the non-Orthodox religious movements and, more recently, the nation-state law that many consider offensive to Israel’s minorities — may cause some American Jews to care even less about Israel when casting their ballots.

In terms of my personal decision-making inside the voting booth, I guess I’m something of an outlier. As a political liberal, I do care deeply about many issues other than Israel. Yet, for me, maintaining the strong bipartisan American foundation of support for Israel — I constantly think about Israel’s security challenges — is paramount, as a threshold matter, in every election cycle. Only after I’m convinced that a candidate is sufficiently supportive of Israel do I feel free to explore his/her positions on other issues. And this time around there are many issues to consider, from immigration policy to health care to reproductive freedom.

Democrats, both Jewish and non-Jewish, seem to fall into three categories with regard to Israel: There are centrist Democrats, such as those influenced by AIPAC’s call to refrain from expressing any public disagreement with Israeli policies; there are Democrats associated with the progressive wing of the party who support Israel but are willing to question Israeli policies (I often agree with their criticisms, though, at times, I may regard them as unfair or lacking in context); and then there is a small — but I fear growing — segment of the party that harbors an animus toward Israel that extends beyond mere criticism of the government’s policies. This animus relates to Israel’s core identity as a Jewish state, which is attacked as either racist or a form of apartheid. I will support a candidate for office who falls into the first two categories, but never someone in the latter — even if I am in full alignment with every other policy position he/she espouses.

With that as my framework, I’m comfortable with all of New Jersey’s Democratic candidates for Congress. Some Democrats running in the midterms have been accused by their Republican opponents of being anti-Israel simply because they were endorsed by JStreetPAC, the political arm of J Street. Without a doubt, the politically left-of-center J Street is controversial, and I’ve had my share of differences with its positions over the years. But the criteria used by the JStreetPAC board to determine whether to endorse a candidate are fully mainstream. They include support for a strong U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship and for a two-state outcome between Israel and the Palestinians, and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Another resource in determining whether a candidate supports Israel is the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). “The political voice of Jewish Democrats,” as it refers to itself on its website, JDCA endorses candidates who are aligned with its platform not only on Israel, but on other issues as well. With respect to Israel, the platform stresses the need to maintain U.S. security assistance to Israel and, like JStreetPAC, it opposes the delegitimization of Israel and the BDS movement.

The point made by Wittes and Shapiro in The Atlantic piece about not equating sympathy for the Palestinians with erosion of support for Israel is reassuring. Still, I am concerned that over time — if the Palestinian issue remains unresolved, as is likely for the foreseeable future, and if Israel’s current right-wing government continues to take steps that are perceived by some as chipping away at Israel’s democratic character — critics may be tempted to gravitate toward a deeper rejection of Israel.

That’s why those of us who wish to maintain strong bipartisan American support for Israel have work to do. First, we must be scrupulous about not accusing critics of Israeli policy of being anti-Israel. We don’t want to turn friends or potential friends into adversaries.

Second, we should stress to Democratic Party leaders why it is fundamentally important that the party’s platforms and pronouncements maintain a clear distinction between criticism of Israeli government policies, which may be legitimate, and unacceptable hostility toward the State of Israel.

Third, we should acknowledge the sympathy expressed by many Democratic Party leaders for the plight of the Palestinians, sympathy many of us share. At the same time, we should help them appreciate the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that it’s not a simplistic oppressor/oppressed dynamic. This educational task can best be accomplished by facilitating fact-finding visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories. These trips should be organized not only for Democratic members of Congress, but also for left-leaning civil-society leaders and media representatives. Such an investment wouldn’t come cheap, but the payoff would be immeasurable.

One more thing. Circle Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018, on your calendar, and please, please, vote. The anticipated blue wave won’t roll in on its
own.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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