News this week of the formation of a new, partisan group of Democrats seeking to counter the drift — if not dive — away from support for Israel within the party is both worrisome and welcome.
Worrisome because a new Pew Center poll shows that among liberal Democrats, only 19 percent sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, down from 33 percent three years ago. And among younger Americans, including Jews, the sense of alienation from Jerusalem and its policies is significant and growing. In addition, several newly minted House members have spoken out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and in favor of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel).
The move to launch the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMI) is welcome in that it seeks to stem the damage, prevent further erosion of support for Israel, and make the case in favor of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Ann Lewis, former political director of the Democratic National Committee and co-chair of the new group, told us on Tuesday that “what was missing in recent years was a partisan, pro-Israel Democratic organization that could work at the grassroots and grass-top level by being active, smart, and effective” in supporting candidates who value the Washington-Jerusalem bond.
She asserted that DMI is “independent in every way,” though several prominent Jewish Democrats said it was an open secret that the group was conceived and initiated by AIPAC, the official pro-Israel lobby. Several of the DMI’s board members, including its president, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, and co-chairs Todd Richman and Lewis, have long been associated with AIPAC.
Initial reaction within the community to the group’s formation seemed to reflect attitudes toward AIPAC, with some activists gratified that what appears to be a well-oiled group with a wide reach, strong political ties, and deep funds was addressing the issue of slipping support for Israel. Some critics said the situation was ironic, asserting that AIPAC, whose mantra is bipartisanship, had actually exacerbated the divide between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, most notably in supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and opposing the Iran nuclear deal. (It should be noted that AIPAC’s position is to support the views of the government of Israel.)
In public statements, influential Jewish Democrats welcomed the new group. Ron Klein, who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), expressed support while pointing out that JDCA has “a broader platform” than the single issue of Israel, including a range of domestic issues from immigration to women’s issues to voting reform to criminal justice. He told us that combining socially progressive and pro-Israel values can reach growing numbers of young Democrats.
Lewis, the DMI co-chair, said she would make the case to progressives that just as she supports LGBT and women’s issues, “I support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. That’s a civil rights issue.”
While longstanding liberal pro-Israel groups may feel undermined by the newcomer — turf battles are always present in Jewish life — in the long run DMI will be assessed in terms of its record. Whether they admit it or not, many Jewish Democrats, while noting correctly that Congress is overwhelmingly in Israel’s corner, are nervous about Republican efforts to make Israel a wedge issue, and the distancing among younger progressives in the party.
It will take efforts from many committed groups to reverse those trends.