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How the Jewish Left was lost
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How the Jewish Left was lost

Knee-jerk reactions, lack of context damaging Democrats’ relationship with Israel

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

In the waning days of his second term, President Barack Obama appeared to let his tempestuous relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu affect his decision to abstain from (rather than veto) a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for settlements.

And so a United States president sided with the Palestinian people—whose autocratic leaders have allowed, if not encouraged, terrorism— instead of their ally, Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. Twenty years ago such a position by the leader of the Democratic party would have been unthinkable. Even with his obvious distaste for Bibi, the tactical Obama wouldn’t intentionally stick it to the Israeli prime minister on his way out if he believed it would cost Democrats Jewish votes down the line. But this did not concern him.

Since 1928, Jews have overwhelmingly voted for the Democratic nominee for president in presidential elections. The lone exception was the 1980 election when incumbent Jimmy Carter, considered by many Jews to be anti-Israel, won the Jewish vote over Ronald Reagan by just six percentage points. Other than that blip, every Democratic candidate has pulled in at least 60 percent of the Jewish vote and won by a minimum of 20 points. Even the underwhelming George McGovern, who carried just Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., in 1972, trounced President Richard Nixon among Jews, 65 to 35 percent (unsurprisingly, “Don’t blame me, I’m Jewish” bumper stickers never caught on).

There was a notion that this trend could flip, starting in 2004, because of President George W. Bush’s strong pro-Israel stance during his first term. But Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry took 76 percent of Jewish voters. Some wondered if Obama’s relationships with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Palestinian booster Rashid Khalidi would damage his standing with American Jews, but 78 percent of them backed him in 2008. Then, having angered many Jews during his first term by pressuring Israel in peace talks, he was still re-elected with 69 percent of the Jewish vote, 39 percent more than Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink this recurring question: Rather than wondering if the Democrats are losing the Jews, shouldn’t we be asking if Jewish Democrats have let Israel slip away?


 

Sept. 5, 2012. That was the day I realized that Israel could no longer automatically count on the Democratic Party. During the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., which included an effort to reinstate language to the party platform affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel via a voice vote (the language had been removed in 2008), the liberal members of the audience opposing Jerusalem as the capital were far louder than the supporters on three consecutive attempts. Finally, a flustered Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, announced that the ayes had it, though anyone watching could tell it wasn’t so.

It’s become far more obvious in the ensuing years. It was shocking to hear the audience repeatedly shout down Hillary Clinton’s defense of Israel while cheering Sen. Bernie Sanders’ misplaced sympathy for the Palestinians during a 2016 Democratic primary debate in Brooklyn. Brooklyn! A few months later the party added language to its platform calling for a Palestinian state at the convention; the platform committee narrowly voted down additional language that would have supported “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.”

The numbers bear this shift out, as well. In 2016, 43 percent of Democrats were more sympathetic to Israel, and 29 percent toward the Palestinians, according to the Pew Research Center. But in January of this year a new Pew Report was released, the findings indicating that just 27 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel, 25 percent with the Palestinians, and the remaining 48 percent said neither, both, or didn’t know.

Moreover, the trend is likely to continue in the near future given President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and his burgeoning relationship with Netanyahu — and Democrats’ visceral opposition to anything Trump. In other words, the friend (Israel) of my enemy (Trump) is my (Democrats) enemy.

But despite Israel’s plunging popularity among Democrats — and, arguably, its stronger support among Republicans — the vast majority of American Jews are sticking with the Democratic Party.


 

The impetus for my writing about all of this now was an infuriating column by Lincoln Anthony Blades, “How Policing in the U.S. and Security in Israel Are Connected,” published, yes, in Teen Vogue. I’ll spare you the details except for one sentence: “The recent history of police violence enacted on unarmed black and brown citizens by American law enforcement mirrors the recent history of Israel treating Palestinians as violent insurgents.”

Let that wash over you for a moment. Here are some reasons Israeli authorities would be justified in “treating Palestinians as violent insurgents”: Suicide bombings. Rocket attacks on civilians. Kidnapping soldiers. Unprovoked stabbings and ramming cars into crowds. Flying burning kites into Israeli territory to destroy crops. Digging underground tunnels from Gaza to murder Israelis in their homes. I could go on.

Yet Blades’ warped position has become increasingly commonplace on the left. Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young political novice who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley in the June New York Democratic primary. After the violence on the Gaza border, when Palestinians tried to rush the fence into Israel on the day the embassy opened in Jerusalem, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that it was “a massacre,” that “No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protestors. There is no justification,” and that “Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”

A few weeks later, in an interview with the candidate on PBS, Ocasio-Cortez was asked what she meant by her previous statements about the “occupation” of Palestine. Here is the reply of a major party’s nominee to represent New York in Congress: “I think what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas, in some of these areas where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in accessing their houses and homes.… Yeah, I mean, I think, I am not the expert on geo-politics on this issue.”

Such a response demonstrates why the Republicans’ frequent derisive term for Democrats, “bleeding-heart liberals,” is so effective. While standing up for the downtrodden is commendable, believing that you are doing so based on a knee-jerk reaction to a few carefully selected photos of children beside a downed house (after the Israeli army dropped leaflets and made robocalls warning residents to leave their homes before they were destroyed), context-free statistics comparing injuries and deaths (when so many are enemy combatants and others had been used as human shields), or cherry-picked facts about the IDF wiping out Gazan hospitals (in which Hamas was storing its rockets) is naïve and foolish.

There’s no shame in aligning yourself with a party that fights for justice, whether you believe that’s the position of Democrats or of Republicans, especially today, as immigrants, even legal ones, are targeted like never before in U.S. history; as the police are called to arrest minorities who fall asleep in their college dorm common rooms, swim at their community pools, and use keys to enter their own homes and offices; and as African Americans seem to be taken into custody — and violently — at the drop of a hat. 

But Jews must be able to differentiate between what’s right, what’s wrong, and what seems right if you don’t know all the facts or aren’t paying attention.

If the vast majority of American Jews don’t speak up and educate their fellow Democrats, they’ll be enabling their party, one of Israel’s greatest friends for the last 90 years, to morph into one of its greatest threats.

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