Jews, Israel, and the Democratic Party

Jews, Israel, and the Democratic Party

Republicans long have tried to convince Jewish Democrats to switch their political allegiance — initially forged during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — on the basis that the Republican Party is more supportive of Israel. Will this effort succeed in the wake of the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and Secretary of State John Kerry’s follow-up speech, most of which centered on criticism of Israel? Not likely. 

There has been an undeniable ideological shift in public attitudes. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll revealed that liberal Democrats were the only political group to sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis, by a 40 to 33 percent margin. In contrast, conservative Republicans expressed the strongest sympathy for Israel over Palestinians, 79 to 4 percent (moderate Republicans were more supportive of Israel, 65 to 13 percent, as were moderate Democrats, 53 to 19 percent). 

Sharp public disagreements between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu these last eight years, especially over the Iran nuclear deal that passed Congress with wide support from Democrats, fueled a perception in some quarters that Democrats were becoming less sensitive than Republicans to Israel’s basic security concerns. Nevertheless, polls showed that most American Jews supported the deal.

Keith Ellison’s candidacy for chair of the Democratic National Committee has stirred controversy because of his past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made inflammatory comments about Jews, and his vote against funding the Iron Dome missile defense system designed to protect Israel from rockets. But Ellison has expressed regret on both counts, and explicitly rejected the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. 

Even though the language of the resolution was not unprecedented, it is still troubling even to some left-leaning critics of Israel’s policies because it declares the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as illegally occupied Palestinian territory. Not just occupied territory, but Palestinian territory, suggesting that Israel must overcome a legal presumption that East Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians. 

Both of New Jersey’s Democratic senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, opposed the resolution and urged the administration to veto it. Although Kerry’s speech placed disproportionate emphasis on the issue of settlements, he laid out reasonable positions on all the core final-status issues and included an important reference to the need for recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. But despite the support of the NJ and several other Congressional Democrats, as well as any of Kerry’s positive messages toward Israel, the impact was minimal, dwarfed by the UN vote. 

In response to these developments, Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University and a self-declared centrist, wrote in a Jerusalem Post blog that Obama “has solidified the Democratic Party’s new role as the American Party welcoming Israel bashers.” Writing in the conservative website American Thinker, William Levinson notes the U.S. abstention “underscores the status of the Jewish voter as the battered spouse who simply cannot bring herself to leave her abusive husband.” 

Clearly, there was no dramatic political shift among American Jews in the last presidential election, with 71 percent voting for Hillary Clinton. However, are we edging toward a tipping point that could move the needle significantly toward the Republican Party? To answer that question, we also need to consider that Israel is only one of the issues American Jews consider in the voting booth; a 2015 American Jewish Committee poll found that U.S.-Israel relations ranked fifth for most, and overall the Democratic Party and American Jews are aligned on a wide range of domestic concerns. 

My sense, though, is that Israel would rise to the top of the list if the basic relationship was perceived as threatened. Ben Dworkin, a professor of political science at Rider University and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, concurs. 

“Israel is a threshold issue for the Jewish community,” he told me. “A candidate has to be credible on the issue — especially Israel’s security — to be considered on the rest of the issues that are important to American Jewry, such as reproductive freedom, civil rights, the environment, etc.” 

I asked Dworkin, an East Brunswick resident, whether there is any concern that recent Israel-related developments might erode the traditional base of Jewish support in the Democratic Party, but he rejected that scenario. 

“The Obama administration will end in a few weeks. We will soon have a completely different political landscape upon which the issues that mobilize the Jewish community will be set by the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress. If history is a guide, then this should allow Democrats to regain their footing with America’s Jewish voters,” he said. 

And although I generally agree, my instinct tells me, based solely on anecdotal evidence, that some Jewish Democrats may be more deeply and lastingly troubled by their party’s direction on Israel. 

If they were to switch their allegiance to the Republican Party it would mean aligning with the hard-right wing of the Israeli government coalition — just last summer the Republican Party platform removed its support for a two-state solution, and inserted language rejecting “the false notion that Israel is an occupier.” Such drastic shifts may be too far for longtime Democrats.

Though we don’t yet know what President-elect Donald Trump’s policies will be, his ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, has expressed support for unfettered Israeli settlement activity and partial annexation of the West Bank. 

Trump insists that he will fulfill his campaign pledge to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, consistent with the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all used a national security waiver incorporated into the legislation to defer relocation. Trump’s first opportunity to forgo use of the waiver will come in June 2017, which happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification in the Six Day War. 

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, continues responsibly to embrace the two-state vision as the only viable long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A final status agreement clearly is not achievable anytime soon, but neither the Palestinian nor Israeli governments should take any actions today that would preclude a two-state solution from being reached down the road. This means that Israel should refrain from settlement activity that forecloses any opportunity for a Palestinian state to emerge. In other words, no additional settlement building outside Jerusalem and the heavily populated blocs adjacent to the Green Line where some 80 percent of the settlers reside. 

For Palestinian leaders, acting in a two-state compatible manner means stopping incitement, preparing their people for acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy as the nation state of the Jewish people, desisting from using the UN as a platform to pressure Israel rather than engaging in direct negotiations, and, of course, stamping out terrorist entities in their territories.

The Obama administration failed to differentiate between settlements that will likely become part of Israel in future negotiations, such as East Jerusalem, and those located in the territory of a likely future Palestinian state. It would be desirable for Democratic Party leadership to recognize this distinction going forward. Democrats also would be well-served to get behind win-win initiatives that help both Israelis and Palestinians, such as people-to-people programs promoted by the Alliance for Middle East Peace. 

Democratic Party leadership: Stick to these policy positions and I have no doubt a large majority of American Jews will stand with you. Moderate “two-states” Republicans and pragmatic center-right American Jews who fear an emboldened settler movement is dragging Israel into an irreversible one-state reality, might just be standing there as well. 

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