Worshipers at the Western Wall for a priestly blessing.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
If there is one lesson to come out of this week’s controversy over Jerusalem and
the US Democratic Party platform, it’s this: both parties believe the Jewish
vote could be an extremely important factor in this year’s presidential
election. And they’re right.
Jews may constitute only two percent of the
national population, but the Jewish communities in swing states such as Florida,
Pennsylvania and Ohio could have a major impact. In Florida (29 electoral
votes), they make up 6% to 8% of those who cast ballots. Jews are 4% of the
voters in Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), where John Kerry beat George W.
Bush by just 51%-49%. Jewish voters are between 2% and 3% of the electorate in
Ohio (18 electoral votes), where Jimmy Carter (in 1976) won by less than 1% and
Bill Clinton (1992) won by less than 2%.
Not surprisingly, then,
references to Jerusalem have been a staple of both party platforms for many
The Democrats, in fact, were first. Their 1972 platform declared
that the United States should “recognize and support the established status of
Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and that “the US Embassy should be moved
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
In 1980, the Republicans got on board, but
only partly so. Their platform asserted: “Jerusalem should remain an undivided
city with continued free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of
all faiths.” That wasn’t the same as saying the US should recognize Jerusalem as
Israel’s capital, but it did in effect reject the Arab position that Jerusalem
should be redivided as it had been from 1948 to 1967.
there were rumblings of dissent within the Democratic Party. In 1980, President
Jimmy Carter said openly that he disagreed with the party’s position on
Jerusalem. And in 1988, Arab-American activists and supporters of the Rev. Jesse
Jackson managed to get the reference to Jerusalem omitted
Four years later, with Bill Clinton as the nominee and the
Jackson wing effectively marginalized, the Democratic platform reaffirmed that
Jerusalem “is the capital of the state of Israel,” although it did not repeat
earlier pledges about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv.
point in the history of Jerusalem as an American political football came in
1995, when Congress overwhelmingly approved the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation
Act. Initiated by Republican Senator Bob Dole, the legislation acknowledged
Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and required relocation of the
President Clinton insisted on including a provision that permits
postponing relocation of the embassy if the president believes a delay is
necessary for "national security." Both he and his successors repeatedly invoked
that waiver, which is why the U.S. embassy is still in Tel Aviv.
principle of bipartisan congressional support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital
thus established, both parties’ platforms soon followed. Every Democratic and
Republican platform since 1996 has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and
several of the GOP platforms have specifically called for moving the US embassy
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
So what happened at this year's Democratic
convention? Somebody – nobody has yet owned up to it – decided to drop the
longstanding language on Jerusalem. That decision was, arguably, consistent with
the Obama administration’s policies on the issue. The administration has pressed
Israel to refrain from building apartments in some parts of Jerusalem.
References to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have been removed from the White
House web site. And US officials have declined to acknowledge Jerusalem as
Israel’s capital when asked by reporters. Clearly the administration’s position
is that Jerusalem is negotiable.
But politically wiser heads at the
convention obviously prevailed. They recognized that abandoning Jerusalem
could provoke Jewish voters in Miami or Cleveland to abandon the president. In a
hastily-arranged voice vote on Wednesday afternoon, the platform’s previous
language on Jerusalem was restored.
Platforms are symbolic. Candidates
are not bound by them. But symbols are important. And when both parties embrace
the same symbol, a bipartisan consensus is established.
ago, a bipartisan consensus was established on the question of creating a Jewish
state. In 1944, Benzion Netanyahu (the father of Israel’s current prime
minister) helped convince former president Herbert Hoover and other senior
Republican figures to adopt the first-ever plank calling for rescue of Jews from
Hitler and creation of a Jewish state. That forced the Democrats to quickly
follow with an almost-identical plank in their own platform. With both parties
in agreement, the path was clear for America-Israel friendship to become a
permanent part of American political culture.
Likewise, the 1995
Jerusalem embassy legislation and the 1996 Republican and Democratic platforms
appeared to establish a similar bipartisan consensus on Jerusalem. By restoring
their party’s traditional language on Jerusalem, the Democrats have upheld that
consensus. At least for now.The writer is director of The David S. Wyman
Institute for Holocaust Studies, and co-author, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf
Wentling, of the new book
Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the
‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.