WASHINGTON – Just three weeks ago, no one gave Senator Kamala Harris of California a real chance to become the Democratic Party nominee. Since Joe Biden entered the race on April, it looked like he has a high probability of facing President Donald Trump on the 2020 elections, with no significant challenger.
But since the first Democratic debate, in which Harris went after Biden regarding his record on a desegregation busing program, Harris got a significant bump. It is not as if she is the leading candidate. Harris is currently in fourth place on average. And yet, as one of the leading candidates, she is attracting much more attention than before. This includes the Jewish and the pro-Israel community, which is trying to understand what her position toward Israel would be if she will be the party nominee.
“She is a rising star overall and in the presidential field, and as a result of her debate performance picked up about eight points nationally,” Mark Mellman, president and CEO of The Mellman Group, a polling and consulting firm in Washington, told The Jerusalem Post. “Now, she is certainly among the several top leaders in the field. In terms of her Israel positions, she’s been in the Senate a relatively brief time, so she doesn’t necessarily have the longest record in dealing with Israel, but she has been strongly pro-Israel throughout her career. And certainly, in the statements, she’s made and the votes she’s cast so far.”
She was born in 1964 in Oakland, California. She graduated from Howard University and earned her law degree from the University of California. She worked as city attorney and district attorney of San Francisco, before elected as California’s attorney-general in 2010, and again in 2014.
At the same year, she also married her husband, Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer at a Los Angeles Firm, who is also Jewish.
“Look at my own life, where a daughter of a South Asian mother and a Jamaican father concluded her own interfaith wedding with her husband, breaking glass and everyone yelling mazal tov,” she said in her speech at AIPAC on 2017.
The main challenge in trying to define her position on Israel is the fact that she had only served in the Senate for less than three years, and that she is not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
This situation puts Harris in a unique position among the Democrats: while centrist Democrats are disappointed with her stance in favor of rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement, progressives look at her record and see someone who spoke at AIPAC conference three times in three years (publicly in 2017 and 2018, and privately with constituents in 2019), and who promoted a resolution that opposes former president Barack Obama’s Security Council condemnation during his last week in office.
It was on January of 2017, days after Harris officially was sworn in as a senator. She joined Senator Marco Rubio and a large group of senators to promote that resolution.
“[The Senate] Objecting to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 and to all efforts that undermine direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for a secure and peaceful settlement,” the text reads. “The United Nations is not the appropriate venue and should not be a forum used for seeking unilateral action, recognition, or dictating parameters for a two-state solution, including the status of Jerusalem; it is also the historic position of the United States government to oppose and veto one-sided or anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council.”
It never got a vote on the floor, but nevertheless, it was the first resolution she had co-sponsored as a senator.
“I believe that when any organization delegitimizes Israel, we must stand up and speak out for Israel to be treated equally,” she explained a few weeks later during her AIPAC speech. “That is why the first resolution I co-sponsored as United States senator was to combat anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and reaffirm that the United States seeks a just secure and sustainable two-state solution.”
In the same speech, she also spoke out against antisemitism in the US: “As someone who’s personally prosecuted hate crime, I also believe that we cannot stand by while antisemitism, hate crime and bigotry is on the rise, whether that’s a swastika on a Jewish family and children’s services bus in San Francisco or the burning of a mosque in Tampa. No one should have to be afraid to put a menorah in their front window or on their front lawn.”
“She has been a lifelong supporter of Israel,” says Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who previously served as national security adviser to Harris. “In that speech, she laid out a very personal narrative about her connection with Israel.”
“She has talked about the importance of ensuring that the US-Israel relationship remains strong and not be politicized in the way that this administration has done to divide Democrats,” Soifer added. “I think she’s very supportive of the US-Israel relationship.”What the critics say
In February, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota drew criticism from many Jewish organizations for using antisemitic tropes such as “allegiance to a foreign country,” and “all about the Benjamins.” Harris’s critics argue that her response to Omar was soft.
“We all have a responsibility to speak out against antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America,” she said in a statement then. “But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.”
Another criticism of Harris is her support for the Iran nuclear deal, as well as her position in favor of rejoining the agreement.
Aaron Keyak, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told the Post that the majority of Democrats support joining back the deal, and therefore Harris’s personal opinion is not unusual.
“People who argue that being pro-JCPOA means, by definition, being anti-Israel, just aren’t relevant to the policy debate within the Democratic primary,” he said.On the conflict
In 2016, while running for Senate, she was asked by The Jewish News of Northern California if she would support or oppose legislation characterizing the settlements as illegal. While she did not directly answer the question, her response is surprisingly similar to a phrase that we often hear from Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.
“The terms of any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians cannot be imposed by others in the world,” she told the Jewish outlet. “The US and our allies in Europe and the Arab world can and should help facilitate an agreement to create peace and bring both parties to the table, but the Israelis and Palestinians themselves must negotiate and approve the terms of any peace agreement. Lasting peace can only be found through bilateral negotiations that protect Israel’s identity, ensure security for all people and include the recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
She also expressed objection to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and said that it is “based on the mistaken assumption that Israel is solely to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” She added that “the BDS movement seeks to weaken Israel, but it will only isolate the nation and steer Israelis against prerequisite compromises for peace [...] I believe we should not isolate Israel, the only democracy in the region.”A bonding visit
In 2017, she visited Israel – not for the first time. She started her visit with a Shabbat dinner with a group of Israeli activists, before visiting the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, and the Supreme Court. “It was a remarkable trip,” Soifer, who traveled with Harris to Israel, told the Post. “She had the opportunity to reaffirm the ties, not only between the US and Israel, but also between California and Israel.”
“Having grown up in the Bay area, I fondly remember those Jewish National Fund boxes that we would use to collect donations to plant trees for Israel,” Harris told the audience at the AIPAC conference. “Years later, when I visited Israel for the first time, I saw the fruits of that effort and the Israeli ingenuity that has truly made a desert bloom.”
“I soaked in the sights and sounds and smells of Jerusalem,” she continued. “I stood in Yad Vashem, devastated by the silent testimonies of the 6 million Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust, and we must always remember that solemn promise. Never again.”
In her visit, she asked to promote cooperation between Israel and the US in water and cybersecurity projects. She also went to see some of the cyber companies in Beersheba and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
She also visited east Jerusalem and met with students from Al-Quds University.
“The senator praised the university for the ‘incredible education’ it was offering its students,” the Palestinian News Network reported.
According to the Palestinian outlet, “Harris said that she had driven by the separation wall on her way to Al-Quds University, and asked the students if the wall presented ‘a real barrier’ to their movement. The classroom unanimously exclaimed ‘yes’ and expressed their anger about the restrictions imposed on them by the Israeli authorities.”
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