Let’s start talking

American Jews and the Democratic presidential contenders need a dialogue.

By AARON KEYAK
May 22, 2019 20:33
Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism?

Have some American Jews replaced Judaism with liberalism?. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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WASHINGTON – In the wake of a spate of antisemitic rhetoric and actual hate crimes, American Jews are understandably concerned as never before about our security and the toxic climate of division and hate in the United States. Antisemitism once seemed like a vanished foe, relegated to stories from our grandparents and a few recesses of the Dark Web and maybe Europe.

But now the issue has returned to the fore, and politicians must confront the problem head-on with effective solutions.

Meanwhile, all serious candidates oppose BDS movement targeted at Israel, but there may well be nuance on how to best combat it – in Congress and elsewhere.

American Jews expect no less from the current field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. But these are, of course, only two exceptionally important issues that concern American Jews, as the country readies itself for another presidential election. We of course care about the usual menu of Jewish issues, among them our commitment to ensuring Israel’s survival as a safe, democratic homeland for the Jewish people and securing a lasting peace with her neighbors.

Sometimes, however, the focus on these two matters obscures all the other critical issues that fire our community’s passions. Eighty-three percent of American Jews describe themselves as pro-choice on reproductive rights, the highest proportion for any religious group in the country. And 73% of our community members oppose the current administration’s hardline on immigration, just to name two.

The next election will also be a moment of decision when it comes to abortion, immigration and so much more. American Jews will pay careful attention to candidates’ positions and rhetoric on all these matters and other domestic causes, including the entire breadbasket of economic issues, like health care, gun violence, education and the environment.

In fact, domestic issues may well dominate our community’s actual priorities, as opposed to the more predictable issues of Israel. And our biggest priority is our overwhelming opposition to US President Donald Trump.

Jewish Americans will once again prove a reliable Democratic constituency. We are liberal on social issues, historically tied to the Democratic Party – and poll after poll evinces a dim view of the current occupant of the White House. Despite the pronouncements of Republicans – who contend yet again that American Jews are but one election from flipping to the other side – this time due to the occasional inexcusable utterances of two or three high-profile first-term members of Congress – the data shows nothing to bear that out. Frankly, we would be utterly astounded if President Donald Trump receives more than the 24% of the Jewish vote, the same he garnered in 2016.

Nonetheless, the Democratic presidential candidates may need to speak on these Representatives, too.

Jewish Americans’ alignment with the Democratic Party imposes an obligation on those who aspire to be our standard-bearer against the president: Democratic primary candidates must pursue candid and substantial dialogue with American Jews about our needs and concerns going into this next election.

There is a certain sort of pro-Jewish boilerplate that gets warmed over each time politicians court our communities. It is for sure well-meaning but sometimes it is also tired. We hear all the old stories about helicopter flights over the Golan Heights and even sometimes vignettes from long-ago meetings with former prime ministers Golda Meir or Yitzhak Rabin, both z”l.


We need a little more than that. The Middle East is, to say the least, complicated. How exactly are the candidates’ approaches different from each other? On the role of the US or the UN in restarting negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians? On whether to return the US embassy to Tel Aviv? On the level of humanitarian relief to Gazan civilians?

Are all of the more than two-dozen Democratic candidates in the exact same place on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat or the anti-abortion statutes in our state legislatures? Maybe, maybe not. But we need and deserve to know.

Again, the campaign for our votes might begin with a serious discussion of rising antisemitism and white nationalism, and our feelings of being less secure in America – and only maybe the Middle East – but it definitely does not stop there. American Jews need to know exactly how our candidates will protect reproductive choice from relentless anti-choice forces around the country. How our leaders will foster a climate of openness and trust that serves as a barrier against all forms of hatred and discrimination. How we will confront the emergent challenges of illiberal forces around the world. And more. Honest and detailed conversations about all the issues with the presidential aspirants must be the order of the day.

OVER THE PAST three presidential election cycles, we are proud to say we have led or helped lead the principal Jewish outreach efforts on behalf of each Democratic Party nominee. The candidates each had their own great communal outreach staff and organization, but we augmented them with sophisticated targeted advertising and messaging that cost millions and successfully reached tens of millions of American Jewish voters.

But this time, we are doing something on top of all that: We are convening dialogues between American Jewish influencers and many or all of the major Democratic hopefuls.

Notwithstanding if someone else may take these reins from us next year, over the next few months we will bring together much of the leadership of our community with as many of the Dem presidential candidates as will meet with us. We are inviting stakeholders in our community who focus on a variety of our issues – from Center-Left to Left – and work in an array of community institutions. Others include consultants, veterans of campaigns past, former elected officials and donors, all active in our community.

We’re pleased to be meeting in something of a first in a series of communal parlor meetings in our Washington offices Thursday of this week with the exciting mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, and we are currently scheduling dates with two other of the leading candidates.

Many of the candidates and we Jews already know each other well, and yet we could all stand to know each other better still at such a critical juncture. There will no doubt be many other forums in our community over the next 18 months, but this is a start.

The first writer is a former Bill Clinton White House aide and a veteran of the national staffs of nine US presidential campaigns. The second writer was a senior Middle East policy and communications aide on Capitol Hill, including for now-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-New York). Together, they helped lead the National Jewish Democratic Council for years and with only three others conceived the Jewish Democratic Council of America in 2017. They are also partners in the Washington public affairs firm Bluelight Strategies.

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