The turning point in the Israel-US Jewry relationship

AIPAC has moved steadily from its once-traditional bipartisanship and away from mainstream American Jewry as it embraced the hardline policies of Benjamin Netanyahu.

HOW MUCH does Israel matter to Jewish voters?  (photo credit: REUTERS)
HOW MUCH does Israel matter to Jewish voters?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The week ahead could mark a turning point in US-Israel relations as Israelis and Americans go to the polls to decide about their nations’ leaders. Woven into that is the role of American Jewry and its bonds with the Jewish state.
AIPAC’s annual policy conference opens this weekend in Washington, gathering and motivating thousands of activists behind a cause that is of diminishing importance to many and possibly most American Jews. The organization itself is threatened with being eclipsed on the Right by the powerful Evangelical lobby Christians United for Israel, in its influence in the Trump administration, and among Republican lawmakers and on the Left by the pro-peace process, pro-Israel J Street.
AIPAC has moved steadily from its once-traditional bipartisanship and away from mainstream American Jewry as it embraced the hardline policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Right and the Republican Party, now led by Donald Trump.
On Monday, Israelis go to the polls for the third time in less than a year. Their choice is not Right vs. Left but center-right vs. far-right, and it is unclear how much change a victory by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party would bring. Any differences may prove more stylistic than substantive. The former IDF chief of staff is an admirer of President Trump and has praised his “Deal of the Century” while pledging to focus on “rehabilitation with American Jewry” and a “return to the bipartisan relationship” that Netanyahu has “neglected.”
Just two weeks after the election, Netanyahu is scheduled to go on trial for bribery, fraud and corruption. His goal is not just to retain power but to stay out of prison. In a reflection of his paranoid friend in the White House, the prime minister has declared he is the victim of dirty cops, tainted prosecutors, biased judges, media conspiracies and assorted enemies in the deep state.
On Tuesday, Democratic voters in 14 states representing geographically and socially diverse regions will select delegates to their national convention and could decide their party’s nominee.
The current front-runner is a 78-year-old Brooklyn-born Jewish senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. He won’t be attending the AIPAC conference, which historically has been a must visit for most candidates. Explaining his absence, he accused the group of being a platform for “leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
AIPAC shot back, calling his comments “truly shameful,” “odious” and “insulting” to “Americans who stand with Israel.”
The Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC with AIPAC ties, spent over $1.4 million on ads attacking Sanders prior to the Iowa and Nevada caucuses. The New York Times reported, “The Sanders campaign raised $1.3 million off the spot.”
THE REPUBLICAN Jewish Coalition, smelling blood in the water, dove right in. It declared Jews should not vote for a Jew who, like most American Jews, is critical of the present right-wing Israeli government’s policies, but instead doubled down on its backing of Donald Trump, a man with an established record as a racist, xenophobe, misogynist and compulsive liar who has a history of supporting white supremacists, calling neo-Nazis “fine people” and using antisemitic tropes in his campaigns.
Sanders responded, “I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president.... I believe absolutely not only in the right of Israel to exist but the right to exist in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people.” He has said Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership is “racist.”
He brings baggage that makes many Jews uncomfortable. He has said he is willing to leverage Israel’s annual $3.8 billion aid package to press for a peace deal based on the two-state solution, something Netanyahu and AIPAC oppose. Some of his prominent supporters and surrogates are outspoken critics of Israel who have been accused of antisemitic statements, notably Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), and Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist. All three as Muslims.
How important is Israel to American Jewish voters when going to the polls? Not very, according to recent polls by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Jewish Electorate Institute and J Street.
A majority of Jews have voted for Democratic presidential candidates since 1924, and in the last seven elections that averaged above 75%. The more education the voter has the more likely they are to vote Democratic, and 59% of Jews have college degrees or higher compared to 29% for the general population, according to the American Jewish Population Project.
Healthcare is the top issue for Jewish voters in several polls when picking a presidential candidate, followed by gun violence, Social Security and Medicare, the economy, immigration and the environment. Israel was at or near the bottom in the Jewish Electorate Institute and J Street surveys, a trend several years in the making.
AJC’s polls “reveal that the majority of US Jews either disapprove or strongly disapprove of Trump’s handling of US-Israel relations,” according to a report by Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
Republicans will focus on what Trump has done for Israel, and that may resonate well with his Evangelical base and Jewish conservatives, but not the majority of American Jewish voters. As these surveys have shown, they have other and more important priorities – priorities many see as dangerously threatened by President Trump and his rubber-stamp Republican Senate.
The challenge for the next Israeli government – the one after Netanyahu – will be to rebuild bridges to Jewish voters and Democrats, not the old stalwarts but the younger ones who enthusiastically embrace Sanders and those who’ve been drifting away. The challenge will be to show the difference is substantive, not just stylistic or rhetorical.
AIPAC’s problem isn’t Sanders but the Jews he attracts. Trump may be a dream candidate for AIPAC and Netanyahu, but he’s a nightmare for most Jews.
Whatever the result of Sanders’s presidential bid, the lessons are clear, and AIPAC, the Israeli government and the sclerotic Jewish establishment ignore them at their own peril.