Coverage of this month’s gathering in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is so predictable that the headlines may as well be written in advance.
Something like: “The fate of bipartisan support for the Jewish state is in question – for the first time.” “Democrats are turning against Israel in record numbers.” “With Congress divided on Israel policy, the future of its foreign assistance packages might be in doubt.” “US President Donald Trump once again says the Democratic Party hates Jews.”
These are the most dramatic. But coverage of the recent scandal prompted by Ilhan Omar, the controversial Democratic freshman congresswoman from Minnesota who set off a firestorm two weeks ago over her commentary on Israel and AIPAC, has already set the tone. The Democratic caucus in the House fell into internal disarray over how to respond, reflective of a divide within the party along generational lines – and Republicans smelled blood in the water, eager to take advantage of Democratic disunity and accusations that the party will soon face an identity crisis over antisemitism in its ranks.
The fact of the matter is that Democrats have become increasingly critical of the Israeli government. But the Israeli government has not been static – it, too, has changed over time, as have its policies. The question is which political phenomenon has prompted the other.
THE DEMOCRATS, as a matter of course, are more critical of Israel and less deferential to it than they have ever been in the modern era. This has increasingly been the case for many years. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that a partisan gap in favorability toward Israel has reached historic polarization, and a Gallup poll released just this past week found that Democrats continue to lose favor for Israel in the context of its conflict with the Palestinians. Within that poll we find that moderate Democrats and liberal Democrats are falling increasingly out of favor with Israel, and that overall 43% of Democrats sympathize with the state – not even a majority. Of self-identified liberals, 3% sympathize with Israel.
All told, a majority of Americans continue to view Israel in a positive light – roughly 59% – and that number has only marginally fluctuated over the course of 20 years. And it does not follow that decreasing sympathy for Israel results in an increase in sympathy for the Palestinian cause. That number has remained remarkably consistent at around 21%.
In light of the Omar controversy, Trump claimed that Democrats are an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish party. But the party does not face the sort of institutional, structural antisemitism that has gripped the UK Labour Party, where leaders responsible for setting the tone, enforcing standards, writing policy and executing disciplinary action have perpetuated the crisis there. Among Democratic leadership, by contrast, the speaker of the House, the Democratic whip, the caucus chairman and the Senate minority leader are all proudly Zionist.
So, too, are all of the Democratic presidential candidates that have entered the race so far. Over a dozen of them – from the far-left Bernie Sanders to centrists such as Amy Klobuchar – support Jewish self-determination in the ancestral homeland as a basic concept. All of them oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, and endorse the outline definition of antisemitism set forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
SO HAS the Democratic Party moved to the left, or has Israel has moved to the right?
In Israel, it is a demonstrable fact that the political Left has collapsed. Some of the largest political figures on the Left have either had to retire from politics due to lack of support or shift their positions to the Center. Either a center-right government is going to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month – a coalition that has not called for a withdrawal of Israeli forces or settlers from the West Bank – or a far-right coalition will take power that conceivably could include an overtly racist party affiliated with domestic terrorists that hope to expel full Arab citizens.
Some in the existing right-wing bloc in Israel would not recognize most Americans Jews as Jewish. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem refuses to meet with Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel because he believes they are a corrupting force to Judaism.
“Reform and Conservative [Jews] champion the destruction of Judaism,” Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger of Degel Hatorah said last week. “The people of Israel and residents of Jerusalem, whom I have the honor to serve, are not connected to these movements and do not want them to gain a foothold in the city or within the Jewish people.”
There are many examples of this, the most prominent perhaps being the fight over who is allowed to pray at the Western Wall and how much of a slice of it everyone gets.
But then there are also other issues, like the high-profile instances of Ben-Gurion Airport security stopping young Jewish visitors and grilling them on their political views. And there is the power of a strict rabbinate over much of Israeli life, including who gets to marry in the eyes of the state and who is a legitimate convert to Judaism (the answer is no one, unless it’s been performed under Orthodox guidelines).
Democrats see in Israel a lurch rightward toward a geopolitical alignment they are fighting against, strongmen with nationalist rhetoric and racial claims to land. And when American Jews see this political landscape – including those who have throughout their lives identified with Israel as a haven for a long-oppressed minority and a beacon of democracy – there are concerns.
American Jews, first and foremost, already do not prioritize Israel when they go to the polls. Over 70% reliably vote for Democrats each year, prioritizing issues of social welfare, pluralism, religious tolerance and climate change, and 79% in 2018 – an 8% increase since Trump’s 2016 election – said that they would not vote for Trump or anyone affiliated with him under any circumstances. That’s where the American Jewish community stands, viewing Trump’s policies of embracing far-right leaders in Europe and tolerating ethno-nationalists at home as fundamentally un-Jewish.
When those Americans see Israel’s leaders doing exactly the same thing and embracing Trump so wholeheartedly, it raises questions as to whether Israelis appreciate the concerns of American Jews with Trump’s leadership and values. American Jews are expected to be there for Israel, but they are not seeing Israeli leadership stand up for them, as antisemitism steadily rises across mainstream America and on Trump’s watch. And all of this serves to undermine their support for the state – not to risk a divorce, but weaken resolve, understanding and a united front against genuinely common challenges.
IT IS a remarkable state of affairs when the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC are condemning the Israeli prime minister for going so far right as to embrace the Otzma Yehudit (meaning “Jewish Power”) Party. And Israeli officials are not blind to this.
They understand the cost of “embracing the ogre” in America and far-right parties at home, as one senior Israeli official told me recently, and there are extensive conversations within the Israeli diplomatic sphere on how best to maintain bipartisan support for the state.
Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer often says that maintaining the US-Israel alliance with the support of only one party or the other is like trying to fly a plane with one wing. He has represented Israel in Washington through some extraordinary fights, including public battles with the Obama administration over Iran nuclear policy and Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank.
Now he, alongside his colleagues in the Israeli government as well as AIPAC leadership, understands that something is caught in one of the engines. Dermer just does not believe that Israel’s actions are responsible for that progressive shift.
AIPAC is not so convinced. Unlike the gun and fossil fuel lobbies, which Omar compared recently to AIPAC in a tweetstorm this month, AIPAC’s “power” in Washington is actually predicated on maintaining bipartisan support. Its raison d’être is to ensure that the fundamentals of America’s alliance with Israel remain sound: that both parties continue to back Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, as well as its right to protect itself. So its latest mission will be to shore up the backing of Democrats, not to castigate them as anti-Israel, and to revitalize liberal support for the founding creed of the state.
By these measures, AIPAC is likely to have a relatively successful, uneventful conference. Evidence continues to mount that Democrats see warning signs in Israel’s current course – and Israel’s direction, without significant change, may continue to ostracize the large majority of American Jews. But the country’s support for the original Zionist idea remains strong, as does institutional support for the state within the Democratic Party.
And within that party, American Jews will continue to hold on to the promise of Israel through the realities of Israel, with a deep understanding of the justice of Zionism, the role of Israel as a place in Jewish history and Jewish life, and the difference between criticism of some fleeting government and broad bigotry toward the only Jewish state.
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