Jewish Democrats prepare for first online national convention

WASHINGTON AFFAIRS: ‘Biden and Harris are strong supporters of Israel, and I feel very good about our ticket,’ says Texas delegate.

FORMER VICE President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris greet each other before a Democratic primary debate last year. (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
FORMER VICE President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris greet each other before a Democratic primary debate last year.
(photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Rosalie Weisfeld is a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from McAllen, Texas. Next week, she is going to meet her friends from the Texas delegation at a breakfast reception at the sidelines of the conference. It has been a tradition for many years that fellow delegates start the day with an informal gathering.
But unlike conventions in the past, this reception will look a bit different. Each participant is responsible for his or her own breakfast, and the event is being held online.
“You can have a coffee or hot tea, whatever you want. But the idea is that it’s going to be an opportunity to be together,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
Recently, Weisfeld participated in the Texas state convention, and she says that an online setting can still be a good opportunity to meet fellow delegates. “We went into breakout rooms. It was great because we were about eight to 10 people in each room, and we had about 10 minutes to introduce ourselves and chat and share our names and phone numbers and email addresses. And by the time the meeting was over, we were all going to be Facebook friends. So it was quite fun.”
COVID-19 presented a significant challenge for the organizers of both parties’ conventions. Last week, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, announced that he won’t travel to Milwaukee, shifting almost the entire operation to an online format. But participants say that in times of pandemic, there’s not much you can do about it.
Joseph Geller is a state representative in Florida, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and co-chair for Jewish outreach for the Biden campaign in the Sunshine State. Since 1992, he has attended five Democratic conventions. This time, he intends to have an online watch party with his friends during Biden’s acceptance speech.
“It’s been an adjustment,” he told the Post. “I’m an attorney. Now, I don’t go to court – I have hearings in front of my computer. We’re doing political organizing for Biden; I had an event tonight with 40 elected officials from Miami-Dade County. In the past, we would all be in a room. We would rub elbows and talk. Somebody would have a drink. Here, we look at each other’s faces on the screen and listen, but only one person talks at a time.”
He recalls the excitement of attending the event in person. “You have to work to get into a crowded auditorium. The security is in a tent, you get in, and you can hardly move. You can barely breathe. But it’s exciting. This [online setting] takes a little of the excitement out, but in a way, you get a better look at what’s going on stage than you do sitting in a crowded auditorium... So you lose a little bit in rubbing elbows with your friends and neighbors, but you gain back because you can hear everything that’s taking place.”
Lori Berman is a Florida state senator and a delegate to the convention. She told the Post that the fact that Biden and running mate Kamala Harris would accept the nomination remotely wouldn’t affect the level of enthusiasm among the party’s supporters.
“People are very engaged right now because they’re very upset about the situation in the United States with COVID,” she said. “So I think there are just as many people who want to be out there. They may not be knocking on doors, but they’re going to be making phone calls, and they’re going to be doing text. And we’re going to be chasing absentee ballots and making sure that people vote. I really think that there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the Democratic Party.”
Between 3%-4% of Floridian voters are Jewish. Berman says that in November, it could make the difference. “I’m one of the coordinators in the state for the Jewish vote for the Biden campaign. And I think we need to continue to get the message out to the Jewish voters of Florida. How strong Biden and Kamala Harris are in terms of support of Israel and fighting antisemitism.”
Louis Grossman is a consultant and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Sarasota, Florida. “I am a first-time delegate, and I have worked very, very hard to become a Biden delegate,” he told the Post. “I’m also a convention whip, we’re getting votes virtually, so I’ve been chasing votes of people who haven’t voted.”
He said Biden and Harris care for the same issues as Jewish voters care about. “They care about social justice, they care about tikkun olam, they support Israel – and I think that our platform supports Israel.”
Like Grossman, Geller is also satisfied with the party’s platform. “The attempts to come up with a platform that would have been unacceptable to me and my friends and colleagues and neighbors – those attempts were unsuccessful,” he said. “We came up with a very strong platform position on Israel where we oppose BDS. We oppose UN efforts to delegitimize Israel.”
Asked about members of the “Squad,” some of whom voiced support in the BDS movement, he said “there are fringe elements of my party, they don’t have support. That’s not where our party stands. The Democratic platform shows that.
“I think that the comments were antisemitic, and I condemn them,” he continued, referencing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s past tweets and remarks. “But I can tell you that when I look at the leadership here in South Florida from Congressman Ted Deutch, from Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, from Congresswoman Lois Frankel – Ted Deutch led the charge to have the Democratic Party condemn what had been said. I want to be clear. I don’t object to them speaking up on behalf of their own community. But I will not tolerate antisemitic comments directed at my community.”
Weisfeld said that the priority of Jewish voters in her community is education, healthcare and the economy. “And also, an issue of concern to us is the rise in antisemitism,” she added. “Even in our own community, we have very sadly had graffiti written on our doors of Temple Emanuel in McAllen. We had feelings of insecurity because of the antisemitic tropes that were written on the doors of the temple.”
She noted that the attitude to Israel of the presumptive nominee and his running mate is also an important factor for her. “I’m Jewish and I’m also a Zionist and I’m proud to be a Zionist,” she said. “I’m a lifelong member of Hadassah. And I feel that both vice president Biden and Sen. Harris are strong supporters of Israel, and I feel very good about our ticket.
“I’m not denying that there are a few people who do not feel the same as I do,” she said in reference to the far-left flank of the party. “But those are in the minority within the Democratic Party.”
NEIL STRAUSS, the spokesperson for the Republican Jewish Coalition, pushed back against Biden’s and Harris’s record on Israel. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have both proven that their support of Israel is conditional,” he told the Post. “At the end of his term, Biden helped the Obama administration rally countries to vote for UN Resolution 2334. That was after the presidential election, and probably when he thought he was done with politics. That really kind of shows his true feelings and his true support for Israel.
“And look at Kamala Harris,” he continued. “When she was running in the primary when she thought it was advantageous to vote against anti-BDS legislation, she did so. She can [say] whatever she wants about her record on Israel. But she has shown that when it’s not politically convenient, she won’t be there for Israel.
“Support for Israel is really important [for voters]. Sometimes polling shows that it’s not a top issue for Jews,” Strauss added. “But part of the reason for that is because there’s been strong bipartisan support for Israel, and [now] there is a feeling that the Democratic Party is losing its traditional support for Israel.”
David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute and director of its project on Arab-Israel relations, told the Post that “so long as Israel is not viewed as being at war, that its very existence is seen as under threat, you’re going to see more and more people viewing Israel as one of several issues, but not as the defining issue” when it comes to voting patterns. “That’s true for many, but it’s not true for all. For the Orthodox, Israel is the [most important] issue. But many of the supporters in the Democratic Party would say, look, you could be both for Israel and for tikkun olam and other issues that they care about.
“It could be that Ilhan Omar has a high Twitter following, but most people are not on Twitter. And it creates a very skewed sense of where most Democratic voters are,” Makovsky continued. “There are detractors of Israel in the case of some members of Congress, but 95% of the Democrats voted several months ago to condemn BDS and to make the MOU [on support for Israel] a law. So I think that you need to be a little careful and not fall into these caricatures that people have that the Democrats are now defined by some of these people that are at the edges.”
Dov Waxman, director of UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, told the Post that most Jewish voters have been aligned with the Democratic Party for nearly a century. “Jewish support for the Democratic Party has been a constant, stable feature of American-Jewish voting dating back to the 1920s. This is a long-term alliance between American Jews and the Democratic Party,” he said. “That began in the 1920s and increased in the 1930s when the so-called New Deal coalition was formed under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has continued since then. And in fact, the Jewish support for the Democratic Party has increased since the 1990s.”
He said Jews are much more supportive of the Democratic Party than are Americans in general. They’re also, according to polling data, more supportive of Democrats than any other religious group in the United States, Waxman noted.
“And their level of support for Democrats is only surpassed by African-Americans. So it’s really, quite exceptional – typically between two thirds, as much as three quarters of American Jews have voted for the Democratic candidates in presidential elections.” He said he expects Jewish voters to follow the same pattern in 2020, as well. “Biden and Harris will get at least 70% of the Jewish vote, as [Hillary] Clinton did and Barack Obama did.”
Asked if President Donald Trump’s pro-Israel policies such as recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving the embassy could shift voters, Waxman said it is unlikely.
“Most American Jews don’t vote according to their views about Israel. Israel is just not nearly near the top of their priorities in terms of what shapes their vote,” he said. “So although most American Jews are pro-Israel and support Israel, their support for Israel isn’t what drives their voting behavior. So even if they believed that President Trump was a wonderful president for Israel and was doing these wonderful things for Israel, it wouldn’t override their opposition to his domestic policies.”