Republicans versus Democrats: Who loves Israel more? - opinion

Expect a spate of Republican initiatives – legislation, resolutions, amendments, letters, petitions ad nauseam – trying to drive a wedge between Democrats and Jewish voters over supporting Israel.

 US HOUSE Speaker Kevin McCarthy bangs the gavel for the first time, last Saturday. Will he invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress?  (photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)
US HOUSE Speaker Kevin McCarthy bangs the gavel for the first time, last Saturday. Will he invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress?
(photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

The fact that there are only two Jewish Republicans in the 118th Congress (Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee and freshman Rep. Max Miller of Ohio) speaks volumes about the party’s appeal to Jewish voters. And about the love they profess for the Jewish state.

Donald Trump talks a lot about how disloyal Jews are – to him and to America and Israel – after all he did for them as president. But in candid moments, he’s been known to admit it was really intended to please a small but influential cadre of wealthy Jewish contributors and – even more importantly – Evangelical voters, who are far more numerous and important to the GOP. 

Jewish voters get it. That’s why they consistently vote 3:1 Democrat. This year there are 33 Jewish lawmakers in Congress (24 in the House and nine in the Senate) plus one who claims to be Jew-ish, plus one who lists herself as a Messianic Jew – Florida Republican Rep. Anna Paulina Lunda.

Many in the GOP’s influential religious base see Israel – a hardline, perpetually embattled and ultimately suffering Israel – as critical to the Second Coming and the conversion of a sad remnant of the Jews, not the permanent homeland of the Jewish people.

Trump lowered it to an uglier level, but the patron saint of the weaponization of support for Israel is Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House. He knew Republicans had a long history of voting against foreign aid, including for Israel, so with his penchant for scorched-earth politics he seized on Israel as a wedge issue to attack his opposition.

Former US President Donald Trump makes a fist while reacting to applause after speaking at the North Carolina GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, US June 5, 2021.  (credit: JONATHAN DRAKE / REUTERS)Former US President Donald Trump makes a fist while reacting to applause after speaking at the North Carolina GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, US June 5, 2021. (credit: JONATHAN DRAKE / REUTERS)

He knew Republicans couldn’t get many Jewish votes with their extreme domestic agenda, but he wanted to appeal to wealthy conservative donors and hopefully weaken support for Democrats if he could challenge their bonafides on Israel. He was also appealing to the emerging influential religious right.

Trump dramatically escalated the competition over who loves Israel more. He repeated his boast of achievements before a Jewish audience and set the tone for what we expect from the 118th Republican-led House of Representatives. He declared that Congress has become “almost anti-Israel” because some Democrats “hate Israel with a passion.”

He didn’t bother mentioning that he hosted dinner for the Adolf Hitler fan club at his golf club or being responsible for a long series of antisemitic tropes since before he entered politics.

How will Republicans use Israel to drive a wedge between Jews and Democrats?

YOU CAN expect a spate of Republican initiatives – legislation, resolutions, amendments, letters, petitions ad nauseam – attempting to drive a wedge between Democrats and Jewish voters over support for Israel, even as they try to enact a domestic agenda anathema to a vast majority of American Jewry.

They will want to exploit concerns about the new extreme right-wing government in Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a reputation for plunging into American partisan politics on the side of the Republicans.

The Netanyahu government’s policies on LGBTQ rights, Palestinians, peace negotiations, religious plurality, West Bank settlements, territorial annexation, judicial reform, segregation, religion-state separation and democratic rights are a cause of consternation among mainstream American Jews, as well as most Democrats and the Biden administration.

Republicans in prior Congresses have introduced legislation recognizing the right of Jews to settle and claim sovereignty in all of the ancient Land of Israel. I expect it again in the GOP House, and that Jews and Democrats who dissent will be called anti-Israel.

A simple House resolution could pass on party line-votes and doesn’t need to go to the Senate or the White House. Promoting such a resolution would play straight into the hands of fundraisers and campaign staffs, and produce C-SPAN sound bites to expose those “who refuse to support our friend Israel.”

Don’t be surprised if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) invites Netanyahu (R-Jerusalem) to address Congress just as his predecessor, John Boehner, did to lead the Republican opposition to president Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement.

Republicans will get a lot of help from Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious coalition. Jews and Democrats have been increasingly critical of Israel’s occupation and settlements. The new government will further alienate many.

Another ploy could be to invite some of Netanyahu’s more controversial ministers, like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir or Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and then attack Jews and Democrats for boycotting the meetings. 

Rep. Ronnie Jackson, Trump’s former White House physician and now a Texas congressman, has filed a suit against President Joe Biden, saying he “has blood on his hands” for “financing terrorism” by authorizing funding for the Palestinian Authority to “score cheap political points with the antisemites in his party.” Look for him to bring it to the House floor in some form.

Republicans have talked about trying to remove some Democrats from their committee assignments, in retaliation for Democrats doing the same to a pair of accused antisemites, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) who informed the world that Jewish space lasers started California forest fires, and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, whose own siblings accused him of antisemitism. 

McCarthy announced he plans to retaliate by removing Rep. Adam Schiff (R-California) from the Intelligence committee; as chairman, he led the impeachment of Trump. Another McCarthy target is Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), a strident critic of Israel who sits on the Foreign Affairs committee. Presumably, that will show his love for Israel.

On the first day of this Congress, Greene introduced a bill that prohibits all funding “that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority.” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) said last month that he would work in Congress to make sure “it is an American interest for Judea and Samaria – indeed all the land of the Bible – to remain a part of Israel.”

This has nothing to do with foreign policy. That is made at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. This is just “gotcha” politics, using Israel as a cheap wedge issue.

Halie Soifer, head of the Jewish Democratic Council, said Republicans have used Israel and antisemitism as political wedge issues for many years. These “messaging bills” will keep failing “because some of the most blatant antisemitism has come from Trump and the Republicans,” she said, pointing to Charlottesville, January 6, the presidential debate where Trump refused to denounce the antisemites like the Proud Boys, and his dinner with prominent antisemites. 

Who loves Israel more will be a sideshow for the 118th Congress. The greatest concern of Jewish voters and Democrats is likely to be the planned Republican assault on Social Security and Medicare, as well as an intensifying war against reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights. The new leadership has vowed to cut government spending, including those vital social safety net programs, even if it means shutting down the government to force Democrats to bow to their demands.

That’s one more reason why Jews will continue voting Democrat by large majorities and still love Israel.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.