Is the Republican party the new home for pro-Israel Democrats? - opinion

A Republican Jewish Coalition conference focused on the Republicans' strong backing of Israel compared with the Democrats’ waning support for the Jewish state.

Republican Jewish Coalition members listen to a prerecorded video from Donald Trump, in the Venetian resort in Las Vegas, Nov. 6, 2021. (photo credit: Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Republican Jewish Coalition members listen to a prerecorded video from Donald Trump, in the Venetian resort in Las Vegas, Nov. 6, 2021.
(photo credit: Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Last weekend, the Republican Jewish Coalition held its conference in Las Vegas. Attended by over 700 supporters, media outlets billed the event as the first stop for GOP presidential hopefuls to tout their pro-Israel credentials and pitch their candidacy to voters. Yet with Glenn Youngkin’s recent gubernatorial victory in Virginia and Republicans winning several local, blue state races, many speakers concentrated their remarks on the 2022 midterm elections. Contrasting the Republican Party’s strong backing of Israel with the Democrats’ softening support for the Jewish state was also a recurring theme throughout the conference.

As a Jewish conservative living in a Democratic enclave north of New York City, I often find myself surrounded by peers who, while well-intentioned and highly educated, have yet to be, as the late intellectual Irving Kristol quipped, “mugged by reality.” I had them in mind as I listened to two critical speeches by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida). McCarthy emphasized the Democrats’ declining popularity among Jewish voters by pointing to Youngkin receiving 37% of their vote while also affirming that Republicans have “Israel’s back on the world stage.”

Unlike Democratic leadership, who promoted antisemitic Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to vice-chair on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, McCarthy promised that, should he become speaker of the House, Omar would not act in any capacity on the committee. The lawmaker also struck a hopeful chord by declaring that the Virginia Jewish vote was not an outlier. Rather, the results highlight a significant trend of disaffected pro-Israel Democrats who have “had it with anti-Israel, pro-BDS sentiment” within their party. His comments were echoed by Sen. Scott, whose harshest criticism was reserved for his Democratic colleagues who purport to defend Israel yet are silent when faced with anti-Israel posturing within their party.

During his speech, Scott raised his introduction of a resolution last May reaffirming Israel’s right to defend itself during its war with Hamas. The GOP drafted resolution failed to attract any Democrats. Scott referred to an identical effort initiated back in 2014 by Harry Reed, former Democratic senator from Nevada, which enjoyed bipartisan support. Similar frustration was expressed by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York), co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus and the presumptive Republican nominee running for governor in New York.

Zeldin is a leading congressional voice seeking to block the Biden administration’s proposal to reopen a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem and authored a letter to the president, signed by 200 Republican colleagues, protesting the move. At the conference, Zeldin communicated that a handful of congressional Democrats have intimated that they too are troubled by the administration’s plans, yet remain reticent to speak out against the proposed project.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas, Nov. 5, 2021. (credit: Republican Jewish Coalition/JTA)Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas, Nov. 5, 2021. (credit: Republican Jewish Coalition/JTA)

One explanation for said reluctance is that US Jewry fails to exact any meaningful political toll for the Democrats’ drift away from Israel. In the 1976 presidential election, Jimmy Carter received 71% of the Jewish vote. Four years later, in response to his critical stance concerning Israel, Carter’s support among US Jews plummeted to 45%. Like Carter, past president Barack Obama’s relationship with Israel was also strained. Yet decades later, the American Jewish community was not particularly moved to abandon a president whose priorities included appeasing Iran, a country whose leaders repeatedly call for the destruction of Israel. Obama commanded 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008 and shaved less than 10% off that number during his reelection in 2012.

Much attention has also been paid to former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s comments rebuking the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) over its willingness to host Democrats who supported the Iran deal and opposed moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. While Haley was referencing a DC lobby, her comments also apply to US Jewry, the majority of whom remain loyal Democrats despite the party’s evolving position regarding Israel. Naturally, it is this placation that afforded US President Joe Biden the permission to praise BDS advocate Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) as a fighter while also granting Vice President Kamala Harris the space to nod in approval as a Virginia student accused Israel of “ethnic genocide” in September.

A number of speakers also noted the Democrats pulling $1 billion of funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which was part of a stop-gap government funding bill earlier this fall. Its eventual passage in a supplemental appropriations act relied on Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (New York) and Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (California), both of whom are in their 80s and sought to downplay the motivations behind the Left’s opposition to replenishing the defensive weapon. The emerging crop of younger anti-Israel progressives including Omar and Tlaib, contributes to the festering of antisemitism within party ranks and leaves many pro-Israel Democrats attempting to defend the indefensible.

It bears mentioning that president Trump’s video address at the conference correctly stressed his role in fostering the historic Abraham Accords and facilitating the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. And while the former president should be applauded for effectuating meaningful change in the Middle East, the advancement of his foreign policy agenda was bolstered by congressional Republicans like McCarthy and Scott. Both lawmakers not only highlighted the increased dissonance between Democrats and Israel but also spoke to the inspirational rise of minorities in Republican circles like Lieutenant-Governor-elect Winsome Sears, the first woman of color to be elected statewide in Virginia earlier this month.

While it is true that congressional Republicans are no longer defined by firebrands like former lawmakers Jesse Helms and Paul Findley, the case can also be made that Democrats are slowly inching away from a party once characterized by moderates such as former senator Tom Daschle and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-New York) predecessor, ousted congressman Joe Crowley. In Las Vegas, Republicans successfully articulated the repositioning of priorities for both political parties. They are counting on their message of friendship and inclusion provoking electoral change among Jewish Democrats and hope that the Republican enthusiasm displayed last week and which happened in Vegas – doesn’t stay in Vegas.

The author is a writer and pro-Israel advocate. Her work has appeared in ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ JNS, ‘Israel Hayom,’ and ‘The Algemeiner.’