On the left, they see sharpened criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic statements from members of Congress. On the right, they see an unprecedented relationship with the Israeli prime minister and major gestures of support for Israel’s security.
All around, it looks like a rosy picture for Jewish Republicans seeking to re-elect Donald Trump in 2020, and to attract some centrist Jews — long an unfulfilled dream of the GOP — in the process.
“The case we make is it’s the natural home for Jews these days,” Neil Strauss, spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, said of the Republican Party. “The president has a tremendous track record, and we have a lot of faith in him.”
As the run-up to the 2020 elections begins, conservatives are betting that this is the year they can win a major share of Jewish voters for the Republican Party. The Republican Jewish Coalition has pledged over $10 million to the effort of convincing Jewish voters — who have remained deeply committed Democrats for many an election cycle — to support President Trump in 2020, according to Politico and confirmed by The Jewish Week.
Their case for Trump is two-fold: on the one hand, they point to foreign policy achievements under the Trump administration like last year’s U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the pullout from the Iran deal and Trump’s recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. On the other hand, they point a finger at the Democrats for failing to adequately respond to comments by first-term Rep. Ilhan Omar that were widely deemed to be anti-Semitic.
But observers are quick to note that in spite of President Trump’s record on Israel, a mass defection of Jewish voters from the Democratic Party seems unlikely.
“This has proved to be a futile quest,” said conservative columnist Jonathan Tobin, noting that conservatives have tried to win over Jewish voters for years, “for one very obvious reason — most Jewish voters are not litmus-test one-issue Israel voters.”
While 71 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton and 24 percent for Trump in 2016, the 2018 midterms showed somewhat diminished support for Republicans among Jewish voters, with 79 percent voting for Democrats and 17 percent voting for Republicans. That constitutes a decline from the 2014 midterms when 66 percent of Jews voted for Democrats and 33 percent voted for Republicans.
“The ironclad rule of Jewish voting behavior … is that Jews will vote for the more liberal candidate,” said Steven Bayme, director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee. “The exception is only when the more liberal candidate is perceived as being hostile to Israel.”
Still, the Republican Jewish Coalition sees an opportunity. “When you look at the long-term trend, we’re very much on the upward trend,” said Strauss. “When you look at Jews voting for the presidential nominees, we’re up to the mid-20s now with President Trump, so we’re moving in the right direction.”
Conservatives have repeatedly invoked Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two freshman members of Congress, from Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, who have voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, as evidence for a slip in support for Israel among Democrats.
“It’s plain that the Democrats are behaving as though their party’s Jewish support is invulnerable and inevitable,” Jeff Ballabon, a former adviser to the Trump campaign, wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. Ballabon recently founded “Jexodus,” which he says is a “nonpartisan” organization with the goal of exposing anti-Semitism among progressive Democrats and widely perceived as an attempt to spark an exodus of Jews from the Democratic Party. “I think plenty of Jews are frustrated by that — but it’s almost a moot question: if the Democrats continue to mainstream the Ilhan Omars of their party, Jews simply will not find themselves any more welcome there than in today’s UK Labour Party,” a reference to that party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, some of whose comments have been characterized as anti-Semitic.
“The Republicans are demonstratively supportive of Israel, her security needs and her democratic government,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of the Coalition for Jewish Values and former executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel Synagogues, wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. “In the Democratic Party there is, in my opinion, outright anti-Semitism thinly veiled as ‘anti-Israel’ rhetoric, of a kind never seen or accepted in America. Instead of condemning this, today’s Democrats are defending a woman who minimizes terrorism against both Israeli Jews and against America.”
Conservatives also emphasized Omar’s comments in recent months, and on Twitter several years ago, which were widely seen as anti-Semitic.
“The Democrats have a big anti-Semitism problem on their left so we can see that by some of their elected members,” said RJC’s Strauss, pointing to Omar and Tlaib as well as recent controversies with leaders of the Women’s March and Nation of Islam leader Rev. Louis Farrakhan. “But I think there’s also this recognition that that is their left-wing base.”
Others say support for Israel among the Democrats is strong, despite the positions of Omar and Tlaib, which have been critical of Israeli policies. “The overall trend within the party and its leadership has been very strong support for Israel,” said Bayme of the Democrats. “I don’t see any reason why that cannot be capitalized on in the coming election.”
They also noted the other issues — like health care and immigration — that draw Jews to the Democratic Party.
“There’s no question that Jewish voters are not one-issue voters; we know that Jews vote on a wide range of issues and prioritize domestic policy issues,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
Speaking of the possibility of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, Tobin doubted his positions on Israel would keep Jewish Democrats from voting for him. “If Jewish Democrats don’t vote for him, it’s because they’re against socialism, not because they think he’s too critical of Netanyahu, and he’s Jewish so he’s kind of bulletproof on charges of anti-Semitism. If that’s the weakest candidate the Democrats can put forward, they’re still going to get the majority of the Jewish vote.”
Regarding anti-Semitism, some commentators pointed to the partisan ways in which members of each party perceive the presence of anti-Semitism among their own ranks.
“The people who talk about the threat from left-wing anti-Semitism are right-wing Republicans; left-wing liberal Democrats tend to see the threat from anti-Semitism to be from the right,” said Tobin. “There’s partisan myopia about that.”
Bayme added, “The attempt to say that Republicans are strong on anti-Semitism and the Democrats are not, that’s obviously part of the strategy. The reality is that Trump is a very unpopular president within the Jewish community.”
President Trump himself has been accused of engaging in some of the same anti-Semitic stereotypes that have gotten Omar into trouble. At this year’s RJC conference, he repeatedly referred to Israel as “your country” while addressing the crowd. Strauss says those words were addressed to Israelis in the crowd.
What gives some Republicans hope, and their critics pause, however, is demography.
Bayme pointed to the 2013 Pew Center survey which showed that 35 percent of Jewish children under age 5 were growing up in the Orthodox community, where voters tend to be more conservative. Those children today would now be under age 10. “It’s only eight years down the road — that’s one or two elections away, and you will see a very strong Orthodox participation rate,” said Bayme. “In the long run, the Jewish community will need to recognize that there is an incipient, growing Orthodox representation within the voting population, and that they vote very differently.”
The Orthodox have proven to be Trump’s biggest supporters in the Jewish community. A whopping 71 percent of Orthodox Jews said they approved of the president’s performance compared with 77 percent disapproval among American Jews as a whole, according to a 2017 survey by the AJC of American Jews.
“Certainly with his having moved the embassy to Jerusalem and done the Golan Heights recognition and gotten out of the Iran nuclear deal, he is positioning himself well to potentially repeat that, just on the Israel agenda,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, of the large number of Orthodox voters who favored Trump in 2016. “Alongside that, I would say that many Orthodox Jews care about school choice as an issue because of our heavy use of parochial schools, and also religious liberty issues are very important to the Orthodox segment of the community, as well.”
All of this points to a situation in which partisanship on Israel and anti-Semitism remains high. At a meeting between Jewish leaders and President Trump on Tuesday, several liberal Jewish groups, including the major Reform and Conservative organizations as well as the Anti-Defamation League, were not included, while Orthodox and other right-wing groups were.
“What we are heading towards,” said Tobin, “is a situation in which Israel might be a campaign issue in 2020 in a way that it really has never been before.”