The axiom that Jews are Democrats was demonstrated anew last month when exit polls found that 70 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballot for Democrat Hillary Clinton – the largest percentage of any religious group to support her.
But some Jews are now warning that their support for the party could be jeopardized if Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota is selected as the next party chairman because of statements and actions over the years that many see as anti-Israel.
This is happening at the same time that Republican President-elect Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to change the tone between the U.S. and Israel, which has been strained and at times testy under the administration of President Barack Obama. A major source of friction is Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, something Obama adamantly opposed as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Trump has said the does not oppose construction of new settlements.
The warnings to Democrats that their selection of Ellison would alienate Jewish supporters has been unmistakable.
Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor at Brandeis University, observed in an article for The Jewish Week that for at least a century the majority of American Jews have “responded passionately to Democratic centrist liberalism. … For many Jews, active involvement in social justice political movements is a profound expression of Jewishness.”
But, Fishman warned, “if the Democratic Party embraces a leftist, anti-Israel narrative, I, along with many American Jews, may find ourselves without a viable political home.” (See page 27.)
Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party funder, put it equally bluntly when he said at last weekend’s Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., that Ellison is “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.” His selection as Democratic Party chairman, Saban said without reservation, would be a “disaster” for the party.
The Anti-Defamation League, which at first supported Ellison’s nomination, said late last week that a tape recording of a speech Ellison delivered about Israel in 2010 has now raised “serious doubts” about his ability to “faithfully represent the Democratic Party’s traditional support for a strong and secure Israel.”
The remarks, the ADL said, were “disqualifying” of Ellison’s candidacy because they were reminiscent of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews control the government.
On the tape, Ellison, who says his comments were taken out of context, complains about Israel, saying U.S. “foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? … We can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM.”
His comments were somewhat similar to the views Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee to be defense secretary, voiced in 2013 when he said he had “paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom [U.S. Central Command] because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, was one of only eight House members to vote against funding Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system while missiles were being fired at Israel during the 2014 Gaza War. He has also been criticized for working for Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan on the 1995 Million Man March.
In an interview with The Jewish Week last month, Ellison defended his record, saying that he left the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan after it “became apparent to me that he said things about Jews that I disagreed with” and that his vote against the 2014 Iron Dome funding was a one-off, and that he has voted over the years “for several billions in bilateral aid to Israel.”
On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) reaffirmed his support for Ellison.
“We have discussed his views on Israel at length, and while I disagree with some of his past positions, I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades by successfully persuading other skeptical committee members to adopt such a strong platform. As chair of the DNC, he has committed to continuing to uphold that platform and to convince others that they support it as well.”
Both Bend the Arc and J Street — which, along with another dovish Jewish group, Americans for Peace Now, are supporting Ellison — have in recent days renewed their support. And last Friday, J Street issued a statement calling for an end to the attacks on Ellison’s record of support for Israel.
“It is time to retire the playbook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies,” it said. “J Street believes that this recurrent process undermines our ability to have open, honest and productive conversations about Israel and the Middle East in our national politics, and that it does deep and lasting damage to the American Jewish community.”
J Street’s statement echoed the views of President Obama, who in 2009 told Jewish leaders after his election that he planned to voice criticism of Israel publicly rather than convey it privately so that his defense of Israel would be more credible. He said at the time that he believed there was a way to be pro-Israel without hewing to the Likud Party line.
On Tuesday, Bend the Arc said it was reaffirming its support because of the “misleading attacks” against Ellison. It called him a “close ally of the progressive Jewish community” who has “unfailingly advanced the cause of tolerance and respect for religious minorities during his time in Congress.”
The group added that Trump’s “selection of Stephen Bannon, a peddler of white supremacist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, as his chief adviser is infinitely more concerning than the regurgitated innuendo being circulated about Rep. Ellison, much of it originating from right-wing sources.”
Trump supporter Audrey Atlas, of Boca Raton, Fla., disagrees, saying that Bannon has been “enormously supportive of Israel throughout the years. My hope is that he continues to be so, and many of my friends feel the same way.”
Another Trump supporter, author Alan Skorski, said he is not surprised by the fierceness of the attacks on pro-Israel Trump supporters “by the Jewish left.”
“They will not allow Republicans to make inroads into the Jewish community,” he said. “Every poll shows that the Republicans are more pro-Israel than the Democrats, so the only way to attack him [Trump] is on everything else. But on some liberal issues he is not vulnerable — he supports Planned Parenthood and gay marriage and has been respectful of the gay community.”
Trump, both in interviews and through his advisors, has made clear that he plans to be both supportive of Israel and devoted to trying to arrange peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He has spoken of asking his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, to help facilitate such a deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he looked forward to working with Trump, whom he has known for many years and who made a campaign video for Netanyahu when he was running for reelection in 2013.
“I am confident that president-elect Trump and I will continue to strengthen the unique alliance between our two countries and bring it to ever greater heights,” he said in a statement.
A poll of 500 Israelis released this week found that 83 percent believe Trump will be a “pro-Israel president.” The poll, conducted on behalf of the Ruderman Family Foundation, did not define “pro-Israel” but reflects Trump’s stated desire to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In addition, the Monthly Peace Index published Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, found that 48.5 percent of Israeli Jews and 60 percent of Arabs believe Trump is more sympathetic to Israel, while only 1 percent of Israelis believe he is more sympathetic to Palestinians. Also, fully 80.5 percent of Israeli Jews agree with the recent statement by the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who said: “Israel has no doubt that President-elect Trump is a true friend of Israel.”