Democratic Party’s Soul Battered Over Israel
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Democratic Party’s Soul Battered Over Israel

Fresh urgency in battle between centrist and progressive wings.

Illustrative photo: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (C) (D-CA) and newly elected members of the House Democratic Leadership team pose for a formal portrait at the U.S. Capitol on November 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. Getty Images
Illustrative photo: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (C) (D-CA) and newly elected members of the House Democratic Leadership team pose for a formal portrait at the U.S. Capitol on November 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. Getty Images

When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stood on a debate stage in April 2016 — at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in Brooklyn, of all places — and blasted the Israeli army’s conduct in the previous summer’s Gaza clashes, it provided an electric jolt to progressive Democrats. And it was a potent signal, delivered in a thick Brooklyn accent, that the Israel debate in the Democratic Party was changing, and fast. Hillary Clinton, the very symbol of Democratic centrism, came vigorously to Israel’s defense that night.

A little more than a year later, former Florida Rep. Ron Klein launched the Jewish Democratic Council of America. It seemed in part a bid to shore up Israel’s position in the party, as progressive Jews, energized by Sanders and increasingly frustrated by Israel’s West Bank policies, pulled leftward.

Now, in the wake of the election of two pro-BDS House members from the Upper Midwest, one of whom now sits alongside Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, comes the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI). Launched last week by Democratic Party heavyweights including pollster Mark Mellman, leading strategist and Clinton loyalist Ann Lewis, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Obama administration HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, the new group is trying to occupy a narrow lane on the pro-Israel Democratic highway. As it attempts to bolster pro-Israel Democrats and perhaps blunt some of the energy on the progressive left, it must deftly angle for influence between J Street on its left flank and AIPAC on its right.

Jewish progressives already see the DMFI as an indication that the party is running scared.

“They’re nervous that perspectives on Israel and Palestine, and particularly on the occupation that for a long time were treated as though they were fringe, have now garnered champions in Congress,” said Jacob Plitman, 28, publisher of the leftist magazine Jewish Currents. “I can see why there’s energy in more conservative circles to try and wield donor power to pull the conversation back towards the right.”

Ann Lewis, former communications director for President Bill Clinton, is co-chair of Democratic Majority for Israel. The title of “pro-Israel” not the province of one political party. Wikimedia Commons

Polling data seems to bolster Plitman’s sentiments, as the centrist and activist wings of the party appear to be pulling further apart. According to a Pew Research Center poll last year, 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israelis compared with 6 percent who sympathize more with Palestinians. Meanwhile, 27 percent of Democrats sympathize more with Israelis while nearly the same proportion, 25 percent, sympathize more with Palestinians. Among Democrats, the differences between “liberal Democrats” and “conservative/moderate Democrats” may be another indicator of the divisions between the activist and centrist wings of the party. While 35 percent of liberal Democrats sympathized more with Palestinians, 19 percent sympathized more with Israelis. Conservative/moderate Democrats showed nearly opposite leanings, with 35 percent sympathizing more with Israelis and 17 percent sympathizing more with Palestinians.

Progressives “are bringing forth opinions and perspectives that for a long time have had a base … but now they’ve made it into Congress,” said Plitman.

While the new organization has made only a handful of official statements and released no official policy positions, there have been some clues as to its position on the political spectrum. Many of DMFI’s board members have ties to AIPAC, leading some to speculate that DMFI may serve as a Democratic version of the long-standing and powerful pro-Israel lobby. In one of the group’s first official statements last week, Mellman, the group’s founder and CEO, released a statement calling out freshman Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent comments on Israel as “biased and inccurate.” Omar, elected as part of a wave of progressive candidates, has become a popular figure on the left, while provoking leaders of the Jewish community with harsh comments about Israel.

“It made me think about the way that Jewish community institutions often function, where there’s a small number of people with a lot of money who don’t really reflect the politics of the community as a whole,” said Alex Langer, 26, a member of anti-occupation activist group IfNotNow. “I think that Democratic Majority for Israel does not reflect the politics of the majority of the Democratic Party or the majority of Jews in the Democratic Party.”

For staunchly pro-Israel progressives, DMFI is a welcome addition to what some perceive to be a shrinking overlap of progressive values and pro-Israel support. “Having a group that is outright Democrat and pro-Israel and trying to make their voice known for that is important,” said Sarah Sarway, 27, who described herself and other pro-Israel Democrats as “feeling lost on the left.”

Some Democrats lay the blame for polarization around Israel with congressional Republicans who have pushed for anti-BDS legislation to be included with a bill allocating foreign aid for Israel, an issue with broader bipartisan support. The anti-BDS component of the bill has concerned several Senate Democrats who see it as a curtailing of freedom of speech, as the American Civil Liberties Union has argued.

“What you’re seeing now is a coordinated Republican attempt to depict Israel as a partisan issue in order to gain more Jewish voters,” said Carly Pildis, an activist and board member of Zioness, a Zionist and progressive activist coalition. “Members of the Democratic Party are saying this really isn’t accurate, that this narrative you’re forming is not reflective of reality and we’d like to combat that, and I fully applaud that effort.”

Ann Lewis, co-chair of DMFI, echoed Pildis’ sentiments in an op-ed for JTA this week. “We will oppose attempts to claim the title of ‘pro-Israel’ as the exclusive property of one political party for its own purposes, a tactic that inevitably would lessen Israel’s support,” she wrote.

“I actually reject what I consider to be the false narrative that there’s a problem with regard to support of Israel within the Democratic Party,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “I think the election of Rashida Tlaib [D-Mich.] and Ilhan Omar is just that, the election of two women in this case who happen to have views on Israel that are not shared by the mainstream of either the Jewish electorate or the Democratic electorate and the party.”

Tlaib and Omar, two Muslim women elected to the House in November, have made headlines with their vocal support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Omar was widely condemned for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote that Israel had “hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She apologized for the comment last month.

Ilhan Omar speaks at a Hillary Clinton event at the University of Minnesota, October 2016. JTA

“I think it’s really important to remind everyone who cares about Israel, Jewish or not, that the Democratic Party — from the leadership on down — is overwhelmingly supportive of Israeli military aid, supportive of the special relationship that has existed between these two countries,” said Pildis. “So the notion that that is partisan, it’s a political tactic that doesn’t reflect actual policy or actual votes or actual proposals.”

The details of that support, however, have certainly become partisan. While AIPAC has encouraged senators to vote for a bill upholding anti-BDS laws across the country, J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby group, has condemned the bill, while also condemning BDS, for infringing on freedom of speech. Where DMFI comes down on that question may determine the style of pro-Israel politics it plans to adopt.

For some younger Democrats, DMFI has yet to differentiate itself from the pro-Israel groups already out there. Shanie Reichman, 23, strategic initiatives associate at Israel Policy Forum, said she had not seen anything from DMFI that would differentiate it from AIPAC. “I think what will determine if this specific group is successful in engaging the younger generation, in engaging the future Democratic Party, will be if they account for growing concerns over Israeli policies,” said Reichman, who described herself as a center-left Zionist. “It’s not necessarily enough from my perspective to say that you’re progressive on domestic American issues and then also support Israel. … It also requires you to take a stance on Israeli policies.”

As primaries for the 2020 presidential elections heat up with what appears to be the most diverse Democratic presidential primary field in history — paralleling the most diverse freshmen class in the House — the question of support for Israel on the left is particularly urgent. DMFI plans to spend heavily on the 2020 election, providing a counterweight to the shifting winds of Democratic sentiment towards Israel.

Still, Democrats note that none of the confirmed primary candidates have staked positions outside the Democratic Party’s norms around Israel. “Campaigning has already started, and you are not seeing even a potential primary candidate on the Democratic side that is not staunchly pro-Israel,” said Pildis.

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