When President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, not everyone in the Jewish community was happy. Though the demand to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was once a consensus issue, reactions broke down, like virtually everything else in this hyper-partisan age, along party lines.
The vast majority of Jewish Democrats are so implacably opposed to the president that they wouldn’t cheer anything he did. But many Democrats also believe the embassy move is just the latest evidence of Republicans seeking to use Israel as a wedge issue to win over Jewish voters as well as others — principally evangelicals — who care deeply about the Jewish state.
They see this as regrettable since, in their view, it politicizes an issue that ought to remain bipartisan. What’s worse, they claim that associating Israel with Republicans as well as the even more toxic Trump brand, is alienating Democrats. Indeed, the close relationship between the Trump administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the widespread support for the president among Israelis is causing some liberals to think of Israel as a red state populated by Jewish “deplorables.”
To back up this assertion they point to recent polls such as one by Gallup that show a widening partisan gap among Americans’ views about Israel with Republicans overwhelmingly supportive — 87 percent — and Democrats deeply divided with only 49 percent holding a favorable opinion of the Jewish state.
Democrats aren’t entirely wrong about this since Republicans have been trying to increase their share of the Jewish vote since 1980 when Ronald Reagan got a record 40 percent share. But in the decades since then, not even the most pro-Israel GOP presidential candidates have come close to that total. While politically conservative and Orthodox Jews tend to regard Israel as a litmus test issue, most Jews see it as just one of many that influence their votes and by no means as important as domestic concerns.
Perhaps in another 50 years when demographic models predict the Orthodox will outnumber the non-Orthodox in the United States, the GOP will succeed in winning the Jewish vote. But until then, as even the most optimistic of Jewish Republicans should have learned, Jews are among the most loyal Democratic voters and there is nothing Trump or anyone else can do about it.
Yet even if we acknowledge that Republican hopes of winning the Jewish vote are a pipe dream, pro-Israel Democrats are kidding themselves if they think the shift in partisan opinion is primarily about the GOP trying to use Israel as a wedge issue.
The two parties have largely swapped identities with respect to Israel. A half century or more ago, Democrats were the lockstep pro-Israel party and Republicans were deeply divided about it. The situation is now reversed. Republicans are nearly unanimous in their enthusiastic backing for Israel while Democrats are the ones who are split with a growing faction on the left that is either deeply critical of the Jewish state or outright opponents.
Part of the problem is the disproportionate influence among Democratic activists of left-wing groups like the Women’s March, which is led by figures like Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, who buy into intersectional theories that falsely consider the Palestinian war on Zionism to be akin to the U.S. civil rights struggle. In a party in which identity politics is the coin of the realm, sympathy for the Palestinians is widespread as is a willingness to believe false charges about Israel and to embrace anti-Zionism.
That trend may grow as the anti-Trump “resistance” becomes more important and the Bernie Sanders wing of the party — which was defeated by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — assumes a more dominant role in 2020. While Sanders may not become the Democratic nominee, his increasingly hostile attitude toward Israel — as demonstrated by a series of videos his office released that absolved Hamas for the recent violence in Gaza and seemed neutral about the “right of return” indicated — may set a marker for other liberal candidates to match.
At this point, pro-Israel Democrats need to stop whining about Republicans trying to capitalize on the administration’s praiseworthy support for the Jewish state, and start concentrating on the real battle facing them: the uphill struggle to save their own party from being captured by left-wingers who have abandoned Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin, whose column appears monthly, is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.