Iowa may be the Achilles’ heel in the fabled power of the Israel lobby. Unfortunately, Jews are losing the state.
There are about 6,000 Jews in Iowa according to the latest Statistical Abstract of the United States. That means only one in 500 Iowans is Jewish. By comparison, New York, California, and Illinois have 1.6 million, 1.2 million, and 278 thousand Jews, representing 8.3 percent, 3.3 percent, and 2.2 percent of their respective state populations. The challenge to maintain basic religious services in Iowa leaves little leadership to defend Israel and the Jewish people.
And yet, contrary to the coastal view of America, Iowa has a disproportionate impact on national politics. Iowa has led most of the nation in allowing interracial marriage, ending segregation, opening public universities to women, striking down anti-sodomy laws and allowing same-sex marriage.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses give it disproportionate political attention. Any serious presidential candidate must make multiple visits to the state to be viable. The lack of a significant Jewish presence in Iowa presents a problem for Jews in this country.
Pro-Jewish and pro-Israel forces rely heavily on support originating with local Jewish community organizations. The only Jewish Community Relations Council in Iowa is part of the Des Moines Jewish Federation and it is the smallest JCRC in the country. AIPAC, the ADL, and other pro-Israel groups rely entirely on Iowa’s Jewish base for their continued activity in Iowa. Christians United for Israel does put on a significant event to raise money for Israel each year, but that support has yet to translate into significant new political support for Jewish interests – particularly in areas where such interests are being brushed aside.
Anti-Israel forces in the state, however, are very active.
Mainline church activist groups, anti-war groups, and pro-Palestine groups focus heavily on their anti-Israel efforts. Several members of Rachel Corrie’s family live in Iowa and are activists against Israel.
Furthermore, they create a culture of Jew-hatred in their wake. For several years, a regular protester on Shabbat plagued the Iowa City synagogue. Antiwar rallies frequently attract antisemitic slogans. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian organization that employs anti-Jewish rhetoric, has twice held major conferences in the state.
Most importantly, anti-Israel activists seek legitimacy for their efforts to delegitimize Israel. This legitimacy-seeking activity provoked candidate Barack Obama to say during the 2008 presidential campaign, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." One of the leading anti-Israel activists in Iowa set the trap with a question and Obama stepped into it. The Des Moines Register dutifully reported the story without important context that would have undermined the anti-Israel framing.
In his nuanced style, Obama blamed the Palestinian Arab leadership, particularly Hamas, for such suffering. He defended the "special relationship" with Israel. However, anti-Israel activists quickly raised up their trophy and this context was not reported. Although the Obama campaign quickly provided the fuller context, The Des Moines Register did not report these details until weeks later.
Most of the Iowa Jewish leadership knew the context and refused to deal with the story as framed. However, when the Des Moines Register published a single Jewish letter writer who asked for clarification, many claimed that Jews were trying to squelch criticism of Israel. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, pushed this view aggressively in print and public appearances throughout Iowa less than one month later. When everything settled, the anti-Israel narrative won the day and Jews were cast as censors.
In the interceding two years, nothing has improved.
Caucuses require in-person attendance. In 2010, Iowa’s caucuses were moved to Saturday, thereby excluding Shabbat-observant Jews. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs organized a letter that condemned the decision because it "disenfranchises members of the Jewish community" and "is utterly inconsistent with the values of our pluralistic democracy." Among the 18 signatories were the National Jewish Democratic Council, Republican Jewish Coalition, Anti-Defamation League, Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism, and United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism.
When the Iowa Democratic Party considered an amendment to its constitution this year at its state convention to prohibit holding caucuses on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, the amendment was easily defeated. As a practical matter its failure harmed only Jewish interests. There has never been discussion to hold the caucuses on Friday or Sunday.
The Republican Party in Iowa remains solidly pro-Israel and receives the benefit of a growing CUFI presence in the state. But anti-Israel activists are pushing hard for the Democratic Party to abandon its support. Iowa leans blue and Democratic Party politics are the critical battleground. In both 2008 and 2010, efforts by anti-Israel activists placed one-sided criticism of Israel in the draft state Democratic Party platforms – platforms that never criticized any other state in the world. Fortunately, pro-Israel activists removed the language at the state conventions. In 2008, coordinated opposition to the language fairly readily defeated it. In 2010, however, the language was only very narrowly defeated.
The immediate threat from this trend is that delegitimizing rhetoric aimed at Israel will become normal and politicians will inadvertently support it. In fact, two of the three Democratic US Senate primary candidates this year attended anti-Israel events during their primary campaigns.
In 2012, the caucuses will focus heavily on the Republicans. In the absence of a strong run by someone like Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan, there will be few opportunities for the enemies of Israel. Republicans are not likely to turn against Israel in the short term. However, on Jewish issues like Shabbat caucuses, Republicans may do no better.
That changes in 2016, when Democrats have a contested presidential election. Democratic candidates will be pushed harder to take anti-Israel positions. While top candidates might have a national strategy that more heavily considers later votes from more Jewish places, it will not change the fact that candidates are made or broken in Iowa. Jews throughout America should be concerned about this fact.
James Edward Johnson is an active member of Iowa’s Jewish community and Democratic Party.