Jewish leaders are sounding alarms about declining support for Israel in Democratic Party ranks, and with good reason: Once a bastion of support for the Jewish state, a party that may be shifting to the left in the wake of its 2016 electoral disaster includes more politicians willing to criticize Israeli policy and a few who are downright hostile. A recent Pew poll found that the blue-red divide has never been greater: 27 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, and 25 percent favor the Palestinians. For Republicans, 79 percent sympathize more with Israel and 6 percent favor the Palestinians.
The recent electoral shocker in Queens, with political newcomer and outspoken progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousting veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary, amplified those blaring alarms. Ocasio-Cortez, who calls herself a Democratic Socialist, has been a vocal critic of Israeli policy, calling its actions along the Gaza border a “massacre.” And responding to reproach for that statement, she has not backed down.
But just as disturbing is the ongoing Republican effort to aggressively exploit support for Israel as a partisan wedge issue and to define “support” in increasingly narrow terms, further jeopardizing the bipartisanship that remains a bulwark of the U.S.-Israel relationship. The last administration’s Mideast policies were troubled, to say the least. But to accuse former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of being “relentless enemies of Israel,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) did in 2016, is the kind of political hyperbole that can only undermine critical bipartisan backing for the Jewish state.
From its inception, the pro-Israel lobby understood the importance of creating a wall of support in Washington cutting across party and ideological lines. Administrations come and go, and control of Congress changes from election to election; building and maintaining support across the political spectrum was seen, correctly, as a critical imperative in keeping U.S.-Israel relations on an even keel. The goal was to expand the pro-Israel political universe, not shrink it through ever-more-restrictive litmus tests and partisan trench warfare.
Using Israel as a political blunt instrument is nothing new in American politics. What is new and particularly dangerous is today’s spirit of unrestrained and bitter partisanship that sees no goals beyond narrow political gain, no tactic beyond the pale.
Using Israel as a political blunt instrument is nothing new in American politics. What is new and particularly dangerous is today’s spirit of unrestrained and bitter partisanship that sees no goals beyond narrow political gain, no tactic beyond the pale. And what’s new is an Israeli prime minister who has so closely tied himself to one American political party and to a president many see as aggressively working to widen the partisan divide.
It is fully appropriate to challenge Democrats whose support may be waning, and to aggressively fight those who are hostile. Whenever possible, though, the goal should be to stem the ebbing tide of support through education and persuasion, not build an ever-longer enemies list. Making unqualified support for every Israeli policy the benchmark of what it means to be “pro-Israel,” and using that in the partisan wars, can only hurt a Jewish state that needs the broadest possible support in Washington.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset and indications that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has ratcheted up his own criticism of Israeli policy in Gaza, is setting the stage for another presidential run are matters of legitimate concern for pro-Israel leaders. There is little question that a major battle is shaping up for control of the party as it seeks an effective response to a GOP now fully committed to the Trump agenda.
But Jewish leaders need to be careful to avoid buying into Republican efforts to castigate the entire Democratic Party as “anti-Israel,” and every Democratic politician who voices any criticism as symptomatic of a raging anti-Israel virus. Just as critical, they cannot afford to write off a progressive electorate that still may include a majority of American Jews. Doing so would put many Jews in the position of having to choose between their values on core, close-to-home issues such as civil rights and economic justice and an Israel that is increasingly remote and troubling to some.
Strong U.S-Israel ties need the active involvement of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. When support sags, the first goal should be to revive it, not wall off and punish those deemed not fully supportive. The success of a lobby rests not only in who it successfully fights, but who it wins over.
That’s a message the current leadership in Jerusalem needs to take to heart, as well.