The history of the pro-Israel movement in the United States was always predicated on one goal: creating a bipartisan consensus in favor of support for the Jewish state. And for many years, it succeeded in doing just that. There is a strong tradition of support for the ideas of a Jewish state that dates back to the earliest days of the American republic so Zionism is baked deep into the nation’s DNA.
AIPAC activists, therefore, had little trouble cultivating rising politicians from both major parties. The result was that in the last half-century, the ranks of Congress were filled with politicians who could be counted on to support Israel, even if they had few Jewish constituents.
But it’s time to acknowledge that the era of bipartisan support for Israel is over.
As the latest Gallup tracking poll of attitudes towards Israel and the Middle East conflict indicate, when broken down by party affiliation, Democrats now sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel. Currently, 49% of Democrats favor the Palestinians with only 38% backing Israel. By contrast, Republicans now back the Jewish state by a staggering 78-11% margin.
That’s the culmination of a trend decades in the making as the two parties have largely swapped identities when it comes to Israel in the last 60 years. In the first years of the Jewish state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Democrats were overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel and took pride in President Harry S. Truman’s recognition of the fledgling nation on its first day of existence.
In that era, Republicans were largely split with many either indifferent or openly hostile—something that was reflected in the policies of the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.
That began to change in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and eventually led to the Republicans electing an ardently pro-Israel president in Ronald Reagan in 1980 while winning a modern record 40% of the Jewish vote. Today, the Republicans are virtually a lockstep pro-Israel party with the only few dissenters being libertarians who, while not opposing Israel, are against any aid to any foreign country.
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Both parties changed
Meanwhile, at the same time that the GOP was embracing Israel, a shift began on the other side of the aisle.
Part of that was due to political changes in the Jewish state. The end of the domination of the Labor Party and the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977 made it a bit more difficult for American liberals to identify with Israel. The policies of Labor-led governments on security issues prior to the Oslo Accords in 1993 were not that different from those of the right. But the rise of Begin’s Likud Party, coupled with the camp of nationalist and religious parties, was hard to fathom for Americans who had come to define their Jewish identity solely through the prism of their political liberalism and social-justice issues.
More than that, it was during this period that the far left of the Democratic Party began to regard the Jewish state through the prism of anti-Zionist propaganda, which falsely depicted it as an expression of colonialism.
Still, the vast majority of Democrats rejected those ideas and the leadership of the party, which was reflected in the views of the geriatrics that have led its congressional caucuses up until this year, and many in the rank-and-file were still happy to identify as pro-Israel.
In 2001, Gallup reported that Democrats still backed Israel by a 51% to 16% margin. While that’s still true of some congressional Democrats, they are now out of touch with their party’s left-wing base.
It’s not as if strong sympathy for Israel across the board is gone. When Gallup asked respondents how they feel about Israel without adding in the contrast with the Palestinians, the numbers are more encouraging. The survey says 56% of Democrats have a favorable view of Israel, a number that has shown little change since 2001 when it stood at 60%. But it’s still much lower than independents, 67% of whom view Israel favorably (up from 59% in 2001)—let alone Republicans, 82% of whom view it favorably (up from 75% in 2001).
And only a minority of Americans think well of the Palestinian Authority—36% of Democrats, 28% of independents and only 9% of Republicans.
But the problem is that when you ask people how they feel about Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the intersectional mindset kicks in for those who are influenced by the left. That explains why, when given the choice, more Democrats now favor an entity that has repeatedly rejected peace than those who back Israel.
What explains this shift?
Gallup claims it might be a reflection of the “high number of Palestinians killed” in the ongoing conflict, though without mentioning that those figures are largely composed of slain terrorists. But they’re not wrong to see it as connected to the “waning religiosity” of most Americans since the remaining people of faith, who are more likely to be Republicans, are strong supporters of Zionism.
They’re missing the real answer: the rise of the intersectional left that falsely analogizes the Palestinian war on Israel to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, as well as falsely depicts the Jewish state as an expression of “white privilege” and an oppressor of Palestinian “people of color.”
A generation of Americans has been soaking up toxic critical race theory myths in academia. These bad ideas are now parroted in much of the corporate liberal media and pop-culture entertainment outlets. They don’t understand that the majority of Israeli Jews are themselves people of color and that Jews are the indigenous people of the country, not interlopers. They also don’t know that it is the Palestinians who have rejected compromise peace offers by different Israeli governments in the last 30 years. Yet even supposedly pro-Israel Democrats blame the impasse on current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, settlements in areas over the so-called “Green Line” and other Israeli policies, many of which are not explained or understood by American Jews.
Obama, Trump and ‘The New York Times’
There are other factors at play as well. The hostility of the Obama administration to Israel’s positions on security and territory influenced a generation of Democrats who idolized the 44th president. His decision in 2015 to support a disastrous nuclear deal with Iran that endangered Israel’s existence—and that served as a partisan litmus test—led many in his party to be angry when Netanyahu went all out to persuade Congress to oppose it earlier that year. Obama’s stand also essentially legitimized anti-Zionist sentiment on the left.
The fact that his successor, former President Donald Trump, became the most pro-Israel U.S. president also caused many partisan Democrats who despised him to take an increasingly antagonistic stance towards the Jewish state. Since some think anything Trump did, including historic stances like moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, is inherently wrong (if not outright evil) that also allowed anti-Zionists to go mainstream.
As a result of these factors, so-called progressives dominate congressional Democrats with the Marxist “Squad” leading the way and being feted as their party’s current rock stars.
That’s also reflected in the liberal media, which also plays a role in shaping the opinions of Democrats. For example, the two editors who currently run The New York Times opinion section—Allison Benedikt and Max Strasser—are openly anti-Zionist.
And so, the poll numbers come as no surprise.
Contrary to antisemitic “Squad” member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), support for Israel isn’t “all about the Benjamins.” Jews have not bought Congress. Until the American educational system was hijacked by Marxist radicals, Israel was popular with Americans of all backgrounds. And it remains so among those, like many independents and most GOP voters, who don’t buy into the left’s lies about history and race.
But as Gallup’s results demonstrate, from now on, it’s not possible to pretend that both parties are equally committed to Israel’s defense. Thanks to the influence of the ideology to which even President Joe Biden bends his knee, the Democrats have reached a tipping point on Israel from which there may be no road back.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.org. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.