columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

How not to ensure that Democrats remain pro-Israel

Why did the leading pro-Israel Democratic group fail to come to the aid of a strong supporter of the Jewish state who was defeated by a BDS supporter?

East front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Credit: Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia Commons.
East front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Credit: Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When compared to the collapse of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, the results of a congressional primary election in Illinois remain insignificant. But as much as the defeat of Rep. Dan Lipinski by Marie Newman, a left-wing challenger, pales in comparison to the setback dealt to the importance of former Vice President Joe Biden’s decisive defeats of the Vermont Socialist, what happened in Illinois sets an ominous precedent.

It’s not just that Lipinski’s loss eliminates a sterling example of a political species that is rapidly become extinct: a conservative pro-Israel Democrat. It’s that a group of stalwart pro-Israel activists and donors failed to come to his aid when a primary challenger who is a pro-BDS Israel-basher backed by the left-wing J Street lobby took him down.

While the Democratic Majority for Israel claims extenuating circumstances in this case, by abandoning Lipinski and effectively losing a House seat to opponents of the Jewish state, the group did more than undermine its purpose. It illustrated that despite Sanders’s defeat, those who wish to preserve the Democratic Party as a bastion of support for Israel are still losing ground to leftist foes of the alliance between the two democracies.

DFMI was formed last year to combat the drift of the Democratic Party away from its past record of support for Israel.

President Barack Obama sparring with Israel and his decision to make his dangerous nuclear deal with Iran a partisan litmus test was a turning point for the efforts of some Democrats to distance their party from the Jewish state.

But as troubling as his policies towards Israel were, a President Sanders would have made Obama look like a supporter of the Likud Party. Sanders’s support for lifting the blockade of terrorist-run Gaza, backing foreign aid cuts to Israel and demonizing Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism would have blown up the alliance between the two democracies had he made it to the White House.

The DFMI, which is headed by veteran Democratic operative Mark Mellman, stuck its neck out by sponsoring a series of television ads running in Iowa aimed at undermining support for Sanders. And though Sanders won the most votes in the first-in-the-nation Democratic caucus in Iowa, Mellman boasted that his negative advertising prevented the Socialist from winning a decisive victory.

Sanders’s subsequent collapse happened because the rest of the field of non-left-wing Democratic presidential candidates realized that staying in would enable their party to be hijacked by the intolerant “Bernie Bros.” By dropping out and then endorsing him, the move paved the way for Biden, who had seemed dead in the water only days earlier because of his terrible performance on the campaign trail and in debates, to push their main challenger aside.

A Biden presidency would be no picnic for Israel, as he is likely to recycle all of Obama’s failed Middle East policies. Yet compared to Sanders, he looks good to mainstream Democrats who were rightly panicked at the idea of an administration where anti-Semitic BDS-backers like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and ousted Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour would have more influence than any supporter of Israel.

But there’s more to saving the Democratic Party for Israel than just the presidential nominee.

Mellman and other pro-Israel Democrats have rightly pointed to the fact that while polls show that members of their party are growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state, most of the Democratic congressional caucus is resisting that trend.

The fate of Lipinski, however, illustrates that the preservation of that pro-Israel House Democratic majority cannot be taken for granted. Leftist critics of Israel, supported by a leftist group led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are mounting primary challenges to centrist Democrats all over the country. While not all have succeeded, the energy in the party rank-and-file seems to rest with those, like Newman, who have no use for pro-Israel groups like AIPAC or the DFMI.

Her positions on Israel should have marked Newman as a target for a group like DFMI. Her policy paper on “Israel/Palestine” is even worse than Sanders’s lamentable record. She not only shares his support for lifting the blockade of Gaza and diverting aid for Israel to the Palestinians, but also explicitly backs forcing Israelis out of their homes not only in the West Bank, but also Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built since 1967. On top of that, she supports the BDS movement and is a fierce opponent of efforts to outlaw it.

Rather than back Lipinski, the DFMI stayed out of the race. Why?

It wasn’t because Lipinski was a hopeless cause. Even without support from DFMI, he still lost by less than 2,800 votes.

The problem is that he while he is a stalwart Democrat on most domestic issues, he is an opponent of abortion and has stands that sometimes seem more in tune with independent and centrist voters, as well as Republicans, than with left-wingers like AOC.

In a world in which both major parties have become narrowly ideological, that marked him as an outlier. However, the only way to push back against a trend that leaves the GOP as the pro-Israel party and the Democrats against it is to ensure that there is still room in the Democratic tent for people like Lipinski. By abandoning him to his fate, DFMI appeased many liberal Democrats who think that abortion is more important than Israel’s security. But in doing so, it failed its mission.

The defeat of Bernie Sanders prevents the Democrats from being “Corbynized” at the national level. But the way Britain’s Labour Party was hijacked by left-wing Israel-haters like Jeremy Corbyn was by his faction pushing centrists out of Parliament and replacing them with people like Newman. That makes Newman’s victory an ominous sign for the future of the Democrats.

If the DFMI is going to stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment among Democrats, it’s going to have to stop standing by and watching seats once held by friends of AIPAC turn into strongholds for foes of the Jewish state.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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