columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel has become a partisan issue. Do American Jews care?

While Trump is impatient for a complete victory over Hamas, Biden and Schumer wave the white flag in their party’s civil war against Democrats who loathe the Jewish state.

Israel-American relationship. Credit: Design Soln/Shutterstock.
Israel-American relationship. Credit: Design Soln/Shutterstock.
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.

This isn’t the direction the 2024 election cycle had to take. But whether Israelis or pro-Israel Americans wanted this to happen, support for the Jewish state has become a partisan issue. That conclusion became impossible to avoid last week when Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer gave a speech that signaled his support for a change in administration policy about Israel’s post-Oct. 7 war on the Hamas terrorist organization. Schumer didn’t just back up President Joe Biden’s smears about Israel’s conduct. He also blamed the continuation of the conflict on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while calling for what amounts to regime change in Jerusalem.

The political context of this broadside was obvious. The speech was coordinated with the White House, which decided it needed a signal from prominent party centrists that they supported his decision to bash Israel. That was appalling in and of itself. But it also made it clear that the increasingly noisy civil war within the Democratic Party over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was already over.

It resulted in a humiliating defeat for the remaining pro-Israel centrists that Schumer—the self-proclaimed shomer or “guardian” of Israel in the Senate—was assumed to be leading and a victory for “progressive” leftists who want to punish the Jewish state or have altogether embraced terrorism in the form of Hamas.

Blaming Biden’s problems on Bibi

Rather than confronting the antisemitism that has become commonplace on the left, Biden’s campaign—no doubt influenced by the strong anti-Israel sentiment among party activists—has become convinced that he must act to force Israel to end the war before Hamas is completely defeated if he is going to survive.

Some on the Jewish left may think that Schumer’s speech represents a new definition of “pro-Israel.” Such a view asserts that American Jews should override the will of the Israeli people, who may be divided about Netanyahu but overwhelmingly support the war effort against Hamas and are opposed to a postwar solution that will reward the Palestinians for terrorism. While that argument might have garnered some support before Oct. 7, the attempt to “save Israel from itself” simply isn’t viable after the Hamas atrocities and the subsequent surge in American antisemitism.

Schumer should have been telling Biden and his staff that there were a lot more votes to be lost in the center among independents—very much in play this election year—than among leftists who are likely to back the president against Donald Trump in November despite their anger about Israel. Instead, he was meekly going along with the intersectional faction among Democrats who despise both Biden and Schumer as representatives of a fading generation of elderly politicians with vestigial ties to the Jewish state that they intend to replace sooner or later.

Biden’s decision to appease the intersectional wing of his party became obvious in the lead-up to the Michigan primary. Faced with a challenge from Arab-American voters who were outraged by the president’s initial strong support for Israel after the Oct. 7 massacres, Biden began a slow retreat from that position. It was highlighted by increasingly hostile statements about the Jewish state and then the astonishing decision to send a high-ranking delegation of policymakers to apologize to the pro-Hamas mayor of Dearborn, Mich.

In the primary, Biden easily defeated an “uncommitted” slate that was represented as a protest vote against Israel. Yet somehow his 81% to 13% victory, with much of the anti-Biden vote being coming from Arab-Americans in the greater Detroit metropolitan area, was interpreted as a sign of his weakness. As polls continued to show him losing both the national vote and battleground states like Michigan to Trump, the assumption that this was due to a lack of enthusiasm in the party’s left-wing base because of their anger at Biden for his failure to do something to end the war against Hamas began to take hold.

Indeed, even normally sober political observers associated with the party’s moderates—like James Carville, who earned his reputation as a political guru by guiding President Bill Clinton to victories in the 1990s—started to echo this conventional wisdom. Carville claimed on MSNBC that if Democrats were losing to Trump, it was Netanyahu’s fault. Activist filmmaker Michael Moore seconded those notions on the same cable-news TV station in describing how he helped lead the push for the “uncommitted” vote in the Michigan primary.

It’s true that Biden is losing ground among younger voters who are more likely to be hostile to Israel. But Democrats are wrong to think that the Gaza war is their biggest problem. Trump is currently ahead because he’s making huge inroads among working-class voters, as well as Hispanics and African-Americans, whom Democrats took for granted. The Democrats have become a party that is both dominated by and solely interested in the concerns of credentialed elites who are in denial about the way Biden’s policies on the economy and illegal immigration have hurt many Americans. If he loses Michigan, it will be because auto workers and Teamsters vote for Trump on those issues, not because campus radicals and Arab Americans hate Israel.

The contrast with the Republicans couldn’t be greater.

Trump wants Israel to win quickly

In recent decades, the GOP has become a lockstep pro-Israel party. That’s due in part to the influence of evangelical Christians who are ardent Zionists and the fact that even more secular conservatives rightly see Israel as a stalwart American ally, as well as the only democracy in the Middle East.

There are some exceptions. A few stray libertarians, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), oppose all foreign alliances, even if they aren’t hostile to Israel. More troubling are the antagonistic voices on the right coming from commentators like former Fox News show host Tucker Carlson and increasingly open antisemites like Candace Owens, who have tilted even farther against Israel since the Oct. 7 atrocities. But the man Republicans have embraced as their candidate for president—Trump—can justly claim the title of the nation’s most pro-Israel president. And, unlike the Democrats, that’s something that almost all GOP voters have no problem with.

Trump hasn’t said much about the Hamas war in the last five months, though he made his differences with the president obvious in interviews given over the weekend in which denounced Biden’s and Schumer’s stand on Israel, and said Netanyahu should “finish the problem” in Gaza. Rather than trying, as the administration has been doing, to hold back an Israeli offensive, Trump thinks they should just get it over with.

Nor is he wrong to believe that the current war probably wouldn’t have happened if he were still president. The calculations of Hamas and their funders in Tehran were clearly impacted not just by their mistaken belief that political divisions inside Israel had made it soft, but because of Biden’s weakness and pivot away from Trump’s policies towards the Jewish state, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Trump’s transactional approach to relationships with leaders has overshadowed his record to some extent. He has been vocal about his resentment of Netanyahu because the latter congratulated Biden for beating Trump in 2020, even though it was his obligation to do so as the head of his country. And his impatience with Israelis who understand that they have to deal with the Democrats when they’re in power in Washington is as great as is his ongoing bitterness about the fact that most American Jews didn’t back him in spite of his pro-Israel policies.

But as his comments illustrated, Trump intends to reverse the Biden policy of appeasing Iran that helped make Oct. 7 possible. His talk about “getting back to peace” seems also to indicate that—as was the case during his presidency—he won’t waste time, as Biden intends to do, on trying to reward Palestinian intransigence and terrorism. Instead, he will return to a policy of trying to continue expanding the Abraham Accords in which the Arab world normalizes relations with Israel.

A dying consensus

For the last 25 years, Democrats have reacted with outrage about Republicans claiming to have a better record on Israel when asking for Jewish votes, claiming that even raising the issue undermined a longstanding bipartisan pro-Israel consensus. The idea of that consensus was always more aspirational than a reality, but it did reflect the fact that for the most part, Congress members understood that most Americans supported Israel and that it was in their personal political interests, as well as that of the country, to support the alliance.

Though the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC labored valiantly to preserve the myth of that consensus—and was smeared by Israel’s antisemitic opponents for doing so—those efforts had already begun to fail by 2018 when the first members of the left-wing “Squad” that openly opposed the Jewish state were elected. Democrats were prepared to tolerate the open antisemitism of people like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and resisted GOP attempts to hold them accountable. But after Oct. 7 and the surge in antisemitism around the country that followed the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, that toleration has turned into appeasement and a belief that Israel’s foes represent the future of their party.

The administration’s about-face from support for the eradication of Hamas is rooted in their belief that Democratic voters will not tolerate a policy of total support for Israel. Republican candidates have no such fears. That still begs the question as to whether this will impact enough Jewish votes to make a difference.

Up until now, the answer has always been “no.”

Neither consistent GOP support for Israel nor Trump’s historic policies have made much of a dent in the Jewish vote. Most Jewish voters may support Israel, but the overwhelming majority of them who are Democrats do not prioritize the issue. Only Orthodox Jews and political conservatives, who make up less than a third of all Jewish voters, tend to treat Israel as a litmus test for their support.

That’s probably still the case with most Jewish Democrats both because they despise Trump and regard Republicans as tribal culture-war enemies on issues like abortion as much as they are political opponents. In the past, it was only Orthodox Jews like those living in places like Brooklyn, N.Y., where violence is directed against them from minority communities, that felt the impact of antisemitism. As most college campuses became hostile environments for Jews, it’s now non-Orthodox liberals who are also in the cross-hairs of the Jew-haters.

Whether they are scared enough to vote for a party that is unabashedly pro-Israel is still very much in doubt. But though Biden is still likely to win the Jewish vote in November no matter what happens, it may be that even a slight increase in defections to the GOP could impact the election in swing states like Pennsylvania.

Whether or not that happens, the one thing recent events have made clear is that there is no covering up the fact that talk of a bipartisan consensus on Israel is over. Yet even if Republicans win in 2024, that’s troubling since a future in which one of our two major parties will be dominated by Israel-haters will make it inevitable that the next Democratic administration won’t be just critical of Jerusalem but an open opponent of the Jewish state, no matter who is running it. Schumer’s decision to throw in with Biden in bashing Netanyahu because of his policies, which happen to be supported by the overwhelming majority of Israelis, makes it obvious that the Democrats’ problem is with the Jewish state and not its leader. The partisan divide on Israel is no longer a matter of conjecture. It is now the reality of American politics in 2024.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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