Pressure on Democrat presidential candidates unnerves many Jews

Come next year’s presidential election, the Democrats could pay a price if they are too harsh on Israel.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2016. Credit: Flickr.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in Raleigh, N.C., in March 2016. Credit: Flickr.
Tom Gross. Credit: Courtesy.
Tom Gross
Tom Gross is a British journalist and commentator on international affairs.

In past centuries, Easter was often a time of increased attacks against Jews, attacks sometimes as deadly as the atrocious slaughter last week of Sri Lankan Christians. There are still some remnants of this today.

In Russia, on Good Friday, assailants torched Moscow’s biggest yeshivah as Jews met there for a Passover meal and drew swastikas by the entrance to the building. In Poland, a crowd (including many children) beat, hung from a tree and then burned an effigy of a Jew to mark Easter.

In Britain, on Easter Monday, in another all too familiar piece of fake news about Israel from allies of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP Grahame Morris tweeted a video he claimed showed Israeli soldiers attacking Palestinian children “for the fun of it.” “May God forgive them … on an Easter Monday,” added Morris. In fact, the video was of Guatemalan soldiers kicking two teenagers in 2015.

These incidents are very disturbing, of course. But what has perhaps concerned many Jews even more this Easter period is how several leading Democratic candidates for next year’s U.S. election are being pushed into adopting hostile positions towards Israel by the party’s increasingly vocal “progressive” wing.

This is seen as a long-term threat that could significantly weaken Israel. Since the Holocaust, most Jews in the world have strongly supported Israel—not just because of its achievements but because it offers a refuge for them to escape to if their safety is threatened elsewhere.

Recently, Israel has greatly improved relations with other countries, including Sunni Arab governments, Australia, Canada, China, India, Russia, Brazil and others, as I noted here. But America still remains an indispensable ally for Israel, a tiny country that continues to face deadly enemies.

Yet now, 2020 presidential candidates for the Democrats—the party which most American Jews support and which has for decades been strongly supportive of Israel—are being increasingly bullied by their own party’s radical base.

Some have responded. Beto O’Rourke, a popular presidential contender who has long been sympathetic to Israel, made sharply critical remarks earlier this month, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “racist.” Another rising young star for the Democrats, Pete Buttigieg, who has so far been only moderately critical of Israel, opened his official campaign with a rally on Easter Sunday, while disruptive anti-Israel activists unfurled banners and called on him to be more outspoken against Israel.

Meanwhile, another contender, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, also had his recent “hometown kickoff” in Newark disrupted by protesters waving Palestinian flags and keffiyahs as he spoke (although not as many Palestinian flags as were on display at the British Labour Party conference last September).

On Monday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (who was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination until Joe Biden entered the race on Thursday) singled out Israel in an interview on CNN as having a “racist government.”

Of course, no country is perfect. But Israel does relatively well. Just this month, Israelis elected Druze, Muslim, vegan and openly gay candidates representing parties of both right and left to the 120-seat Knesset. Arabs are prominent in almost all walks of life—from Israeli-Arab Supreme Court judge Salim Joubran, who sentenced former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to jail for bribery in 2016, to Israeli-Arab TV presenter Lucy Ayoub who will co-host next month’s Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv. Some Israeli Arabs also serve in the Israeli army.

Other countries that far-left activists in the United States (and Britain) don’t single out for opprobrium have far more draconian polices. In Denmark, for example, as The New York Times reported last year:

“Starting at the age of 1, ‘ghetto children’ must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values,’ including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language.’ ”

O’Rourke, Sanders and other candidates haven’t accused such countries of having “racist” governments. Why?

Indeed, one of the reasons Democrat voters have traditionally been supportive of Israel is that, on most issues, Israel more closely resembles a liberal Scandinavian country than it does the United States.

In Israel, there is state-funded universal health care. Abortion is widely available, as is state-subsidized in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Israel is among the most welcoming countries in the world for homosexuals, veganism is widespread, prisoners have voting rights, and gun ownership is strictly limited.

Not all Democrat politicians are turning against Israel, of course, and many have been firm in rebuking the more radical members of their party who have strayed towards anti-Semitism. But some of the presidential candidates seem eager to pander to the radicals.

There was shock among moderate Democrats, for instance, at the eagerness with which Sanders leapt to the defense of two radical new U.S. congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, widely criticized for making anti-Semitic remarks.

Prominent Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, spoke out against Omar. But not Sanders, who reacted to the row over Omar’s comments by saying: “We will stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

In the latest in a long line of tweets or retweets with inaccurate or incendiary information concerning Jews, congresswoman Omar last week retweeted a New York Times Easter op-ed that claimed that “Jesus … was most likely a Palestinian.” Jesus was, of course, like all his disciples, Jewish.

Denial of the fact that Jews originated in Israel is now a staple of anti-Zionist anti-Semitism on both the extreme right and left. Palestinians are Arabs. Arabs first conquered the area in which Jesus was crucified more than 600 years later. That The New York Times should mislead to the detriment of Israel is hardly surprising; it is notorious for doing so. But Omar, a member of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, should know better than to spread fake history.

Come next year’s presidential election, the Democrats could pay a price for not making Jewish voters feel more welcome. While Jews comprise only a small minority of American voters, they are concentrated in key states, including New York, Illinois and Florida, and could make a difference. And while, contrary to stereotypes, most Jews are not rich, many of those who are have been generous donors in the past to Democratic candidates.

U.S. President Donald Trump is lapping this up, speaking of a hoped for “Jexodus” to the Republican Party.

Even if Jewish Democrats won’t actually vote GOP, then at least he hopes they will be less enthusiastic about voting—and campaigning—for a Democratic Party candidate hostile to Israel.

And so, he thinks, might many mainstream non-Jewish Democrats, who like most Americans in general remain strongly supportive of Israel—a close U.S. ally and a democracy in a part of the world where democracy is rare.

Tom Gross is a former Mideast correspondent for the “(London) Sunday Telegraph.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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