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With Feinstein’s death, pro-Israel Senate makeup may be in jeopardy, experts say

Some fear the tendency of younger Democratic leaders to be more critical of Israel, while others predict that the U.S.-Israel relationship will remain strong.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), of the the Senate Judiciary Committee, during confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito Jr., Supreme Court nominee, on Jan. 10, 2006. Credit: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), of the the Senate Judiciary Committee, during confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito Jr., Supreme Court nominee, on Jan. 10, 2006. Credit: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock.

The late Dianne Feinstein is often described as a fierce supporter of Israel throughout her more than 30 years serving as a California senator. 

The Democrat was proud of her “strong Jewish heritage” and did all she could “to stop the United States from selling weapons to Israel’s enemies,” Raleigh Resnick, rabbi and director of Chabad of Tri-Valley in Pleasanton, Calif., told JNS. (Feinstein attended Chanukah menorah-lightings that Chabad led in San Francisco’s Union Square.)

“On the world stage, she presented herself as a proud Jew that did not shy away from her strong support for Israel,” he said.

Tyler Gregory, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, and Mark Mellman, founder and president of Democratic Majority for Israel, also told JNS that Feinstein was a staunch supporter of Israel during her Senate tenure.

But scholars and policy experts told JNS that support slipped in recent years in line with emergent trends in the Democratic Party.

“Israel has increasingly become a partisan issue,” Max Abrahms, professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston, told JNS. “The younger generation of Democrats has been more critical of Israel relative to the GOP.”

As anti-Israel activism increased nationally, particularly on college campuses, Feinstein and her colleagues moderated their support for Israel, “knowing where the wind blows,” he said. 

“Biden is an old guy. He represents the views of an older generation. The view among younger Democrats increasingly seems to be that being a political Zionist can be costly,” added Abrahms.

Uncertain future

Feinstein “trail-blazed a historical path in public service,” Sam Markstein, national political director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told JNS.

Markstein thinks it is highly unlikely that the Jewish senator’s successor will stand as strongly with Israel as she did. 

“Whomever the Democrats select for California’s U.S. senate seat will be yet another rubber stamp for the radical, anti-Israel J Street agenda that attempts to undermine our relationship with the Jewish state,” he predicted.

Having said he would name a black woman to fill Feinstein’s vacated seat temporarily, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, appointed Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, on Tuesday.

Dianne Feinstein
The entrance to the office of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in Washington, D.C. Credit: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock.

Little is known of the Maryland resident’s views on Israel, and it remains to be seen how her appointment will affect national U.S. policy. Mellman thinks that a pro-Israel Democrat will likely fill the seat in early 2025, given that “strong advocates for Israel,” such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), are reportedly eying the seat, which will be up for a vote next year.

It is important for San Francisco leaders to make sure that Bay Area residents are properly educated about antisemitism and the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, according to Gregory, of the local JCRC.  

“Time will tell if this strategy works with a new generation,” he said.

Generational transition

Jonathan Sarna, university professor and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, where he directs the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, cited Feinstein’s harsh criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an example of how she became more critical of the Jewish state in recent years.

But she always supported Israel when “push came to shove,” Sarna told JNS.

“Once upon a time, having a Jewish woman elected as a senator would have been seen as barrier-breaking,” he said. “Now, not so much.”

Sarna thinks that Butler will have a minimal impact on U.S.-Israel relations as Feinstein’s replacement but cited the endorsement of Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles politician who led protests against the Soviet treatment of Jews, as high praise.

In an interview with the CBS News affiliate KCAL-TV, Yaroslavsky did not mention Butler’s views on Israel or anything related to Judaism, but said that Butler is “formidable” and “very capable” with “tremendous leadership qualities.”

“I do not think he would speak so highly of her if she was the type of person who would join the ‘Squad,’” Sarna told JNS, referring to a group of progressive congress members who have proven decidedly anti-Israel.

The historian Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, told JNS that Feinstein’s death is “part of a generational transition.”

“We should salute the late Senator Feinstein and so many of her peers for having supported Israel over the decades, for understanding the existential need for a Jewish state and for building an Israel-American relationship based on a deep mutual appreciation that we share so many common values—and always have each other’s backs,” Troy said.

But the tendency to “bash Israel first” on college campuses “and in other progressive spaces is taking its toll,” he continued. “The new, big black-and-white lies demonizing Israel as racist, imperialist, supremacist while absolving Palestinians of any responsibility seem to be getting more and more traction with too many young Democratic leaders.”

“There is growing anxiety in the pro-Israel community, and in Israel, that more and more younger Democrats just don’t ‘get it,’” Troy said.

Dianne Feinstein
Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, addressed the Democratic National Convention on July 13, 1992. That November, she was elected to the U.S. Senate. Credit: Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock.

‘Woman of valor’

Jewish Californians who knew the late senator praised her extensively to JNS.

Feinstein “epitomized eshet chayil”—the “woman of valor” described in Proverbs 31—said Jonathan Singer, senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El. (Feinstein attended High Holiday services at the Reform temple in San Francisco.)

“Whether it was the AIDS crisis or gun violence in this country, she was always guided by her strong Jewish identity,” Singer told JNS.

Feinstein’s parents were Jewish, but her mother was a practicing Russian Orthodox Christian. Feinstein opted to convert to Judaism at the age of 20. “She chose to be engaged with Judaism and the Jewish people,” Singer said.

Gregory, of the JCRC, told JNS that Feinstein was not only a strong supporter of Israel but also had an “essential” voice in the Democratic Party.

The late senator also advocated for freeing Soviet refuseniks and ensured robust Nonprofit Security Grant Program funding for Jewish organizations, he said.

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