Media Analysis

Democratic leaders grow fearful that Israel will divide the party

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On Sunday at the Celebrate Israel parade, many New York Democrats affirmed their love for Israel, from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Governor Andrew Cuomo to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. But I saw a lot of asphalt when I watched the parade on livestream. And there are growing signs lately that the US-Israel relationship is becoming a divisive issue in political campaigns, and not just at the margins.

Bill de Blasio at Celebrate Israel parade in NY, June 2, 2018. Israeli consul general Dani Dayan is at de Blasio’s left.

First, there is the attention given to Leslie Cockburn, the Democratic nominee for Congress in a Virginia swing district whose chances of winning shot up last week after the Republican incumbent announced his retirement. Immediately, a simmering controversy over Cockburn’s criticism of Israel — a “virulent anti-Semite,”  Republicans claim— boiled over into national headlines.

Cockburn is a journalist with an impressive track record on the left, and The New York Times headlined its story, sensationally, “Democratic Candidate Who Criticized Israel Faces Charges of Anti-Semitism.” Cockburn is plainly not anti-Semitic, but the Times says she has “strident” views on Israel, expressed in a book she wrote 27 years ago; and has met with 40 Jews at a rabbi’s house in the district to try and defuse the story.

“None of us think she’s anti-Semitic,” said Sherry Kraft, one of the organizers of the meeting. “… There’s a lot of negativity toward Israel from the political left right now and people who call themselves progressive. And some of that anti-Israel sentiment crosses into anti-Semitism, but not in her case.”..

Ms. Cockburn told the group on Monday that she was being critical of government policy from a fact-based perspective, not out of animus toward Jews…

“Yes, the U.S. should support Israel, and yes, the U.S. should be supporting, to some degree, the Palestinian Authority,” Ms. Cockburn said. “We have a disaster area in Gaza, and the U.S. should get involved in trying to sort that out. I think there’s a real role that we should have.”

Cockburn also said she was seeking J Street’s endorsement. And she’s been citing an Israeli’s defense of her book, on twitter. The Times of Israel helped her out: “Virginia Jewish Democrats appear to agree that the book is problematic, but not anti-Semitic.”

Leslie Cockburn is not an outlier. Cynthia Nixon, the actress/activist challenging Cuomo for the Democratic nomination to be governor, came out for boycott of an Israeli settlement. Alan Dershowitz has naturally called her a bigot.

Scott Wallace is a candidate for Congress from a very Democratic and Jewish district in Pennsylvania (suburban Bucks County plus some of Montgomery) who through his family foundation has supported groups that back Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including Jewish Voice for Peace. The Republicans are trying to make hay over Wallace’s friends. Like Cockburn, Wallace has said that he’s a J Street Democrat. He opposes BDS and “strongly supports the state of Israel.” All the same, Wallace’s foreign policy page is progressive: He doesn’t mention Israel but says that the U.S. has to address the “root causes” of conflicts.

These Democrats all know that the base is getting very angry at Israel over the Gaza massacre. As Sherry Kraft, an organizer of Cockburn’s Jewish meetup, said: there’s “a lot of negativity toward Israel” in the progressive base. At the same time, party leaders are seeking to assure the establishment wing of the party that the candidate doesn’t dislike Israel too much. There’s surely a lot of money at stake.

One Democratic candidate is dispensing with the niceties. In South Carolina’s 7th, Mal Hyman, a college professor, is a candidate for the Democratic primary election for Congress next week. He was the Democratic nominee two years ago. Hyman is Jewish and has done human rights work in the occupied territories. He has been bracingly honest about the Gaza atrocities. Look at this tweet:

There is only one way to describe IDF’s actions: a massacre. Since U.S. government is one of the biggest supporters of Israel, the onus is on us to send the message that these kinds of massacres goes against every human rights principle.

After Yaser Murtaja’s killing in Gaza, Hyman wrote:

The U.S. is the only country blocking Israel from having any accountability at the U.N. We should join the rest of the world in calling for a good-faith negotiation.

As EI pointed out, “This sort of principled language on behalf of Palestinians is rare in American politics and may point to changes taking place in the Democratic Party over the Israeli subjugation of Palestinians.

David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, last week seized on this trend, telling the Times of Israel that a lot of Democrats are turning against Israel.

“There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats… What the Democrats are not doing is looking at themselves critically and acknowledging the fact that they have not been able to create support within their constituency for Israel at the same levels that the Republicans have… [T]here is a large Democratic constituency right now that is not pro-Israel. They have to acknowledge it, and they have to fix it, or try to fix it.”

Friedman’s comments drove mainstream Democrats haywire. NY Congressman Eliot Engel issued a statement denouncing Friedman.

“It’s outrageous that any American diplomat would wade into partisan politics as Ambassador Friedman has done. I’d invite him to the Foreign Affairs Committee to see the lawmakers working hard to ensure support for Israel remains bipartisan. Diplomacy and partisan politics are incompatible. If Mr. Friedman doesn’t understand that, he should come home.”

Progressive Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky also issued a statement saying Friedman is “unfit to serve.” Though she also balanced criticisms of Israel.

I concede to no one in my support for Israel as a democratic, Jewish state.  That does not mean that I support every policy of the Netanyahu government, particularly when those policies conflict with democratic values.

Schakowsky has J Street’s support. J Street now is the address of the Israel lobby inside the Democratic Party, and it is plainly fearful of the effect of Friedman’s comments in empowering the two groups that want to fight publicly over Israel, the right and the left. Friedman, it says, has “contradicted longstanding bipartisan US policy and broken the promises he made to Senators — much to the delight of those who oppose a two-state solution.”

Two other Democratic Jewish leaders expressing fear of the left’s spoiling the party are former White House aides Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon, in the Washington Post:”Partisanship is compromising our special relationship with Israel.” The end of Democratic unanimity on the issue threatens the “special relationship.”

For decades, the United States’ relationship with Israel has been sustained by a bipartisan consensus in Washington. Both Republicans and Democrats have had their own close relations with the Jewish state, and both have agreed that supporting it has been a vital national interest.

Yet today we see that U.S. support for Israel is becoming an increasingly partisan issue, willfully exploited by politicians both here and in Jerusalem. This growing trend is undermining the consensus that has long made the U.S.-Israeli bond so special. If this bipartisanship is compromised, it’s only a matter of time until the special relationship will be as well…

The two blame Trump but also progressives, as “the Democratic party tilts to the left.” Gallup reports a 38-point gap between Republicans and Democrats in sympathy for Israel versus the Palestinians. But deserting Israel is un-American, Miller and Simon say. Because Israel is mom and apple pie:

A shared view of Israel made us prouder of ourselves and ready to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Support for Israel, in short, was American. Democratic supporters of Israel today long for a return to this moment

They are worried that if Israel is politicized, the Sixth Fleet might not show up when Israel needs it.

a United States divided regarding Israel might forgo intervention on its behalf in a crisis…

The authors never mention the Gaza massacre of over 100 unarmed protesters. But it’s hard to pull off, “A shared view of Israel made us prouder of ourselves,” when many young people are obviously horrified by Israel’s actions and want their political representatives to say so.

Miller and Simon’s desired uniformity is the credo of the Israel lobby. Don’t quarrel over Israel lest it give politicians an opening, and there’s daylight between the US government and the Israeli government. Shalom Lipner, an adviser to seven Israeli prime ministers, seizes on the article to warn Israel supporters not to give an inch in their public statements:

Lip service to bipartisanship outweighed by cost of Israel becoming a wedge issue. Real friends of the rel’nship shouldn’t couch their support in relative terms to anyone else.

Right now Israel supporters are trying to straddle a growing divide. J Street has tried to resolve the tensions. It’s been critical of Israeli settlements; and its director Jeremy Ben-Ami lately issued this excellent statement about Israeli plans to ethnically cleanse a Palestinian village.

But J Street insists that support for Israel is still a core Democratic Party position. Here’s Aaron Davis, the national political director for J Street, writing in the Forward:

The large majority of Jewish voters have long been, and continue to be, left of center. American Jews are one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs and they overwhelmingly turn out to vote and raise money for Democrats…

Jewish voters support Israel, and they want their elected representatives to support it too. But they also fear for Israel’s future and worry about the direction in which it is heading. Many feel deep concern about the actions of Israel’s current government, and about the converging agendas and ideologies of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

These voters understand that some criticism of Israeli government policies, and support for proactive US diplomacy to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, does not make a candidate anti-Israel.

Maybe. But part of the shift that’s upon us involves the fact that Jews are by and large members of the Democratic establishment. While the progressive base of the party is far more diverse.

Lately Tamika Mallory of the Women’s March came back from Palestine and denounced human rights atrocities. The Republican Jewish Coalition promptly sought to politicize her comments: 

Women’s March Co-Founder Condemns Founding of Israel as ‘Human Rights Crime’

^^^ Democrats support these people ^^^

Or listen to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the ceo of the New America Foundation, reflecting in a startled way about the changes afoot in the party at a very-establishment panel in Cambridge last month:

Who wants us out of state building? Who wants us out of the Middle East? It’s not just the people you might expect. It is at least in my organization which is 46 percent under 30 and extremely diverse– it is the young people of color who in part inherit a sort of postcolonial view that America in these places has done nothing but bad. They look at the Middle East and they see an analogy between American power oppressing people there and American power oppressing people here.

Slaughter says the party needs to pivot, so as to bring “a very, very different group of Americans along.” Yes, whether it’s people of color or angry young Jews– Democrats are going to have to talk about Gaza.

Thanks to Tova Perlmutter.

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Interesting adjective, “strident”. Is it ever used to describe men?

I am a bit less optimistic. The following article doesn’t mention the Israel Palestine issue, but it does talk about where the Democrats are in general and on economics they are still mostly the same old neoliberal party they have been since the Clinton era. They are pseudo “ woke”… Read more »

RE: “Slaughter says the party needs to pivot, so as to bring “a very, very different group of Americans along.” Yes, whether it’s people of color or angry young Jews– Democrats are going to have to talk about Gaza.” Not to mention young white Gentile progressive Americans–or too, even young… Read more »

Phil, thanks. The NYT story you cite also contains this rather bizarre statement: In Britain, the once center-left Labour Party has become so infused with anti-Zionist sentiment that Jews recently took to the streets of London to protest a drift in the party toward anti-Semitism. Wow, so we went from… Read more »