This weekend the New York Times breaks one of the biggest taboos, describing the responsibility of Jewish donors for the Democratic Party’s slavish support for Israel. Nathan Thrall’s groundbreaking piece repeats a lot of data we’ve reported here and says in essence that it really is about the Benjamins, as Rep. Ilhan Omar said so famously.
The donor class of the party is overwhelmingly Jewish, and Jews are still largely wed to Zionism– that’s the nut.
Though that party is breaking up. Thrall’s labors are minimized by the New York Times with the headline “The Battle Over B.D.S.,” but his message is that the progressive base has a highly-critical view of Israel that the leadership has refused to reflect, and that’s about to change. We’re inside the tent. The party is going to have to reflect pro-Palestinian positions. Ben Rhodes tells Thrall that the moment of overcoming the fear of the pro-Israel lobby (as the Cuba fear was overcome) is about to happen.
The article is a thorough-going rebuke of every journalist and former official (Daniel Shapiro, former ambassador under Obama, for instance, as well as the Forward and the Times opinion writers) who says that money is not at the root, or very near the root, of Democratic Party support.
So let’s follow the money, and review the money quotes. Deep into his piece, Thrall explains why progressives aren’t being heard. Megadonors.
For all the recent tumult over Israel in Washington, the policy debate remains extremely narrow… Despite pointed critiques of American support for Israel by representatives like Betty McCollum of Minnesota, [Rashida] Tlaib and Omar, there is little willingness among Democrats to argue publicly for substantially changing longstanding policy toward Israel. In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of megadonors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors. This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction…
As we reported from Ben Rhodes’s book, Rhodes tells Thrall that donors forced Obama to hew to the Netanyahu line.
According to Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser and one of Obama’s closest confidants, several members of the Obama administration wanted to adopt a more assertive policy toward Israel but felt that their hands were tied. “The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class… The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.” Peter Joseph, an emeritus chairman of the center-left Israel Policy Forum, told me that the views of major Democratic Jewish donors could act as a check on the leftward pull by progressive voters who are strongly critical of Israel: “I can’t imagine that mainstream Democratic Jewish donors are going to be happy about any Democratic Party that is moving in that direction.”
Off the record, people go further. The Obama administration didn’t just support the occupation, it kept supporting it right up till the November 2016 election so that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t lose donors. We reported as much at the time.
Another former member of the Obama White House, who asked not to be named, fearing professional retaliation, said that concerns about donors among Democrats dominated not just “what was done but what was not done, and what was not even contemplated.” Even the timing of the administration’s policies toward Israel was dictated by domestic politics. Faced with a 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution condemning settlements, the Obama administration abstained (effectively supporting the resolution), but only after having signaled it would not consider backing any resolution before November. “There is a reason the U.N. vote did not come up before the election in November,” the former official said. “Was it because you were going to lose voters to Donald Trump? No. It was because you were going to have skittish donors. That, and the fact that we didn’t want Clinton to face pressure to condemn the resolution or be damaged by having to defend it.”
Everyone knows this math. And the Democrats fear they’ll lose all their money.
What worries establishment Democrats, the former official added, is that the partisan divide over Israel will concretize — with Republicans defined as pro-Israel, Democrats defined as anti-Israel — and that the party coffers will empty. Joel Rubin, a deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in the Obama administration, former political director at J Street and a founding board member of the centrist Jewish Democratic Council of America, agreed: “The fight over Israel used to be about voters. It’s more about donors now.”
Thrall says the Democratic Party leadership is perfectly happy with AIPAC, but he leaves out what we reported here: the extent of the reliance on Jewish donors is “gigantic” and “shocking,” according to insiders JJ Goldberg and the head of Emily’s List, and AIPAC gets to script congressional campaigns on their middle east positions before the candidates can raise money from the Jewish community.
We always said Sanders could be better on Palestine because he avoided the donor class of the Democratic party. Rhodes agrees.
“If you don’t rely on a traditional fund-raising model, then you have more freedom on these types of issues,” Rhodes said. “You’re not worried about the one-hour phone call that you’re going to have to do after the presidential debate with a really angry donor.”
The key element here is, older Jewish donors are conservative about Israel. A former Clinton campaign official:
“There’s no major donor that I can think of who is looking for someone to take a Bernie-like approach.” And whereas none of the most liberal Jewish donors have threatened to withdraw support because a candidate was too pro-Israel, pro-Israel donors and PACs have a history of financing opposition to candidates deemed unfriendly. Haim Saban, one of Hillary Clinton’s top five donors in 2016, has financed opponents of Democratic candidates critical of Israel
Sadly the Jewish community is largely supportive of Israel, as Thrall shows. By and large, American Jews are Zionists. Trump’s horrors in the Middle East are OK by them.
In the same [Mellman] poll — conducted after the United States closed the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, appointed a fund-raiser for the settlements as U.S. ambassador and cut humanitarian aid to Palestinians — roughly half of American Jews said they approved of President Trump’s handling of relations with Israel. On what is considered the most divisive issue in U.S.-Israel relations, the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a November 2018 post-midterm election poll of more than 1,000 American Jews that was commissioned by J Street, the pro-Israel lobby aligned with Democrats, found that roughly half said the expansion of settlements had no impact on how they felt about Israel.
Those Jews are conservative compared to the base, which is increasingly people of color and real progressives.
Members of the Democratic Party’s progressive activist base, by contrast, find themselves light years from their representatives in Washington.
And any declension in US support is seen as alienating the donor class.
Joel Rubin said: “The problem for center-left groups that are more critical of Israel is that the Jewish donor class is comfortable with current U.S. policies. They just don’t like Trump on other issues.” In October, just weeks before the 2018 midterm election, as the Democratic leadership was working to take back the House, a Democratic staff member, who asked not to be named for fear of professional retaliation, told me that it was important to retain the support of all major donors, not just the most liberal ones. Referring to two of the largest Jewish donors to Democrats, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the staff member said: “Our members need George Soros and Haim Saban. And they need everything in between.”
Thrall shows that fear of losing donors played a role when the University of Michigan student body passed a narrow divestment measure last fall– to divest only from companies doing business in the occupation— and still the administration said No way.
Michigan’s administration quickly issued a statement that it would not appoint a committee to investigate divestment. A month later, the board of regents released a letter backing the decision. (The two regents who didn’t sign it were the only people of color on the board.) Like many large American universities, the University of Michigan has extensive research partnerships with Israeli universities. And many of its institutes and buildings are named after alumni donors who have contributed large sums to Israel or pro-Israel groups.
Lara Friedman of Foundation for Middle East Peace and formerly of Peace Now continues to blaze a trail by honestly describing the intolerance in the Jewish community for debate of Israel. That community has pushed the anti-BDS legislation.
“The American Jewish community, which is broadly speaking liberal, has allowed itself in the name of defending Israel and fighting B.D.S. to become the leading edge of illiberalism by pushing legislation to curb free speech.”
OK now let’s get to some of the good news here. Thrall’s overall point is that the battle is breaking out, thanks to those women of color in the House and the progressive base.
As the Democratic Party is pulled toward a more progressive base and a future when a majority of the party will most likely be people of color, tensions over Israel have erupted.
In the past several months, a fierce debate over American support for Israel has periodically dominated the news cycle and overshadowed the Democrats’ policymaking agenda.
BDS is gaining ground. Israel knows it.
Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, told me, “Despite the overwhelming support for Israel in the U.S., we see that the attempt to delegitimize Israel is gaining ground, especially among extreme left-wing marginal groups.”
When have you ever seen such a fair assessment of BDS in the Times?
Instead of tying itself to a specific outcome, the B.D.S. movement insisted on these three principles, which could be fulfilled any number of ways: two states, one state with equal individual rights, a confederation with equal collective rights.
This is a simple turn by Thrall on why Zionism is racist at its core.
Following the 1948 war, which erupted after the United Nations announced its plan to partition Palestine into two states, the Jews who fled could return; Palestinians could not.
Here’s another great moment, brilliant reporting.
I asked [Zionist Organization of America’s Morton] Klein why he believed it was “utterly racist and despicable,” as he put it, for [Richard] Spencer to promote a state for only one ethnic group but not racist for Israel to do so. “Israel is a unique situation,” he said. “This is really a Jewish state given to us by God.” He added, “God did not create a state for white people or for black people.” Senator Charles Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, similarly told the Aipac conference in 2018: “Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace.”
Thrall says Israel is Jim Crow society thru and thru.
Currently, hundreds of Israeli towns have admissions committees that can bar Palestinian citizens from living in them based on “social suitability.” (It’s illegal for people to be excluded on the basis of race, religion or nationality, but the rubric of “social suitability” permits the rejection of applicants who are not Zionist, haven’t served in the army or don’t intend to send their children to Hebrew-language schools.) More than 900 towns in Israel contain no Arab families, according to Yosef Jabareen, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Palestinian schools can lose government funding if they commemorate the Nakba, the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. Israeli law forbids citizens to obtain citizenship or permanent residency for Palestinian spouses from the West Bank and Gaza.
And that’s why MD Rep. Donna Edwards and two white congressional colleagues locked arms and sang We Shall Overcome in apartheid Hebron:
Edwards and her colleagues looked up to see garbage-filled nets hanging above their heads, put up to catch trash thrown by Israeli settlers. “We had never seen anything like that,” she told me recently. “Hebron is the place where I think you can see in the most frightening way what the injustice is, where you have people on one side of the street who live one way and people on another side of the street living another way. And streets that some people can cross and walk on, but other people cannot. To me, it looked like the stories that my mother and my grandmother told me about living in the South.”
The great news at the end of the article. Edwards et al are taking over the party. Thrall cites Electronic Intifada’s influence, and Jewish Voice for Peace, and IfNotNow too.
Politicians speaking on Israel-Palestine used to worry primarily about attacks from pro-Israel media and activist groups; now progressives are starting to feel some heat from the pro-Palestinian side.
But it’s over. All the anti-Omar stuff of recent weeks is just the froth on the wave. Jim Zogby got slamdunked on the platform in 2016 by the Clintonites. But that wont’ happen again.
James Zogby… says that standing for Palestinian rights is guaranteed to be a major topic in the 2020 election: “It’s a smell-test issue. If you go to young people, they know you stink if you don’t talk about it right.” A senior Democratic staff member on Capitol Hill told me: “People like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders have opened the floodgates on this issue. It may be painful for the party as we move in a more progressive direction. But we’ll come out in a better place — a more moral and evenhanded place — in the end.”
This piece is going to resonate for weeks. It’s going to come under fierce attack. Because it’s huge, and it’s calm and factual. It doesn’t say a word about Christian Zionists because they don’t have influence in the Democratic Party. And Thrall did the shrewd thing of avoiding the word “lobby.” I guess it’s been anathematized, but that’s what this article is about. That and race. People of color are driving this change. They are going to be punished. Betty McCollum doesn’t get taken to the woodshed for calling it apartheid, but one county west, Ilhan Omar is going to be primaried next year.