Much like the 2016 presidential election, the 2018 midterm congressional elections are shaping up to be one of the most contentious in recent memory. Democrats are attempting to retake both houses of Congress in a bid to serve as a check on U.S. President Donald Trump and to rectify their embarrassing defeat in 2016. Yet for the American Jewish and pro-Israel community, the upcoming midterms and their results may also have a profound effect on the future of bipartisan support for Israel.
Many worry that the leftward shift among Democrats in their opposition to Trump during this election season may bring the party closer towards the anti-Israel views found on the party’s far-left, as exemplified by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
One of the biggest surprises so far in the primary season was the upset victory by Democratic Socialist candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over incumbent New York City Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a party primary in June.
Shortly after her surprising primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez was criticized for a tweet that said Israel was committing a “massacre” in Gaza, in reference to the deaths of more than 60 Palestinian rioters massed along the Israel-Gaza on May 14, most of whom were later acknowledged to be members of Hamas.
In July, Ocasio-Cortez again drew criticism in an interview with PBS’s “Firing Line” when she said, “I also think that what people are starting to see—at least in the occupation of Palestine—is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.”
When pressed to expand on her comments, she explained how “Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes. Oh, I think—what I meant is that the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes … ”
And then when asked again to clarify, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged that she is not familiar with the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I am not the expert at geopolitics on this issue,” she said with a laugh. “I am a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these—for me, I just look at things through a human-rights lens, and I may not use the right words. I know this is a very intense issue.”
While Ocasio-Cortez has drawn much of the attention, other Democratic candidates, such as Ilhan Omar, Leslie Cockburn and Scott Wallace, have also been criticized for their anti-Israel views or ties to pro-BDS groups.
Omar, a Minnesota state representative who is vying to replace Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)—himself a vocal critic of Israel during his tenure in the House and who has been tied to the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—has previously accused Israel of “evil doings” in the Gaza Strip, calling it an “apartheid state.”
Similarly, Cockburn, the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s fifth congressional district, wrote a book back into the early 1990s titled Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship that has been panned for peddling conspiracies theories and smears that depict Israel as manipulating U.S. foreign policy. The New York Times noted in its review of the book at the time that it was dedicated to “Israel bashing for its own sake,” and that its message was that Israelis “are a menace” who are responsible for “everything that ails us.”
For his part, Wallace, a multimillionaire philanthropist and Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s first congressional district, was exposed for his family foundation’s donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that promote the BDS movement, including Code Pink and Jewish Voice for Peace, according to a report by The Forward.
Neil Strauss, digital director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, told JNS that the recent primary victories by far-left Democrats illustrate that the party is lurching to the left.
“On the rise of the far-left in the Democrat Party, look no further than Ocasio-Cortez, Wallace and Cockburn. They all won competitive Democrat primaries, and two of them did it in swing districts. They won because the party as a whole is shifting to the far-left, and that’s where their primary votes are. They seem to think it’s a good strategy, but we’re proving that it isn’t,” he said.
Strauss pointed to the RJC’s campaign to raise awareness of Wallace’s support for anti-Israel groups as proving that the strategy of moving to the far-left is a losing one for Democrats.
“When we told the voters in PA-01 about Wallace’s foundation’s support for anti-Israel groups, the Cook Political Report shifted the race from toss-up to lean Republican, and specifically cited our campaign. All we had to do was tell the voters the truth,” he said.
Democratic establishment not standing up?
At the same time, there has been concern that the so-called Democratic establishment is not doing enough to address the shift to the left within their party. Fingers point to Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has a staunch record of supporting Israel, and other Senate veterans who have stood back a bit while the bashing has taken place.
In May, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, issued a letter that was signed by 12 other Democrats, including Senate veterans such as Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.”
Sanders’s letter drew criticism from Haim Saban, an Israeli-American entertainment mogul who has donated tens of millions to Democrats over the years. Saban wrote a letter to several senators who had signed onto the letter, expressing “dismay” about the message.
“Senators, for you to listen to Senator Sanders and accuse Israel of being the main culprit is outrageous, misinformed, offensive and shows a lack of understanding of the region’s basic fundamentals,” Saban wrote in the email. “Do your homework, unless you have chosen to blindly follow Senator Sanders’ ill advised, misinformed, simplistic, and ignorant lead.”
Criticism has also been directed at Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a potential 2020 Democratic candidate for president, for praising Women’s March leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour. Mallory has been tied to known anti-Semite and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, while Linda Sarsour is a strong proponent of the BDS movement.
“These are women who are virulently anti-Israel, and who continue to embrace Louis Farrakhan and his unbridled anti-Semitism. Bernie Sanders is now defaming Israel by ignoring the facts and embracing the far-left’s conspiracy theories on Israel,” said Strauss.
“Up and down the Democrat Party, you find elected officials that embrace these people, and they surely aren’t punished for it within their party. When it comes to support for Israel, among a lot of these Democrats, it has become a race to see who can run farthest from the United States’ close, fruitful relationship with Israel.”
Despite his criticism of Democrats, Strauss said that the RJC isn’t looking to take advantage of the shift to the left, but simply seeking to highlight it so that someone can bring the Democratic Party back into the pro-Israel fold.
“Our advocacy works better when pro-Israel policy is a bipartisan issue. We work hard on our side to make sure that the Republican Party is clearly known as a pro-Israel party. We also will continue to work hard to make sure that voters know if candidates are anti-Israel because by and large, the American people are pro-Israel, and they aren’t going to elect Israel-bashers,” he said.
For its part, the Jewish Democratic Council of America told JNS that the Democratic Party “remains a stalwart ally of Israel” and criticized Trump and congressional Republicans for “politicizing the relationship between our two countries.”
“In this election season, it is important that we not get distracted by Republican efforts to politicize support for Israel and distract the Jewish community from the agenda of the Trump administration, which is not aligned with the interests or values of the overwhelming majority of American Jews,” the group said.
The JDCA noted that right after Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, it issued a statement where it “disagreed” with her statements on Israel, while strongly condemning the BDS movement.
“Since issuing our statement, JDCA has been in touch with Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign to further that engagement, and as Ocasio-Cortez herself has said, she is in a learning process about Middle East issues. JDCA would like to be a part of that process,” said the organization.
Additionally, the JDCA said that it condemns Omar’s statements characterizing Israel as an “apartheid state,” as well as her egregious allegation that Israel is “hypnotizing the world” to ignore its so-called “evil doings.”
“JDCA will not endorse Omar if she emerges as the Democratic candidate following her August primary,” the group said.
A fundamental shift when it comes to Israel
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told JNS that there is a fundamental shift going on within the Democratic Party when it comes to the Jewish state.
“The left is becoming more consistently hostile to Israel, and the Democratic Party is moving left,” he said.
Still, favorable views of Israel are at some of the highest levels in decades, with 74 percent of U.S. adults viewing Israel favorably, and especially among Republicans, with 83 percent viewing Israel favorably compared to 64 percent among Democrats.
“Republicans have consistently shown greater support than Democrats for Israel, partly because of conservative Christians’ beliefs about the biblical significance of Israel,” Gallup wrote in its analysis of the polling. “Another key factor in the especially wide gap since 2002 is likely Israel’s strong backing of the United States at the start of the Iraq War in 2003 and the strong support that Republican President George W. Bush showed for the Jewish state.”
“These pro-Israel sentiments are particularly strong among Republicans and have been growing in recent years,” according to Gallup.
However, Pipes explained that the current shift by Democrats does not mean that bipartisan support for Israel is entirely dead, as both conservatives and liberals have had shifting stances on Israel historically.
“In 1948, liberals were warm [towards Israel] and conservatives cool; in 1980, conservatives became warm; in 1991, liberals became cool. In other words, attitudes change over time,” he explained. “Bipartisan support for Israel is broken at this moment, but it could return.”
Indeed, when Israel came into existence in 1948, Democrats tended to champion the new nation, while Republicans tended to see Israel as a weak state and a liability during the Cold War. Following the overwhelming Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War over Soviet-allied Arab states such as Egypt and Syria, America came to see Israel as a military powerhouse and a useful ally.
However, as the Cold War came to an end and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage in the 1990s and 2000s, Democrats—partially to appease their more liberal and younger Jewish constituents—began to become increasingly critical over its policies towards the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Republicans—backed by concerns over Islamic terrorism, fueled by shared religious and cultural affinity with the Jewish state, and having an older Jewish base—moved towards increasing their support for Israel.
As evidenced by the increasing criticism of Israel by progressives like Bernie Sanders and strong support from Republicans, this trend has continued in recent years.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how successful the new Sanders’s wing of the Democratic Party will be, while Pipes believes that establishment Democrats need to do a better job of making the case for Israel.
“The Sanders’s wing does seem to have momentum, but we won’t know which wing is winning until the elections in November,” said Pipes. “Schumer and the other liberal holdouts should reaffirm how Israel fits liberal ideals a lot better than its enemies.”