Opinion | A Jewish Democrat’s Dilemma

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By Martin J. Raffel

We are only weeks away from the 2018 midterm elections, which might have a huge impact on the second half of President Donald Trump’s term.

If Democrats succeed in wresting control over one or both houses of Congress, there likely would be significant implications both for U.S. policy and, depending on the outcome, for Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.


Is a blue wave coming, as many predict? I certainly hope so. Yet, that hope is accompanied by some unease about the apparent erosion of support for Israel among Democrats.

In a survey last January, the Pew Research Center found that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on support of Israel is the largest it has been since 1978. Today, approximately three times as many Republicans as Democrats back Israel’s cause over that of the Palestinians. There are multiple reasons for this trend, presumably not least of which is the warm embrace given Trump by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following years of rancor between former President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

The chasm between Republicans and Democrats found in the Pew poll revolved around the binary question of whether respondents felt more sympathy toward Israel or the Palestinians, but many observers have pointed out that this can lead to erroneous conclusions.

For example, last January in The Atlantic, shortly after the Pew poll was released, Brookings Institution scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro wrote: “Americans are far more divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they are on Israel or the U.S.-Israel relationship — and so when Israel advocates and Israelis themselves use this poll question as a proxy for American support for Israel, they are not doing themselves any favors.”

Research suggests that most American Jews do not think primarily about U.S.-Israel relations at the polls. In an American Jewish Committee survey carried out before the 2012 presidential election, 61.5 percent said the economy was the most important issue for them in deciding how they would vote, compared to 4.5 percent who prioritized U.S.-Israel relations, and 34 percent whose support was dependent on other domestic and international concerns.

The well-documented distancing between American Jews and Israel of late may cause some American Jews to care even less about Israel when voting.

In terms of my decision-making inside the voting booth, I guess I’m something of an outlier. As a political liberal, I do care deeply about many issues other than Israel. Yet, for me, maintaining the strong bipartisan American foundation of support for Israel — I constantly think about Israel’s security challenges — is paramount, as a threshold matter, in every election cycle. Only after I’m convinced that a candidate is sufficiently supportive of Israel do I feel free to explore his/her other positions.

Democrats, both Jewish and non-Jewish, seem to fall into three categories with regard to Israel.

There are centrist Democrats, such as those influenced by AIPAC’s call to refrain from expressing any public disagreement with Israeli policies; there are Democrats associated with the progressive wing of the party who support Israel but are willing to question Israeli policies (I often agree with their criticisms, though, at times, I may regard them as unfair or lacking in context); and then there is a small  segment of the party that harbors an animus toward Israel that extends beyond mere criticism of the government’s policies. This animus relates to Israel’s core identity as a Jewish state, which is attacked as either racist or a form of aparthei

I will support a candidate who falls into the first two categories, but never the latter.

The point made by Wittes and Shapiro in the Atlantic about not equating sympathy for the Palestinians with eroding support for Israel is reassuring. Still, I am concerned that critics may gravitate toward a deeper rejection of Israel.

That’s why those of us who wish to maintain strong bipartisan American support for Israel have work to do. First, we must be scrupulous about not accusing critics of Israeli policy of being anti-Israel.

Second, we should stress to Democratic Party leaders why it is fundamentally important that the party’s platforms and pronouncements maintain a clear distinction between criticism of Israeli government policies, which may be legitimate, and unacceptable hostility toward the state of Israel.

Third, we should acknowledge the sympathy expressed by many Democratic Party leaders for the plight of the Palestinians, sympathy many of us share. At the same time, we should help them appreciate the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This educational task can best be accomplished by facilitating fact-finding visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch, N.J., is a former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. A version of this article first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News.

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