Not so long ago in America, immediately after a Democratic politician announced a run for president, he or she would make a series of public gestures supporting Israel. This would range from a major address before an American-Jewish audience, to the required visit to the Holy Land.
In a way, even mild criticism of the Jewish state would have amounted to political suicide when it came to a Democrat running for high office. Historical, cultural, political and geo-strategic considerations – including the influence of a politically active American-Jewish community whose members resided in key electoral states and contributed money for the Democratic party – made it politically axiomatic to back Israel.
While the support for the Jewish state reflected a bipartisan consensus, it was the Democratic party – the political home of the majority of American Jews – that had been seen as promoting a more pro-Israeli agenda than the GOP. Liberals lauded Israel as a democratic and progressive bastion in the Middle East, while the Republicans were regarded as aligned with the Arab oil-producing nations in the Persian Gulf.
That sounds like ancient history now if you are a millennial observing the American political universe these days: waving the Israeli flag is for the Republican party, backed by a political base of Evangelical Christian Zionists, and represented by a president and lawmakers who sound at times like spokesmen for the right-wing Israeli Likud Party.
At the same time, members of the old guard of the Democratic party whose worldview was formed in the aftermath of World War Two – when the trauma of the Holocaust and Israel’s war for existence played a central role in driving the political agenda – are beginning to leave the stage.
They are being replaced by a new generation of political activists – millennials, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims – whose ties with the Jewish community and attitudes toward Israel are at best ambivalent, and in some cases, hostile.
The media has been focused on the response of the Democratic party’s elders, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to the criticism of Israel by the newly elected congresswoman from Minnesota, Rep. Ilhan Omar. She was one of two Muslim female Democrats elected to Congress last November, and who, among other things, tweeted recently that the support for Israel was ‘all about the Benjamins’; a reference to hundred-dollar bills and to the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the so-called Israel lobby.
Omar, who was born in Somalia and sits on the powerful House Foreign Relations Committee, also seemed to accuse American supporters of Israel of ‘dual loyalty’ and suggested that Israel was not a democratic state. She compared it to Iran. Her comments ignited criticism of ‘anti-Semitism,’ by some Democrats, which in turn precipitated another round of the dead-ending debate about whether criticism of Israel was equivalent to the classic form of anti-Semitism. Which it is not.
Congresswoman Omar does not, as far as we know, subscribe to anti-Semitic libels. She has not accused Jews of kidnapping and murdering children in order to use their blood for religious rituals, for instance.
What Congressman Omar and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, very much like many members of the European and American political and intellectual left, seem to agree on is that Jews do have not have the same right that other historical-cultural communities have – to national self-determination, and that Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people is neo-colonialist and racist, and by definition is illegitimate.
Hence the problem is not only that the Democratic party is now becoming less dependent on electoral and financial support from American Jews, whose numbers are shrinking anyway, but that many members of the new electoral base of the party see Israel as a European outpost in the Third World, and Israelis as oppressors of a non-white ‘indigenous’ Arab population. That Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also enjoy the strong support of President Donald Trump and the Republican party only helps to intensify these sentiments, especially among young left-leaning Democrats
This distorted view disregards not only the belief accepted by the majority of American Jews and non-Jews that Israel is the ancestral home of the Jewish people, but the fact that the majority of Israeli Jews are descendants of immigrants from the Middle East and North and East Africa.
The readiness on the part of many on the political left to bash, if not to demonize what is in essence a form of national Jewish identity, contrasts with the enthusiasm with which these same critics of Israel celebrate other non-white ethnic and racial identities – that of Africans, Latinos, Muslim, Palestinians – while denouncing anyone who dares to criticize these groups as ‘racist.’
Moreover, this obsessive preoccupation with Israel and the anti-Zionist tendencies it breeds, does seem to merge at some point with more classic anti-Semitism. The idea spreads that American Jews who support Israel are after all members of what is probably the most ‘privileged’ group of an overall ‘privileged’ white America and seem to be intent on maintaining their power and wealth while denying them to oppressed non-white communities across the world.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the new Democratic party is moving in the same direction as the British Labour party – which once upon a time was also a pro-Zionist political bastion – and will soon adopt an anti-Israeli agenda.
Support for the Jewish state has been dropping in the United States, but a majority of Americans – 59 percent according to the most Gallup opinion polls – remain pro-Israel, and only 21 percent sympathize with the Palestinian side, making it clear that a politician running on an anti-Israeli platform would not be elected as president.
But the same Gallup poll also indicates that, at 43 percent, support for Israel among Democrats is at the lowest level in years, and that the sharpest decline in sympathy for the Jewish state has been among those identifying as ‘liberal Democrats’ with nearly as many of them sympathizing now with the Palestinians (38 percent) as with the Israelis (41 percent). Young Democrats, African Americans and Hispanics are among the least supportive of the Jewish state.
It is not clear how this trend is going to affect the voting patterns among American Jews the majority of whom have voted for Democratic candidates in most recent presidential elections.
But it is clear that the influence that American-Jews have exerted in the Democratic party is bound to decline as power is shifting to African American, Latino and Asian American politicians, making it likely that Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer will probably be the last two Jewish senators representing California and New York respectively.
Ironically, an American Jewish politician, Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont, remains on the top of the list of the Democrats running for the presidency in 2020. But Sen. Sanders, like many of the young American Jews who identify themselves as liberal Democrats, subscribe to a universalist liberal worldview and disassociate themselves from Zionism and any other form of ‘tribal’ Jewish identity.
The need to maintain their alliance with the rising African-American and Latino stars on the left overrides their diminishing commitment to the Jewish State which in any case has been moving to the political right. They seek the adoration of Congresswoman Omar – a young African and Muslim woman – and not that of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
But it is not the recent tweet by Omar, a marginal political figure whose influence has been inflated by the media, that should concern Israeli leaders, but the positions of the Democrats running for the president in 2020.
A few years ago, the question of whether to approve a pro-Israel legislation would have been regarded as a no-brainer for a Democratic presidential candidate. But after Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida introduced a bill that would allow state and local governments to refuse to do business with companies that support the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, four of the five Democratic senators running for president – Cory Booker from New Jersey; Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts; Kamala Harris from California; Kirsten Gillibrand from New York – voted against the measure. They have apparently concluded that their fellow Democrats would not punish them in 2020 for not towing the pro-Israel line.