Election 2016 : Where Do American Jews Turn Now?


These are trying times to be a Jewish voter in America.

For the past couple decades, support for Israel and the Jews has grown increasingly strong among Republicans. This trend has continued in Congress (though there is vast bipartisan support for Israel among senators and congressmen). Assaults on the traditional U.S.-Israel alliance have come more recently from the Democratic Party. This has continued – and worsened – which we will discuss below. But some alarming events have transpired among Republican and their backers, as well, that should cause worry among Jews. The meteoric rise of populist Donald Trump has come with its share of worrisome anti-Semitic incidents and connection to the shady “alt-right,” the Caucasian “anti-left-wing-racism racists.”

United by Hate

Incredibly, Donald Trump has been able to receive support, if not outright endorsements, from strange bedfellows former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist David Duke, and head of the Nation of Islam, African-American Louis Farrakhan. Certainly, what unites these two men is a hatred for Jews and Israel.

In February, Duke told listeners of his radio program that “voting against Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.” Trump was slow to disavow Duke’s statement. Just days later, Farrakhan said, “[Trump] is the only member who has stood in front of [the] Jewish community and said, ‘I don’t want your money.’” He continued, “Any time a man can say to those who control the politics of America, ‘I don’t want your money,’ that means you can’t control me.” Seemingly at odds with each other ideologically, Duke and Farrakhan found common ground with the “enemy of their enemy,” as both built their organizations on the hatred of the Jew and the Jewish people.

Trump’s Anti-Semitic Tropes

At the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump made several cringe-worthy comments (at best), which could be viewed as anti-Semitic canards (at worst). “I’m a negotiator like you folks; we are negotiators,” Trump said. “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them, perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.” Trump hyperbole aside, the portrait of the Jew as Shylock, always looking to get a better deal, always taking advantage of the other party, is unsettling.

At the same event, Trump seemed leery of a possible future meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, placed much of the responsibility of the peace process on Israel’s shoulders, and was wishy-washy on the long-term status of Jerusalem remaining Israel’s undivided capital. He did, however, say, “Israel needs more than just our support. They need strength; they need real power behind that.”

There is thought to be (though I don’t think anyone knows for sure) a large percentage of Donald Trump supporters who are “racists,” and would likely push for ending American aid to Israel. Trump, for his part, has moved away from such ideas, but this new wing of GOP support for isolationism tinged with anti-Semitism seems to have a place, at least in part, among Trump’s supporters.

Trump: Israel’s Champion?

Trump essentially did a “180” at the AIPAC Policy Conference a few months later. Perhaps this was Trump with more research on the matter? Perhaps this was the (obvious) influence of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and American-born Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who heavily consulted on the speech. At AIPAC, Trump could not have been more strongly supportive of Israel, saying, “We will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the State of Israel.” Trump likewise reversed his statement on who was to blame for failed peace between the Palestinians and Israel, and thoroughly endorsed moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (an election-year failed promise from many American presidential wannabes). He also pledged to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Tehran.

The Koch Brothers

Who knows where Donald Trump really stands on Israel? It’s tough to say. But a recent event sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute was a head-scratcher for those who feel the Republican Party is now the true (and only) base of support for Israel. A little background: Charles and David Koch are brothers who grew their father’s fortune into one of the largest in the world. They are long-time supporters and donors to conservative and libertarian causes, including several that they themselves founded. They are thought to think “outside the box” on Republican establishment ideas.

Of course, they are viewed as the source of all evil among the Bernie Sanders crowd: old, white, fat-cat rich men sitting in smoky corporate boardrooms, plotting the demise of the 99.9%. You get the idea. They are universally loathed in these circles. But in truth, the Koch brothers are more libertarian-minded, and have worked closely with the Obama administration on criminal justice reform and have supported other (typically) liberal causes.

So it was cause for concern among Jewish Republicans (and Jews, in general) when the Koch Institute invited three notorious Israel-bashers to speak on forums at a foreign policy conference last month, as reported by Bloomberg News columnist Eli Lake. Included among these three were Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, well-known in Israel foreign policy circles for their 2006 book, The Israel Lobby, in which the university professors renewed ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes of undue Jewish influence causing damage to American interests. These “dual-loyalty” accusations were, not surprisingly, strongly endorsed by the aforementioned David Duke, so this should give you some idea of the book’s content. The third invitee was Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who in a 2012 speech in Moscow said, “In some countries, like the United States, Israel can rely upon a ‘fifth column’ of activist sympathizers to amplify its messages.” These shady nods to Jewish conspiracy for power, money and undue influence have led to no shortage of spilled Jewish blood through the Exile – and the participation of these panelists at a Koch Institute conference is worrisome.

The Democrats

The Democratic side of things is even more troubling. Hillary is Hillary, and you know what you’re getting with her as it pertains to Israel (which isn’t necessarily good). She’s the most-known quantity of the remaining three candidates, notwithstanding her very checkered past on Israel. (See my recent piece on the candidates and Israel, at http://www.wherewhatwhen.com/authors/view/kenneth-friedman). In short, Hillary has many shortcomings, including her current ties to notorious Israel haters such as Max and Sidney Blumenthal, a past that includes her kiss of Suha Arafat after a speech in Arabic in which Arafat accused the Israelis of systematically poisoning Palestinians through their water supply, and most notably, her leadership of a U.S. State Department that was among the worst for Israel in modern history are not encouraging.

With the recent announcement that Bernie Sanders would get five selections for authors of the Democratic Party platform, American supporters of Israel have much to fear. (Presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton gets six, and Democratic National Convention chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) gets the other four.) Who these appointees are is even more troubling. We’ll get to these appointments in a moment, but first some background on the platform and its recent history – and what it means for Israel and the Democratic Party’s support for Israel.

There has been a remarkable shift away from Israel over the course of the Obama presidency. Not only has Obama attempted to put daylight between the United States and Israel, he also pushed through (with lies and deceit, it has emerged) the horrifying Iran deal as one of his greatest legacies. It is no secret that Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu loathe each other and that Israel/U.S. relations are at a low (although not likely at a historic low). Still, Obama has been generally supportive of Israel as it pertains to American aid and defense for Israel. With that in mind, it’s mind-blowing that there are many (in both parties, to be precise) who want to further increase the daylight between the U.S. and Israel.

Platform Problems

Although, in practice, the platform is not a binding “contract,” it says much about where party philosophy lies and more about the changing views of those in the party. For his part, Jewish Vermont “Democratic Socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders appointed two vehemently anti-Israel supporters of BDS (the boycott, divest, sanctions movement, which singles out Israel for all that is wrong in the world). The first, African-American Professor Cornell West, is so out of the mainstream, he has railed on Barack Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” West has called the Gaza Strip the “hood on steroids” and wrote that the crimes of Hamas “pale in the face of the U.S.-supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians.”

Sanders also selected James Zogby, president of the American-Arab Institute and a long-time supporter of Arab/Muslim causes in the U.S. While not an open advocate for BDS, he has strongly spoken out against marginalizing the BDS movement and has spoken viciously about Israel in the past, saying that Israel is committing a “holocaust” against the Palestinians. Bernie Sanders often talks on the campaign trail of family members murdered in the Holocaust, yet selected Zogby, who has, disturbingly, morally equated the Palestinian plight to the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust and has referred to Israelis as “Nazis.”

These statements and actions indicate both a clear lack of empathy on Sanders’ part as it pertains to Jewish Americans and a poor feel for foreign policy. Indeed, Sanders has often shown that he has little care for foreign policy. Yet with the world seemingly crumbling and the rise of global threats from ISIS, Iran, and the Muslim world, coupled with the increasing strength of Russia and China, this view seems poorly constructed – even for a self-described Socialist. Zogby has also used the anti-Semitic canard of dual-loyalty by calling sitting members of Congress “Israel-firsters.”

Sanders additionally chose Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. While Ellison does maintain friendly ties to his Jewish home base, he has spoken out against Israel and has voted against a congressional resolution condemning the notorious Goldstone Report, the United Nations’ 2009 Gaza war inquiry. The report was roundly ostracized by those in the pro-Israel community, and the most-damning anti-Israel parts were eventually retracted by Richard Goldstone, himself, for being misleading and false. So Ellison himself is on the outskirts of mainstream congressional thought as it pertains to Israel. He is endorsed by the not-particularly-Jewish, not-pro-Israel, and not-particularly-for-peace J-Street organization, so that should give you some indication of where he stands.

Many in the pro-Israel community are already saying how little the Democratic Party platform actually means to policy. Regardless, this hard move to the left of bipartisan support for Israel is more than symbolic. Party members (at what point is it mainstream Democratic thought?) tried to change language on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2012, before it was reintroduced at the convention and put to vote on the convention floor, receiving loud and contentious boos and hisses when it was returned to the platform. Sanders himself has continually said that American foreign policy needs to take the Palestinian plight into greater consideration and that the U.S. has to play a more “even role.”

I’m certain our world would look far different had modern-day progressive Democrats been running the world during World War II. The connection between Neville Chamberlain and Barack Obama is not far off, so it should indeed scare you that the burgeoning popularity of the Sanders wing of the party makes Obama look like Winston Churchill.

Hillary Clinton, with the right to name six of the 15 drafters of the platform, named mostly longtime Democratic insiders and those close to her campaign. One, Jewish former Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, was the lead U.S. negotiator in the much-maligned Iran nuclear deal. This obviously hurt her standing in the pro-Israel community. Another appointee, Neera Tanden, is the head of the liberal Center for American Progress, where she has rallied the troops in support of the Iran Deal.

Wasserman Schultz notably appointed local Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), a longtime Israel supporter. It may not be well-known among our community that Cummings runs a program bringing Baltimore African-American teenagers to Israel for two-year fellowships, and remains a strong supporter of pro-Israel causes. Cummings has been appointed to lead the party platform draft.

Where to Turn?

Much has changed in the last eight years. We have seen the shift of traditional alliances in the world, with Israel in many ways more in-step with its Arab neighbors – such as Middle East powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as Russia and the Asian powers – than with the United States. It is still impossible to say where American foreign policy will be in a few years. With Trump’s ascendance and the rise of the left-wing in the Democratic Party, anything could happen.

It is important to remember, too, that almost half the Jews in the world now live in Israel, and it is expected that Muslims will outnumber Jews in the United States by 2050. Not coincidentally, the Christians declined almost eight percent as a share of the population in the last decade. This policy uncertainty, combined with demographic changes, forecasts a very uncertain future for the political fortunes of Jews.

So where to turn? The recent events discussed above raise the fear that Jews have no party that speaks for us or defends our interests. The push of Libertarian Koch money into Trump's already questionable campaign makes him a very tough choice for any Jewish voter. Combined with Trump’s vulgarity, brusque populism, and flip-flopping on Israel, even the seasoned compassionate Republican must consider Hillary Clinton (the unthinkable). Still, the equally-important, Jewish, uber-pro-Israel, mega-philanthropist Sheldon Adelson has also decided to cast his lot and treasure with Donald Trump, a decision of great importance to Jews and Republicans. The one unquestionable certainty is that each American Jew must exercise his or her voting right. In this contentious election, it is paramount to study the issues that are of greatest importance to American Jews and vote based on principle and not in fear of making the wrong choice.

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