Are Some Democrats Moving Away From Israel?
JNS.org – Some Jewish Democrats and community activists are concerned at what they see as fresh signs that the party is distancing itself from Israel.
The latest controversy began when US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said at a July 22 Town Hall meeting in the Bronx that “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu does not have a plan for peace.”
When asked by JNS.org to elaborate, however, Senator Gillibrand’s office declined to reiterate her criticism of Netanyahu. Her senior adviser, Glen Caplin, said only that Gillibrand is “one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the Senate,” and pointed to her backing for military aid to the Jewish state. Caplin also chided Palestinian leaders for promoting “boycotts and unilateral actions at the UN” instead of negotiating with Israel.
Kennedy’s statement followed a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the legislation might impinge on free speech. However, Boston news media reported two days later that Kennedy was still supporting the bill. Currently, Kennedy’s name is still listed alongside 244 other House sponsors of the measure.
Conflict in Massachusetts
Jewish Democrats in Massachusetts were also riled by a recent attempt by some party activists to promote a position more critical of Israel. Carol Coakley, a member of the Democratic State Committee and an official of the group “Massachusetts Peace Action,” introduced a party resolution singling out Israel as the obstacle to peace. At the June 3 Massachusetts Democratic convention, the resolution was ruled out of order because the party ordinarily does not take positions on foreign policy issues.
Coakley told JNS.org that she has found “a significant number” of rank and file Massachusetts Democrats who support her position. However, Rob Leikind, New England regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who was involved in the effort against the resolution, told JNS.org that “opposition [to the measure] seemed strong.” He believes that the resolution would been defeated if it had been put to a full vote, and characterized critics of Israel within the state party as “a vocal fringe.”
Steve Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Massachusetts Democratic Party, told JNS.org that while support for Israel within the party remains strong overall, “there has been some increase and growth in voices and segments of the Democratic Party activist base” who are less friendly to Israel.
Grossman, who served as national president of AIPAC in the 1990s, said that those fringe elements in the party were galvanized by statements made by former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry that “placed an excessive burden” on Israel alone to resolve the Mideast conflict. Grossman said that Coakley and her faction have shown little or no interest in “Palestinian incitement to violence and terrorism, such as naming buildings and football fields after terrorists.”
Controversy in California
Critics of Israel within the Democratic Party were more successful at the California Democrats’ state convention in April. Party activists Estee Chandler and David Mandel — who are members of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace — succeeded in bringing about the adoption of a resolution there accusing Israel of obstructing peace and “adopting anti-democratic measures.” The resolution also warned the Trump administration against pursuing a “one-sided policy” in support of Israel.
Matthew Kahn, director of the AJC’s San Francisco region — who helped rally opposition to that measure, said that he is “pleased with the overall support for Israel among elected Democratic officials in California.” He added, however, that “contentiousness within the party as it relates to Israeli policies is a concern.”
According to Kahn, “What began in the party as a difference of opinion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has morphed into a BDS debate that has the potential to go from anti-Zionist into antisemitic territory. We must be vigilant not to let the Democratic Party be influenced by the BDS movement.”
Recent polls seem to substantiate Kahn’s concerns. An April 2017 survey by Shibley Telhami and Stella Rouse at the University of Maryland, found that 66 percent of Republicans nationwide believe that the Trump administration’s policy should “lean toward Israel,” while only 15 percent of Democrats feel that way. A January 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, but just 33 percent of Democrats share that sentiment.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that “these developments collectively are a challenge to Jewish Democrats and Jewish organizations not to rely on past achievements, alliances or party platforms.”
Cooper, who has attended both Democratic and Republican national conventions and worked with elected officials from both parties, told JNS.org that: “The Jewish community will have to retool and redouble its efforts to maintain the historic bipartisan support for Israel. If we don’t, … those who oppose Israel have already shown how effective they are becoming in impacting on our democratic system.”