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September 2, 2020 6:25 am

A Message to Our Leaders: Stop Politicizing Jewish Issues

avatar by Peter Fishkind

Opinion

US President Donald Trump takes questions during a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news briefing, at the White House, in Washington, DC, July 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

With the Democratic and Republican Party conventions now behind us, I took some time to reflect on a concern that has been ailing the American Jewish community. Over the past few years, issues of special importance to Jewish voters have become increasingly politicized. Time and time again, matters like the question of support for the US-Israel relationship and specific concerns that antisemitism is on the rise within our political parties have not been dealt with on the merits. Instead, they have been thrown into the political fray.

Acknowledging my own biases as an active member of the Democratic Party, I’d like to use this space to discuss the problems this approach poses for American Jews.

The first example that has caused me alarm is the allegation that my party, and the political left in general, has an antisemitism problem. My issue with this charge is not that it is manufacturing a controversy. There are those on the left that are, whether they recognize it themselves or not, antisemites.

Take a recent incident that came to light in New York City. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that the NYC Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America included on their candidate survey sent to NYC Council Member candidates a question that asked whether they would “pledge not to travel to Israel if elected to City Council.” The only other foreign policy question asked on the survey was whether they supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that refuses to recognize a Jewish right to statehood in any borders.

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Any group’s call to reject the Jewish people’s right to statehood — and to design a survey with a singular focus on the world’s one Jewish state — echoes past charges deeming the Jewish people responsible for unique evils in the world, and is antisemitic.

Therefore, to my Republican friends reading this article, please know that I am willing to acknowledge the existence of the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry among those who claim to be progressives. I have done so in the past.

I say this in order to advise caution to those who are framing the issue in broad strokes. This presupposes that Republicans and those who claim to be conservatives don’t have their own share of wackos, or a president who has used unacceptable words about the Jewish community on multiple occasions.

Moreover, it ignores that anti-Jewish bias is a human problem that has existed for millennia. Suggesting that it subsists within a single political camp is a critical error that risks serving as a shield for those of the alternative ideological persuasion.

For what it’s worth, while many Jews believe the president holds anti-Jewish animus, I do not.

Instead, I believe his views about the Jewish community track somewhat well with what is described in this article. He seems to believe many of the stereotypes about Jews valuing wealth and our supposed business savvy but, through his own worldview, sees them as virtues to be complimented. Due to his reckless comments about Jews as well as a slew of other reasons, I remain unsupportive of the president.

However, I will readily acknowledge that President Trump has put in place a number of policies of special concern to the Jewish community that I have supported.

The president was right to join Israel in recognizing Jerusalem as its own capital, a privilege that, as far as I understand, we grant to every other state whose sovereignty our government recognizes. I also supported his decision to sign an Executive Order extending protections to Jewish college students facing discrimination in line with a policy previously championed by former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

In fact, the Jewish community as a whole seems to hold a similar outlook on these questions. A recent survey found that disapproval for the president among American Jews hovered at around 70%. At the same time, there was net approval of 20 percentage points for the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem and 13 points for the signing of the Executive Order. The survey also found that Jewish voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of antisemitism/white nationalism by a margin of 71 to 22. Should his purported failure on this latter point be taken to mean the Republicans have an antisemitism problem? My answer would be no, and that such framing again does a disservice. Instead, I see this as a specific failure of the president and not one that would occur under a President Romney or McCain.

Moreover, there is recent evidence that suggests GOP voters may not prioritize support for Israel to the extent that many believe. Specifically, one can look to the statements the president made during his successful primary campaign where he promised to remain “neutral” on questions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and did not have to pay a political cost. None of this is to suggest such a change will necessarily happen. It is to suggest that it certainly could happen and, therefore, those seeking to promote the long-term interests of Jewish voters should refrain from making their criticisms in terms of partisan broadsides.

At the end of the day, there aren’t many American Jews. Making up only about 2% of the total US population, we don’t have enough voters in our ranks to sway elections for any political party.

Rather, we are largely reliant on our capacity to advocate for our interests and for our allies of good will in both parties to address our concerns. Statements that put forth charges of guilt by association or tar those who share a party with those who have ignored our concerns will only chip away at our community’s capacity to advocate for our interests. Instead, we should move forward with an individualized focus on condemning those actors or the specific statements of our detractors. Recognizing antisemitism and other Jewish concerns on their own merits, without partisan blinders, is undoubtedly the best way to maintain our credibility and raise alarm effectively when lines are crossed.

Peter Fishkind is a publishing Adjunct at The MirYam Institute, an associate in the Litigation Department at Proskauer Rose LLP in New York. He lives in Great Neck, New York and is a member of the Nassau County Democratic Party Committee. He earned his undergraduate degree at George Washington University and received his J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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