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Has Israel become a left-right issue?

by Douglas J. Workman

July 28, 2014 | 1:35 pm

<em>Pro-Israel rally outside L.A. Israeli Consulate on July 8. Photo by Jeffrey Hensiek</em>

Pro-Israel rally outside L.A. Israeli Consulate on July 8. Photo by Jeffrey Hensiek

About a decade ago, my rabbi was promoting congregational AIPAC involvement.  His argument went that AIPAC was not necessary for our local liberal Jewish Congressman, who was a member of our synagogue.  If he ever did anything anti-Israel, the rabbi always had the option of reporting that fact to the Congressman’s mother.  However, he stated that AIPAC was necessary to make Israel’s case to the Congressman from northeast Louisiana, in other words, the Congressman for the folks from Duck Dynasty.  Ten years later, it seems that the pro Israel lobby needs to change its focus from the Congressman in northeast Louisiana to the one south-central Los Angeles.

In a recent CNN/ORC survey taken from July 18 to July 20, 2014, Americans had a favorable view of Israel, 60%-36%, which would appear promising.  When the data is broken down, there is some cause for concern.  Republicans viewed Israel favorably by a margin of 67%-31% and Independents 63%-35%.  Democrats, however, only viewed Israel favorably by a margin of 49%-48%.  In asking about the justification for Operation Protective Edge, Republicans viewed Israel as justified by a margin of 73%-19%, Independents 56%-36% and Democrats 45%-42%.  Looking at the data, Republicans and Independents are strong supporters of Israel; Democrats not so much.  The trend is alarming.  The key question is why?  What has happened to cause the gradual movement of Democrats from the pro-Israel camp?  There are of course, notable Democrats strongly supportive of Israel from Chuck Schumer to Alan Dershowitz, but if they are not the minority within their own party, they may well soon be. 

I have come up with four reasons to explain the polling data.  The first is moral relativism.  Since World War II, Democrats have never been comfortable in framing issues as good vs. evil.  They had trouble with the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire or George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil.  The fact that there would no need for Operation Protective Edge if Hamas did not fire thousands of rockets into Israel in an attempt (albeit ineffective) to murder as many innocent Jews as possible seems to be lost on certain Democrats.  To frame the issue as Hamas = evil and Israel = good is not a major intellectual breakthrough.  You just need to have a moral compass that finds indiscriminate murder as evil.  Democrats have no problem labeling Republican domestic policies as immoral, such as with the war on women, but their morality seems to go astray as soon as it is applied to the international arena.

The second reason is President Barack Obama.  As the ostensible leader of the Party, the President’s opinions on Israel matter a great deal.  Despite Republican claims to the contrary, Obama is not inherently anti-Israel.  He has approved Iron Dome funding and presided over unprecedented levels of security cooperation between the United States and Israel.  On the other hand, the President is not instinctively pro-Israel either.  One only has to look at his administration’s recent involvement in the cease fire negotiations regarding Operation Protective Edge, which the Israeli security cabinet described as a “betrayal.”  This is not a new issue for the President; Obama has been dogged since he first ran for President about whether he is supportive for Israel in his gut; i.e., the kishkes test.

The third reason is what I call the “Jimmy Carter” issue.  This issue stems from the Democrats being hardwired to support the underdog.  In that framework, all they see is a powerful western colonial Israel oppressing an indigenous third world Palestine.  However in framing the issue as such, Caterites consistently fail to understand the history of the conflict, how the United Nations voted to partition what was then Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab one, how the partition resolution was accepted by the Jewish community and rejected by the Arabs, who then assembled the armies of five nations to launch a war with the avowed aim of driving the Jews out of Palestine.  The fact that they failed is now described as the “Nakba” or catastrophe.  Carter sees this issue in terms of South African apartheid, which is evident by his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”  Despite Carter’s support for Hamas and his being absolutely and completely wrong about Israel, there appears to be an audience for him within the confines of the Democrat party.

The fourth reason is Jewish Democrats themselves.  J Street is a lobbying group that portrays itself as “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.”  What they have done successfully is peel off liberal Jews from AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations.  You can find Israelis with views similar to J Street; you would not even call them hard left.  The difference is that J Street uses its influence on US policy towards Israel, while Israeli leftists, whose children serve in the IDF, use their influence on the democratically elected government of Israel, who is responsible for the safety and well-being of its citizens.  There is debate within the Jewish community about the “Pro-Israel” component of J Street, but you cannot debate that J Street has made it acceptable within the Jewish community to lobby the United States government to apply pressure on Israel.  It is not a giant step to conclude that they have not done as good job within the liberal community of making the case for Israel as they have in making the case for pressuring Israel.

How can we change the Democrats outlook towards Israel?  The data does not say that they are anti-Israel, but the trend is worth noting.

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