Longtime Democratic supporters of close U.S.-Israel ties have been forced to regroup after freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) suggested Israel’s supporters are motivated by political donations and have “allegiance” to a foreign country, sparking a messy public reckoning over anti-Semitism. Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, have shown a new willingness to challenge Israeli government policy under Netanyahu.
Few Democratic leaders believe the party is in danger of seeing a mass defection of Jewish voters — a “Jexodus” some Republicans are calling for, including Trump — but many say they need to redouble their efforts to police anti-Semitic rhetoric and prevent further erosion of support for Israel. Jewish voters typically favor Democrats over Republicans by a remarkably consistent ratio of 2 to 1 or better, according to exit polling dating to 1980.
“What I’m hearing from the community is, ‘Do we have a problem?’ ” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), a moderate Jewish Democrat. “My answer to that is: There are a few individuals who are on the fringes, but that’s not where the party is, and we need to reinforce that message and ensure this never becomes a partisan issue.”
That mission is set to play out next week as thousands of politically active Jewish Americans and allies gather at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. The headliners include top-ranking Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), all considered stalwart supporters of Israel.
They will be tasked with countering a narrative of polarization and division that has been developing since at least 2015, when Netanyahu openly challenged President Barack Obama over his decision to pursue nuclear rapprochement with Iran. That narrative only accelerated with Trump’s election and close embrace of Netanyahu and his priorities — canceling the Iran nuclear deal, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, in a tweet Thursday, endorsing Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan.
But the frenzy over Omar’s comments has emboldened Republicans who argue that they are the more ardent supporters of Israel and Jewish interests — even as a new Gallup poll found that only 16 percent of Jewish Americans identified as Republicans last year.
Trump this month called the Democratic Party “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish” after House leaders broadened a resolution responding to Omar by condemning all forms of hatred. Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the House Republican Conference chairwoman, in a fundraising message accused Democrats of “enabling anti-Semitism.” And GOP campaign committees are targeting Democratic incumbents who have shied away from directly rebuking Omar.
According to lawmakers and congressional aides, as well as activists and strategists, Democratic leaders and others in the party are planning to push back on the narrative at the AIPAC conference, which Netanyahu is slated to attend. Some will emphasize the importance of keeping the U.S.-Israel relationship bipartisan. Others will argue the more significant threat is anti-Semitism on the political right. And some will directly challenge the rhetoric that landed Omar and her defenders in a political firestorm.
“There are thousands of people who will be coming to Washington this week who are Democrats and Republicans who care deeply about the U.S.-Israel relationship and understand that it can’t be used as a political wedge issue — and that applies on both sides,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who delivered an impassioned floor speech on the dangers of anti-Semitism during the Omar imbroglio this month. “I think what the community wants is clear assurance that attacks on the Jewish community won’t be tolerated and can never be normalized.”
Part of that effort is the new resolution sponsored by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) that strongly rejects the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS. That movement aims to apply economic pressure to compel Israel to change its policy toward the Palestinians. Its critics say the changes BDS supporters want would effectively end Israel’s identity as a Jewish homeland.
AIPAC supports the resolution, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the group’s strategy.
While the vast majority of Democrats are opposed or at least silent on the movement, two freshmen House members — Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who is of Palestinian descent — have made statements of support. And many more Democrats have pushed back on legislative efforts to rebuke the movement, saying they infringe on free speech.
Tlaib’s office said in a statement Thursday that she would oppose the resolution “because it is aimed at suppressing free speech and moves us no closer to peace and understanding.”
“The economic boycott of Israel or any other government based on violations of human rights is about highlighting the injustices that need to stop,” said Tlaib’s spokesman, Denzel McCampbell.
Twenty-three Senate Democrats opposed a separate bill last month that would allow state and local governments to cut off contracts with companies that embrace BDS.
Democratic leaders are intent on sending a straightforward message of support at AIPAC as they share a stage with Netanyahu and Trump administration officials eager to tout their close bond.
The task for Democrats, said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), is that “support for Israel needs to be defined as support for Israel, not support for Bibi Netanyahu,” he said, using a common nickname for the Israeli leader.
Hoyer, long one of the most fervent Democratic supporters of Israel, plans to speak Sunday about the shared democratic values of the two countries and the need to counter threats from Iran — standard fare for the annual conference. But, according to an aide familiar with his planned remarks, he also will rebut the notion that Israel’s American supporters have a “dual loyalty” — the anti-Semitic trope at the center of the recent accusations against Omar.
“He will argue there should be no confusion about Americans who support Israel — they do so out of patriotism for the United States and its ideals,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the speech.
Pelosi and Schumer have spoken out about GOP efforts to create a partisan breach on Israel, and both have pointed to Trump as a culprit in rising anti-Semitism.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said that her “strong message of support for the vital U.S.-Israel relationship will speak for itself” and that “politicians who seek to weaponize this relationship and turn it into a wedge issue are no friends of Israel.”
After Trump called Democrats anti-Jewish, Schumer pointed to Trump’s equivocal response to the 2017 white-supremacist march in Charlottesville and said he was “only interested in playing the politics of division.”
“Mr. President,” he added, “you have redefined chutzpah.”
Not appearing at AIPAC — at least at official events — are any 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, with some openly announcing they are skipping the event amid pressure from left-wing activists.
The liberal group MoveOn Political Action urged White House hopefuls to skip the conference, citing the group’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and its close embrace of Netanyahu.
An aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cited concerns “about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.” Sanders, who is of Jewish descent, has been among the prominent Democratic presidential candidates most critical of the Netanyahu government, and he offered some support of Omar amid the firestorm this month.
“She has been critical of the Israeli government, and I think that that is a fair criticism,” he said of Omar in an interview with WMUR in New Hampshire. “I have been very critical of the Israeli government in terms of their treatment of Palestinians.”
Both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another liberal presidential hopeful, skipped Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress. And when the Senate voted last month on the anti-BDS measure, nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates voted against it, citing free speech concerns. The one exception was Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.).
“The task for presidential candidates used to be convincing the electorate of their bona fides in being aligned with the Israeli government,” said Ben Rhodes, a former senior foreign policy aide to Obama. “I think now it’s incumbent on Democrats to articulate how they can both be supportive of Israel, in terms of its survival and its security, but also critical of this Israeli government.”
That emerging reality is making some traditional Israel supporters inside the Democratic Party nervous. This year Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic pollster and strategist, launched a new group, Democratic Majority for Israel, aimed at shoring up support as a new generation of liberals express fresh doubts about Israel under a right-wing government.
Mellman said “the overwhelming majority” of Democrats are pro-Israel, “and we want to keep it that way.” The GOP pressure campaign highlighting Israel’s Democratic critics, he said, had little chance of success.
“We’ve got a few who are problematic from a pro-Israel point of view,” Mellman said. “That’s a few too many, as far as I’m concerned, on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s not a bad score. So I don’t think it’s a particularly precarious moment.”