Why you should care
The debate over the Jewish state could decide the Democratic nominee.
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Sitting onstage during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference last March, Sen. Kamala Harris dropped an anecdote about her own unlikely brush with Zionism as a Jamaican-Indian American girl growing up in Oakland. “As a child, I never sold Girl Scout cookies,” the California senator told the audience, according to a participant who tweeted about it. “I went around with a [Jewish National Fund] box collecting funds to plant trees in Israel.”
That meant-to-endear aside wasn’t surprising. Harris had related the same anecdote at the AIPAC summit the previous year. The difference? In 2017, she had made a public speech. Last year, though, Harris wasn’t exactly eager to broadcast her presence before the nation’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby. She spoke not in a marquee event, but in an “off record” speech, not listed on the conference website or advertised by organizers, and not acknowledged by her team until participants revealed her presence.
For decades, American politicians have sidled up to Israel supporters, a testament to the Jewish state’s status as one of America’s few natural allies in the Middle East and its influence across parties. But Harris steered clear of the subject of Israel during her January book tour that experts see as a test for a likely presidential run. And she isn’t the only likely presidential contender to turn shy. Fellow Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker didn’t even attend the 2018 AIPAC conference, despite having spoken at it in the past. And the guest list for this year’s AIPAC event, taking place in late March, is equally bereft of presidential contenders: The only rumored candidate scheduled to appear so far is Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
There is … a divide between the base of the party on this issue and Democratic legislators.
KC Johnson, U.S.-Middle Eastern relations expert
This reticence is a tacit acknowledgment of a new reality: Grassroot support for the Democratic Party is shifting on the Israel-Palestine issue. A Pew Research Center poll in 2018 found that Democratic voters are torn about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine: 27 percent sympathize more with Israel, 25 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians, 23 percent said they supported neither or both sides and 25 percent said they did not know. Just two years ago, Democrats were more likely to back Israel by 14 percentage points, according to a previous Pew poll.
Most Democratic legislators remain publicly pro-Israel, but the shift on the ground is now expected to filter into the policy platforms of some major presidential contenders ahead of the 2020 primaries, sharpening a divide within the caucus. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a likely candidate, snubbed AIPAC during his 2016 presidential run even as Hillary Clinton attended twice. In November, Sanders joined Elizabeth Warren, who recently announced her intention to run, and other Democratic caucus lawmakers in sending a letter to Israel’s leaders demanding that the country halt the planned destruction of part of a Palestinian village.
“There is a discrepancy, a divide, between the base of the party on this issue and Democratic legislators,” one that hasn’t really existed before, says KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College history professor and former Tel Aviv University instructor who studies U.S.-Middle Eastern relations. “There have always been sharp critics of Israel in the Democratic caucus, but they seemed outside the mainstream,” he says.
That ground-up surge in pro-Palestine activity was visible in the recent midterms that led to the election of at least two vocal supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at pressuring Israel into addressing Palestinian rights: Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. The first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, Tlaib did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment but has previously told The Intercept that she wants to lead a delegation to Palestine that would counter the annual AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel.
“There is a young generation of American progressives overall who are looking for a rejection of the old way of doing things,” says Simone Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for If Not Now, a Jewish-American activist group building public support to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The former Sanders staffer ties the pro-Palestine movement’s work to the way the Vermont senator was able to normalize progressive ideals such as Medicare-for-all. “Just like how we’re seeing young people push for radical new visions, like the Green New Deal policy” supported by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Zimmerman adds.
But the rise of this sentiment is also likely to make Israel — of the countless issues that are likely to be faced by the 2020 candidates — perhaps the most divisive within the Democratic caucus. Once hot-button issues such as gay marriage, a carbon tax and Medicare-for-all have become nearly ubiquitous party positions.
On the one hand, as contenders scramble in what’s expected to be a crowded field, taking an outside-the-box stance on Palestine could be an attractive way to differentiate themselves. “I could see Sanders doing that. I could see Gillibrand doing that,” Johnson says. But equally, the Democratic Party, which currently enjoys 3-to-1 support from Jewish voters compared with Republicans, could risk its support if it follows the path of the U.K.’s Labour Party, which has seen the Jewish community turn against it amid allegations of anti-Semitism among its leaders. “That’s a cautionary tale,” Johnson says.
That may explain why most Democratic leaders, worried about party unity, would rather not talk about the Israel-Palestine dispute. In the week following the Israeli military’s border killing of 17 Palestinians last April, only four Democratic legislators — Sanders; his fellow senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy; Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum; and California Rep. Barbara Lee — publicly criticized the action. Of Tlaib’s planned trip, California Rep. Ted Lieu says it’s “great” for members to go to Palestine “or any other place they want to go to.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who regularly attends the AIPAC-sponsored Israel trip, didn’t respond to questions about the debate within the party. His spokeswoman, Annaliese Davis, said in a statement that the organizers of the trip, which includes a visit to Ramallah and meetings with the Palestinian leadership, “work hard to show both sides of that conflict.”
The Senate is considering the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, which would criminalize the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, an action critics say is unconstitutional amid free speech concerns. All Republicans and almost every Democrat has backed the act, although the only likely presidential contenders to support it have been New Jersey’s Booker and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
American Jews are particularly sensitive toward anti-Semitism as hate acts and White nationalism have risen since the 2016 election, most visibly during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October that left 11 dead. “In this national environment, candidates have to be very careful as to where the line is in denouncing Israel,” says Tyler Gregory, CEO of Wider Bridge, a progressive LGBT organization focused on advocating for Israel. “Deflecting and blaming critics of Israel for that is very cynical,” responds If Not Now’s Zimmerman.
But there may be ramifications past the primary, should candidates not toe the traditional line. It looks unlikely the Jewish vote would switch en masse to Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race. But in a swing state like Florida, particularly if a pro-Palestine presidential candidate becomes the Democratic nominee? “The difference between carrying the Jewish vote 75-25 and carrying it 55-45 could, in theory, be the difference in the election,” Johnson says.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had publicly backed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. To this point, she has not.