1. Democrats on Israel—comparing the comparers
Four rounds of debates between Democratic presidential candidates have done little to narrow the field or provide useful tools for perplexed voters still trying to find their right mix of ideology and electability as we close in on the February Iowa caucuses.
Luckily for the Jews, there are advocacy organizations out there trying to help sort the candidates based on their positions on issues relating to Israel and the Jewish community.
These comparison websites are far from perfect, but they could help Jewish voters who a) really care about Israel or b) have been living under a rock.
The American Jewish Congress’s guide is extremely well done. It includes candidates on both sides, from Tim Ryan to Mark Sanford, and provides clear summaries of their views on a set of key issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also has an online poll measuring support for each candidate (which, like all opt-in online polls, is meaningless).
Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), an advocacy group supportive of pro-Israel Democrats, has its own guide of 2020 Democratic candidates, which takes a different approach. DMFI invited Democratic candidates to share a piece they wrote or a speech they’ve given about Israel, leaving it up to the voters to make their own assessments about the candidates. Bernie Sanders, for example, chose to share his 2017 J Street speech, Elizabeth Warren sent in a short policy paper on Israel, and Pete Buttigieg chose a Forward article that reports on his support from Jewish voters. The disadvantage of this method is clear: It fails to compare candidates on equal criteria and disregards their record on issues relating to Israel. On the other hand, it does provide an interesting window into their thoughts and views that may guide their future policy on Israel, and it helps better understand lesser-known candidates that lack a voting record.
2. Are they all missing the point?
While interesting to read and potentially helpful for Jewish holiday dinner table arguments (“What do you mean Kamala Harris is weak on Israel? What if I told you she opposed UN resolution 2334?”), these guides are of little use to most Jewish voters.
First, because the outlines are already clear and nuances hardly make any difference: All Democratic candidates are pro-Israel (they support the existence of a Jewish state, they believe in American military assistance to Israel and they view Israel as an ally). The differences between them roughly divide the field into two camps: The centrists (think Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar) who are more inclined to back Israel at any cost, and the more progressive side (Bernie, Warren, but also Buttigieg at times) who feel more freedom to criticize the Israeli government and use America’s leverage to promote a two-state solution. So, if Israel is your issue, you already know where the candidates fall. Knowing who voted how on a complicated issue such as anti-BDS legislation won’t help you much.
But more importantly, this isn’t the only issue Jews vote on. As always, Jewish voters will make sure their candidate is pro-Israel, in the broadest meaning of the term, and then they’ll move on to decide based on issues such as health care, the economy, gun control, etc., like any other voter. All candidates in both parties pass the pro-Israel test.
If there’s one issue where Jewish voters could have a unique say this time around, it is the battle against anti-Semitism. A strong stance on the growing power of anti-Semitic voices and white nationalism could register with Jewish voters. Joe Biden has taken a lead on this issue, launching his campaign with a video focusing on Charlottesville and the rise of extreme nationalism in America.
3. Scrutinizing Warren’s positions on Israel
Frontrunner status brings a whole lot of glory (at least, until the next round of polls) but also an extra serving of scrutiny. And no one feels that more right now than Elizabeth Warren, who, as the leader of the Democratic pack, is suddenly facing many more questions than before—including on her policies on Israel.
And Warren stepped right into it, with a vague response to a debate question dealing with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. “I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way,” Warren said. The idea of having a Democratic presidential candidate advocating for a complete pullout of American troops from the Middle East is exactly the kind of policy that raises eyebrows in the pro-Israel community. (The U.S. does not have troops in Israel, but pro-Israel strategic doctrine places value in having an American presence, or at least a willingness to have such presence, in the region as a guarantee for stability).
Warren’s campaign clarified that the candidate was only talking about withdrawing “combat troops,” a distinction that, as noted by Josh Rogin in The Washington Post, does little to clarify the comment.
Decreasing America’s military footprint in the world is a goal widely shared by Democrats and Republicans. The question is where and how. Warren’s wholesale “we ought to get out of the Middle East” approach sounds a bit too close to Trump’s rationale for pulling out of Syria, a decision that sent shockwaves across the pro-Israel community.
Adding to the confusion was a statement made by Warren on Sunday, when asked if as president she’d condition foreign aid to Israel on halting settlement activity. “Everything is on the table”, she responded, without elaborating how or under what conditions she’d be willing to cut aid.
The Middle East has never played a major role in Warren’s campaign, but as a frontrunner who seems to have a plan for everything, she may have to spend some more time fleshing out this partof her foreign policy agenda.
4. Bernie’s endorsements—will they deter Jewish voters?
A crowd of more than 26,000 supporters gathered Saturday for a massive Bernie Sanders rally in Queens, New York, celebrating his latest round of endorsers, led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She was joined by two of her “squad” members, Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both first-term Muslim Americans, both known as Israel’s biggest critics in Congress.
The positives for Bernie, lagging behind Warren and Biden in the polls, are obvious. Winning endorsements of the most energetic progressive forces in the party could be a game-changer. But will having Tlaib and Omar on his side deter Jewish voters?
Sanders is not the favorite of Jewish voters to start with. Mainstream Jewish Democrats are more likely to go for Biden or even Warren, not for Sanders, a member of the tribe.
For those already on the Bernie wagon, they are already predisposed to accept open criticism of Israel. Omar and Tlaib’s approach may not perfectly fit that of most Jews who support Sanders, but they can comfortably cohabit with them in the broader Bernie tent.
5. But Bernie has the Muslim vote
While struggling with the Jewish vote, Sanders seems to be doing extraordinarily well with Muslim voters. According to the LA Times, Bernie’s aggressive outreach to Muslim voters and his forceful opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban have made him a favorite. There’s even a hashtag for it: #InshallahBernie, Arabic for “With God’s will, Bernie.”