Busy Times in Jewish American Politics

By | May 09, 2022
Protestors hold up signs demanding access to abortion

Jewish politics and power

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1. Things that matter, and things that don’t

These are busy times in Jewish American politics.

The upcoming midterms are triggering an explosion of Jewish activism (and money) aimed at advancing a range of candidates. Relations between the Biden administration and Israel are entering a perilous minefield, where issues like terrorism, settlements and Iran all threaten to upend the lovefest between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Regarding the Ukraine invasion, while Israel has been committed to remaining uncommitted, a barrage of antisemitic comments coming directly from the Kremlin is making Israel’s stance look even worse than before. And in the United States, a stunning Supreme Court decision that could unravel years of struggle for women’s rights is galvanizing the Jewish community. These are all dramatic developments that could shape the ways Jews make their political choices in coming months.

There are also some unimportant issues clogging the system, so let’s get rid of those first: One of them was President Biden’s choice of Karine Jean-Pierre to serve as his next White House press secretary. Jean-Pierre, who previously served as principal deputy press secretary, will likely do a great job. Reporters who had worked with her are full of praise for her professionalism and honesty. She comes from a distinct progressive background, and she will also be the first Black woman and the first openly gay person to fill the post, serving as the face of the Biden administration in daily press briefings.

But according to some Jewish political players, Jean-Pierre is an enemy in disguise, and her appointment as press secretary is further proof of Biden’s secret anti-Israel bias. At the core of these claims is a Newsweek op-ed Jean-Pierre published in 2019, in which she blasts the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, describing its rhetoric as “racist” and “Islamophobic,” and calls on fellow progressive Democrats to boycott the lobby’s Washington, DC conference. “AIPAC’s policies are not progressive policies. AIPAC’s values are not progressive values,” she wrote.

These are, make no mistake, harsh words. It is also unfair to describe AIPAC as racist. But here are a few things to keep in mind: At the time, Jean-Pierre served as national spokesperson for MoveOn, a progressive organization whose members agreed that Democratic candidates should skip AIPAC’s conference. It is also important to remember that this particular conference took place in the midst of a heated Democratic primary race, where substantial differences on subjects such Iran and the Palestinian issue drove a wedge between AIPAC and left-leaning Democratic candidates.

So, yes, Karine Jean-Pierre is from the part of the Democratic party that disagrees with Israeli policies (mainly those of the previous government) and with a lobby that backs these policies. But in general, the Biden administration does not share those views. How do we know that? Because we’ve had over a year to judge President Biden’s approach to Israel. It leans closer to AIPAC than to MoveOn. Jean-Pierre will not change this policy, nor is it her goal. (And yes, it is somewhat ironic that her first trip abroad as press secretary will likely be to Israel in June.)

2. Battling in the midterm primaries’ trenches

Now to the messy part.

There are real debates going on in the pro-Israel field.

Entering the primary season for the midterm elections, both sides are flexing their muscles, buying ads and pouring a whole lot of money into the campaigns of their favorite candidates. In some races, it’s pro-Israel Jewish donors vs. other pro-Israel Jewish donors.

Ohio’s 11th District saw a fierce Democratic primary battle between incumbent Shontel Brown and her progressive challenger, Nina Turner. AIPAC, through its newly formed PAC, and the Democratic Majority for Israel sided with Brown to the tune of $1.5 million. (Brown won two-thirds of the votes in last week’s primary.) In a race for an open House seat in North Carolina, AIPAC put its money behind Don Davis, while J Street is backing Erica Smith. And perhaps the most interesting battle is in Michigan, where Representative Andy Levin, who is Jewish and progressive, faces a tough race in a redesigned district against Representative Haley Stevens. (J Street is backing Levin, while AIPAC is going with Stevens.)

Again, this is messy. Both sides support candidates who represent their interpretation “pro-Israel,” though the issue of Israel is hardly central to any of these campaigns; or, at least, it wouldn’t have been central without the massive involvement of pro-Israel PACs on both sides.

3. Cringing with Bennett

It’s not easy being Naftali Bennett.

His coalition is falling apart, his own party hardly exists, and on the world stage, he is forced to explain the unexplainable: Why does the Israeli government, which he heads, refuse to join the West in taking action against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine—and in support of Ukraine’s military efforts?

This became all the more difficult last week, when Vladimir Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, went on an antisemitic rant followed by a Russian claim that Israel supports neo-Nazis. Bennett and the Israeli government, to their credit, were quick to condemn and denounce the comments, though they did not back down from Israel’s refusal to take sides in the Ukraine conflict, nor did they take any diplomatic measures against Moscow. Later, in a phone conversation, Putin apologized for Lavrov’s comments, according to a statement from Bennett’s office. The Russian account of the conversation made no mention of that.

It’s not easy being Naftali Bennett. And it’s even harder being the head of the Jewish state who has disappointed so many Jews across the world with a weak response to blatant state-sponsored acts of antisemitism.

4. Things that really matter

Last week provided a sobering reminder of what issues really matter to Jewish American voters. The news of an upcoming Supreme Court decision that would do away with Roe v. Wade, and thus allow states to outlaw abortions, sent shock waves through America, and through the Jewish community.

Activists and organizations across political spectrums and denominations spoke out for women’s rights, and a large Jewish rally against the Supreme Court’s looming ruling is planned to take place in Washington.

5. Are there really single-issue Jewish voters?

At the end of the day, the dramatic reemergence of abortion as the urgent and decisive topic in American politics can help make sense of the community’s real priorities.

In defending its decision to endorse Republican candidates who refused to certify Biden’s election as president, AIPAC famously argued that it is a “single-issue organization” whose single issue is U.S.-Israel relations. That can help explain the lobby’s stance, but it also serves as an important reminder: The power groups driving recent political debates, raising money for candidates, calling out gevald when a progressive woman is appointed as White House press secretary, or rallying voters against a conservative who opposes an imperfect deal with Iran are single-issue players, and their single issue isn’t necessarily that of Jewish voters.

There are very few Jewish Americans who make a ballot decision based on a candidate’s views on Israel. Most, however, come November, will look at the candidates’ views on women’s rights and their records on judicial nominations. Jewish Americans are not single-issue voters, but if there ever was an issue that comes close to dominating their political opinion, this single issue would be women’s rights, not Israel.

Top image: Rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Mark Dixon via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

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