1. Jewish issues that made it to the stump speeches
It’s not about us.
Hard to believe, but the elections do not center around the Jewish community, its anxieties, wishes and aspirations.
But this doesn’t mean that Jewish issues are off the table, or out of the stump speeches both candidates have been delivering in their endless rallies these past days.
Trump makes sure to include a detailed Israel mention in his 60-75-minute speech/standup routine. He does so regardless of the audience, whether it’s an Eastern Pennsylvania event that draws Orthodox Jewish supporters from New Jersey or a rural Iowa address. Trump usually provides his audience with a quick run-through of his achievements: moving the U.S. embassy to Israel (including, at times, the story about how he was able to build the new embassy for cheap), withdrawing from the Iran deal, and signing the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, which Trump describes as bringing about an era of “no more blood on the sand.”
Biden usually refrains from mentioning Israel, but he has a special line that makes Jewish supporters kvell—it’s about what made him join the race in the first place: the white supremacist and neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that turned into a racist and anti-Semitic rally which ended with the killing of a protester by an out-of-state white nationalist. Biden, ever since launching his run for presidency, has focused on the Charlottesville events, and Trump’s response to them, as a symbol of all that has gone wrong in America.
2. Republicans’ final pitch: He’s the greatest!
Most of the campaigning directed at Jewish voters is done through targeted events and messaging, rather than in the candidates’ campaign rallies.
Jewish Republicans concluded their outreach efforts with large rallies in Brooklyn Florida, and in Long Island and with a Zoom town hall event hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. The online event featured RJC executive director Matt Brooks, Jason Greenblatt (who served as Trump’s Middle East envoy), and former Senator Norm Coleman. Their main point: Never has a U.S. president taken as bold an approach as to Israel as Trump has. Only a leader like Trump could throw out the Middle East playbook and carve a new approach which is 100 percent in line with the Israeli government.
While there are many other issues raised by Jewish Republicans (Trump signing an executive order on anti-Semitism, school choice, lower taxes, Ilhan Omar, Ilhan Omar again, and then some more Ilhan Omar), this is the crux of the Republican appeal to Jewish voters—the notion that Trump is a once-in-a-lifetime leader when it comes to Israel, who is singlehandedly reshaping America’s policy toward the Jewish State for decades to come.
3. Democrats’ final pitch: Choose a mensch!
It’s an easier sell for Jewish Dems. With a 3:1 margin in recent polls, they’re pretty much free of any heavy lifting. Not to mention the fact that Joe Biden is well known to American Jewish voters. Most of them like him, and those who don’t probably won’t change their minds at this stage of the game.
Biden’s Jewish outreach operation has largely sidestepped Republican claims that the Democratic Party has shifted to the left on Israel (the Ilhan Omar line of argument) and has focused on the same message the general Biden campaign is pushing: Biden is a decent guy, Trump isn’t. Or as Aaron Keyak, Biden’s Jewish outreach director, put it in a call with reporters this week: “He embodies being a mensch in public life.”
There’s a clear disconnect between the Republican appeal, which centers on Israel, to Biden’s focus on character. This has to do both with the obvious fact that one is an incumbent who has a four-year record to show, and the other is a challenger questioning that record. But it also stems from the very different nature of the two candidates: Trump is all about enthusing his base with larger-than-life promises and gestures, Biden is about ensuring a return to normalcy, or at least what Democrats’ interpretation of the term.
Since Jewish voters do not play a key role in the election (and yes, there’s always Florida), much of the battle is for bragging rights.
Republican Jews believe they can swing about 5 percent of the Jewish vote, mainly thanks to increased enthusiasm among ultra-Orthodox, traditional support of the Modern Orthodox and a new constituency of Israeli Americans.
Democrats are hoping for historic high support in the Jewish community, which, they believe, will come from progressives who may have stayed out in 2016, elderly Jews switching because of Trump’s treatment of the coronavirus pandemic, and a more energized base.
Either way, it’s not about us.
4. What a future Democratic Congress will look like for Israel
Put aside presidential politics for a second and try to look at what the daily life on Israel-related issues in Washington looks like.
The past week provided a telling example of how Democrats differ than Republicans in their basic stance toward Israel. Three Democratic congressmen are in the race to become the next chairman of the House International Affairs Committee. All three—Brad Sherman, Gregory Meeks and Joaquin Castor—fit comfortably in the pro-Israel side of American politics. Yet all three, as J Street pointed out, have issued statements opposing the Trump administration’s move to allow U.S. funds for scientific research to be used in the West Bank settlements.
Why does it matter?
Precisely because these are the Biden-style Democrats that Israel may be facing after the elections. This is an important reminder that while four years of Trump may have changed a lot in the way the administration views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not much has changed on the Democratic side, which still believes in a two-state solution, in the illegitimacy of Israel’s settlement enterprise, and in an even handed American approach to peacemaking.
5. Remember the World Zionist Organization?
Remember the World Zionist Organization? Probably not.
It is a historic international body representing the Jewish world—Israel and the diaspora—which in current times is known mainly for its control over a huge chunk of funding: nearly $1 billion, which is raised by Jews around the world to support Jewish goals.
A surprisingly heated election to the body’s governing arm this year ended with a slight edge for parties aligned with the right-wing and the Orthodox community. Last month, the World Zionist Congress convened (virtually) with its newly elected members, and—you guessed it—it turned into a political battle.
The right-wing/Orthodox bloc sought to end a longstanding tradition of a wall-to-wall decision-making process, in which the views of all parties were taken into account before making decisions. Liberal groups fought back, nonpartisan members attempted to broker peace between the dueling parties, and it all ended with a complicated power-sharing agreement, which still leans toward the right-wing parties, but gives some power to others.
After three days of virtual battles, the Zionist movement has, more or less, survived, but there are a few lessons worth taking from this debate:
First, the right wing’s power in the Jewish-Zionist world is on the rise. This is a result of a shift rightward in Israeli politics, of the growing willingness of ultra-Orthodox Jews to participate in the political process and align with the right, and of under-involvement of liberal diaspora Jews in the process.
The second lesson is that compromise is key. Like it or not, liberal Jews may have to get used to a reality in which—as opposed to what they’ve been used to in American communal politics—they no longer run the show. But all that means is that there’s more need than ever before to seek workable agreements with the other side. Reaching across the aisle still works, even if it doesn’t feel great.