Five Things to Know This Week: Republican, Democrat Jewish Groups Prepare for Election Season
1. Where’s the Jewish community’s political energy?
With Donald Trump’s June 18 launch of his reelection campaign and after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, it’s safe to say we are officially in election season. So there’s no better time to take a look at just how the map of Jewish political activism is taking shape in advance of what is bound to be one of the most contentious, most exciting, and probably ugliest presidential election campaign.
Sure, all the usual players are out there—from Sheldon (and Miriam, who is taking an increasingly larger role) Adelson, to the entire gallery of deep pocketed Democratic donors. But there are other players emerging in the Jewish political scene who may be worth a second look. Three of them stand out for the increased role they may play in the coming year: The Republican Jewish Coalition, which has been around for more than three decades but has become a powerhouse of political influence in recent years; the multitude of young Jewish conservatives, once considered a rarity and now taking a front seat, and the farther-left Jewish groups, poised to move in from the sidelines and challenge the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel consensus.
2. Jewish Republican’s home adjusted well to the Trump era
RJC has thrived in the unlikeliest of situations. The group, made up of wealthy Jewish activists whose priorities include support for Israel and free market economy, has steered clear of sensitive “family values” issues or adopting a neo-conservative foreign policy approach. It was a marker of moderate Republicanism which more often than not shunned the type of rhetoric Trump has turned into his trademark. Donald Trump wasn’t their first choice, nor did he come in second or third. But a generous tax cut which benefited large businesses many of RJC members care about, along with an outstanding record of supporting the policies of the current Israeli government, won the group over.
Since, RJC meeting have become a prime venue for the Trump administration and senior GOP members to make their pro-Israel pitch, whether its directed at the tiny Republican Jewish constituency or at the much larger Christian evangelical voter bloc. Trump showed up at their latest Las Vegas gathering, Vice President Pence stopped by twice, and, perhaps more important, the group’s top funder, Sheldon Adelson, has the ear of the president on all things Israel and is a frequent guest at the White House.
The RJC, in more ways than one, has proven to exceed its traditional role in the Republican political sphere. While in the past the focus was on the group’s ability to deliver Jewish votes and donors to the GOP side of the political map, now it is also a helpful platform in Republican outreach to evangelical voters, a constituency that could be crucial in 2020 and cares deeply about Israel. Furthermore, the group and its leaders helped make Trump more palatable to an audience of skeptical Jewish voters. In the upcoming elections they can prove useful in helping Jewish non-Trumpers and never-Trumpers overcome their queasiness when called on to vote for the current president.
3. How Trump fueled the revival of young Jewish conservatives
While the RJC continues to represent the voice of moderate conservative Jews, things are changing on the ground. Young conservative Jews, of the type that were once hardly noticed on the scene, are gaining attention, and some political clout.
Last week, Turning Point USA, a right-wing student group, held its first-ever young Jewish leadership summit in Washington. The group filled the DC Bible Museum with Jewish activists and featured Yair Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s son known for his combative tweets, as their keynote speaker. Other speakers included the group’s founder Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka. The Anti-Defamation League recently argued that Turning Point USA and its leaders “have made multiple racist or bigoted comments and have been linked to a variety of extremists.”
Young Jewish conservatives, as opposed to RJC members, don’t shy away from siding with social conservatives, hardliners and those representing the right-wing of the GOP support base. They have become more noticeable among Republican grassroots activists and can be seen in recent years at the annual gatherings of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Their CPAC shabbat dinners held for Jewish participants at the event have become a must stop for participating members of Congress and pundits.
4. The Jewish left is also getting politically active
On the other extreme of the political spectrum, young Jewish activists are also seeking to make their voice heard as players on the election stage. Most notable is the recently launched campaign of IfNotNow to engage directly with Democratic candidates and demand they take a harsher stance toward Israel. With a goal of raising $100,000, IfNotNow plans to send trained activists to Democratic candidates’ campaign events across the country, challenging them publicly about Israel and seeking a clear commitment to fight against Israel’s policy in the West Bank.
IfNotNow has made a name for itself with sit-ins and demonstrations outside meetings of Jewish organizations in an attempt to overturn the pro-Israel consensus within the Jewish community. Now, they’ll be taking much of that energy and enthusiasm into the political arena, hoping to ride the newly-found wave of Democratic skepticism toward the Israeli government in order to advance a much more critical view of the Jewish state.
5. The Jewish political dilemma: What cause are we donating for?
While the enthusiasm of young spirited activists can go a long way, at the end of the day, a political group is only as strong as its donor base, and this is where Republicans stand a better chance of amplifying this energy. In recent years, the RJC has enjoyed impressive fundraising numbers thanks to generous board members viewing the group as their main avenue of supporting Republican politics and ensuring it remains pro-Israel.
Jewish Democrats, on the other hand, had traditionally experienced an uphill battle in convincing Jewish donors to share their Democratic dollars with them. Jewish causes, be it fighting bigotry, ensuring liberal values, supporting immigration or backing the State of Israel, were always seen as synonymous with the Democratic agenda. Jewish donors, as such, felt no special reason to give to Jewish political causes and donated directly to the party and its candidates. Now, with the question of Israel out in the open for Democrats to debate, activists on the left will reach out to Jewish donors with a promise to make them part of shaping the party’s future policy on the issue.