Jewish Politics—A Year in Review

By | Dec 26, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. How October 7 Reshuffled the Political Deck

It should have been a usual pre-election year, filled with Republican primary drama, Democratic messaging debates, and very little specific concern for American Jews. Then October 7 came and rewrote the Jewish political playbook. Politics became so much about Israel, about America’s response to the situation on the ground and about the generational rift on Israel within the Democratic Party.

President Biden has never had much of a problem getting the backing of Jewish voters. But his staunch support for Israel during the Gaza conflict (he is  a self-described “non-Jewish Zionist,” as he repeated so many times in the past months) solidified him as Jewish voters’ candidate of choice heading into the 2024 elections. In a mid-November poll conducted by the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute, 74 percent of American Jews supported his handling of the Gaza war; 68 percent stated they will vote for Biden in 2024, making Jewish Americans a key base for the reelection campaign; and 66 percent expressed their overall approval of the job he’s doing, a figure Biden can only dream of garnering among other sectors of American voters.

It’s not only about the numbers, since Democratic candidates already enjoy large Jewish support in almost every presidential election. It’s about the boost of enthusiasm injected into the community’s support by Biden’s decision to stand up for Israel and provide it full military and diplomatic support despite the political cost. This will translate into campaign donations, on-the-ground campaigning and voter turnout among Jewish Americans.

Until October 7, Biden’s reelection bid was expected to revolve around countering claims he’s too old for the job, as well as touting the economic recovery and the future of American democracy. Foreign policy was seen as a side issue, focusing on Ukraine, Putin, China and perhaps Afghanistan. Israel was not an election issue. 

Now, less than a year before Americans go to the polls, Israel has become Biden’s top issue, one that could determine if he gets to stay in the White House for four more years or is forced to pack his bags and move back to Delaware.

Biden’s positions on Israel thus far have not only energized his Jewish base but also have registered as a foreign policy success among voters whose top concern is national security, and among Democrats, and even some Republicans, who hold more hawkish views.

This is all good news for Joe Biden, but this is where the good news ends. The Hamas attack and subsequent Gaza war transformed 2023 into a turning point in Democratic politics, one that could affect the elections and change America’s views toward the Middle East for years to come.

2. Support for Israel Redefine’s the Progressive Left

2023 will go down as the year in which Israel came to define progressive policy and challenge the power structure of Democratic politics. Of course, criticism of Israeli policies, from Ilhan Omar to Bernie Sanders, and of America’s embrace of these policies is nothing new. Entering 2024, however, the debate is clearer and much more consequential. An outpouring of grassroots anger, driven by students, other young voters and Arab-Americans, has made its way into party politics and is playing out in the presidential race. Biden, who is now greeted at every public appearance by hecklers demanding he change his position on Israel and by chants of “Genocide Joe,” knows it better than anyone.

More than racial justice, police reform, income inequality or immigration—Israel is now the litmus test for progressives. You either support “from the river to the sea” and believe that Biden is bankrolling a terror state, or you’re not a real progressive.

For now—and this could change if and when fighting on the ground ends—there’s no middle ground to be found between mainstream Democrats and far-left progressives. The year is ending with an acrimonious discourse over Israel, one in which the question is no longer about nuances of a two-state solution and the amount of pressure needed to be applied by the United States on Israel, but rather on the mere existence of a Jewish state. Before the war, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that “Joe Biden may be the last pro-Israel Democratic president.” Now the question is, rather, will this last pro-Israel president serve another term.

In a development previously seen as unthinkable, Biden now faces a real possibility of losing the election because of his support for Israel. Staunch progressives are threatening to stay at home on election day unless Biden reins in Israel, knowing that by doing so they might bring to power an administration that will undo policies they care deeply about; Arab-American and Muslim voters in key states such as Michigan are organizing to support Donald Trump, who has already vowed to ban entry to the United States of members of their own communities.

Israel, as an issue, is now defining the left and could very likely define the 2024 elections.

3. Campus Battleground

With the battle for a more pro-Palestinian U.S. policy being led by students on college campuses, this young constituency, previously thought to be less relevant in electoral politics, is getting more attention.

Expect this trend to continue into the 2024 election cycle. Student political radicalism is no longer seen as teenage rebellion that will fizzle out when these students enter the “real world,” but rather as a driving force on the anti-Israel front that can lead a political movement. Ignoring these student voices or treating them as ineffective political players could turn out to be costly for Biden and the Democrats.

Vice President Kamala Harris made a major outreach tour on college campuses before the Gaza war and may need to follow up on it now in an attempt to convince young voters that the Biden-Harris ticket is a large enough tent in which voices critical of Israel can find their place.

4. Israelis Rediscover Biden

It’s always fun to measure Israeli views on American politics, as long as we keep in mind that they don’t actually vote in the United States. A recent poll published last week found that 40 percent of Israelis want to see Biden reelected in 2024, as opposed to 26 percent who want Donald Trump to win. What makes this finding interesting is that before the 2020 elections, 63 percent of Israelis supported Trump and only 17 percent wanted Biden elected. What can explain this dramatic shift?

Israelis feel intuitively that Biden is on their side and that his performance since October 7 has been a show of political courage aimed at rescuing Israel at its most difficult moment. 

There’s no real way of translating this sentiment among Israelis to real votes by  Americans. Donald Trump tried to pull this trick in the past, mentioning in almost every speech to Jewish audiences how popular he was in Israel. It didn’t help. American Jews still voted overwhelmingly against him.

But Biden can use this data to bolster his pro-Israel credentials, especially to voters worried about the left wing of the Democratic Party.

5. Trump’s Jewish Slump, Haley’s Comet

Donald Trump, who is still viewed as the inevitable Republican candidate, had a not-so-great year with Jewish voters. The former president never apologized for hosting two antisemitic guests at his Mar-a-Lago estate in late 2022, nor did he reach out to the Jewish community with any explanation. Instead, he shared in September 2023—on the eve of Rosh Hashana—a post accusing liberal Jews who did not back him as voting “to destroy America and Israel.”

But the worst came after October 7. As sympathy for Israel poured in from all corners, with leaders and politicians condemning the horrific Hamas attack and expressing support for grieving Israelis, Trump chose to criticize Israel for failing to prevent the attack. He lashed out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an instance in the past in which he “disappointed” Trump and then went on to call Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant “a jerk.”

And still, Trump being Trump, he received the warmest of welcomes from Jewish Republicans at this year’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference. His 2023 criticism of Israel and his dabbling in antisemitism may not deter Trump’s hardcore Jewish supporters, but it will definitely make it harder to expand his pool of Jewish voters.

Trump may also need to watch out for Nikki Haley, who’s still far behind but is gaining speed with a strong pro-Israel message, one that could appeal to Jewish Republican voters if Trump becomes vulnerable.

Top Image: Chensiyuan (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Madcoverboy at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

2 thoughts on “Jewish Politics—A Year in Review

  1. Allen Eli Segal says:

    Should Haley/Christie ticket win the Republican nomination, we’ll sadly see grandpa Joe retire from politics. If Tromp is nominated, U.S. is poised for insurrection 2.0.

    1. Ted Hochstadt says:

      Trying to be optimistic, I think back to the 1948 presidential election which the low-polling Harry Truman won despite a three-way split in the Democratic Party, with erstwhile Democrats Henry Wallace (Progressive Party) and Strom Thurmond (States’ Rights Democratic Party) each receiving approximately 2.4% of the popular vote and the latter receiving 39 electoral votes.

      Much more trivial, but perhaps a sign of the times is subhead 2 above (Support for Israel Redefine’s the Progressive Left). It’s bad enough that semiliterates place an apostrophe before ‘s’ in plural nouns. But to place an apostrophe before ‘s” in a verb (‘redefine’) …

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