This should have been a no-brainer. Jews and Democrats are almost synonymous terms in American politics. With 7 in 10 Jews voting for a Democratic presidential candidate and with Jewish Americans responsible for more than half of Democratic political funding, the idea of a Jewish Democratic organization should have been obvious.
But as the now defunct National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) has learned the hard way, what is obvious for some could seem superfluous to others. After all, why join a Jewish Democratic organization, when the entire Democratic Party already is, for all intents and purposes, a home for Jewish voters?
NJDC began its slow process of fading out of the Jewish organizational world in 2014 after nearly 25 years of activity. Mounting debts led to outsourcing most of its functions and donors were hard to find for the relatively small operation of roughly $2 million on a good year. A further burden was presented by a defamation lawsuit filed by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson against the heads of the organization. Adelson sued for $60 million, claiming the group libelously accused him of condoning prostitution in his Macau hotel. The Republican mega-donor eventually lost his lawsuit and was forced to pay the defendants hefty legal fees, but the years-long lawsuit hanging over the organization discouraged donors and preoccupied the leadership.
Jewish Democrats went to the 2016 elections without a partisan organization of their own, and while Hillary Clinton performed well with Jewish voters, several activists have expressed a sense of frustration over the close losses she endured in Florida and Ohio. Could a few more Jewish voters in this state have tipped the balance? The answer to this hypothetical remains open, but one clear conclusion after 2016 was that Jewish Democrats aren’t going to take the chance again.
Enter the Jewish Democratic Council of America. With a strikingly similar name, a revamped board and with new leadership, the group, which was launched a year ago, believes it can fill the vacuum and prove that even in a community that is already largely on the Democratic side there’s a need for someone to encourage voters, engage donors and, at times, challenge the party on issues dear to the hearts of community members.
“Our measure of success would be the Democrats’ success in the midterm election,” says Halie Soifer, JDCA’s newly minted executive director. “We would like the Democrats to take back the House, and certainly if they do so, that will be in part due to the role we and other have placed to mobilize the Jewish community in support of Democrats.”
While JDCA is the only partisan Jewish group on the Democratic side, it is not alone in the race to win over Jewish voters and their pocketbooks. J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby has been raising money for Democrats who support their views on Israel. Bend the Arc is doing the same with candidates aligned with their vision of social justice, and even AIPAC, which does not endorse candidates and does not raise money for campaign funding, is actively reaching out to progressives in the Democratic camp to get them on board with the largest pro-Israel advocacy group.
This time around, Jewish Democrats may find it easier to explain their necessity. The rise of anti-Semitism in America, and the emergence of as many as nine Republicans candidates associated with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, has given Jewish Democrats a clear sense of purpose specific to their communal needs.
Most of these candidates are marginal figures and face zero chances of winning their races. But their mere existence, and the fact that they have risen in a Trump-era environment, has provided Jewish Democrats with a cause and a rallying call. While there are many issues that motivate Democrats to vote and donate, fighting anti-Semitism is likely to play a bigger role for Jewish voters. “It’s one of many reasons I’m confident that Jewish Democrats will come out and vote, not only for the very strong wave of candidates that we have running in this election, but against the policies of the Trump administration and those who support him and those who align with neo-Nazis and others who he has given a green light to,” says Sofier.
But the opposite side, that of Jewish Republicans, have also identified an issue specific to Jewish voters. Led by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Jewish GOP supporters are focusing on four Democratic candidates who have made critical comments on Israel or have supported the BDS movement, which advocates boycotting Israel. In Pennsylvania, candidate Scott Wallace was involved in funding of a pro-BDS movement; Virginia Democrat Leslie Cokburn co-authored a critical book on Israeli 27 years ago; Minnesota candidate Ilhan Omar referred to Israel as an apartheid state; and in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party’s rising progressive star, is struggling to explain her use of the term “massacre” to describe Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
Jewish Democrats are aware of this vulnerability and have been actively working to distance themselves from candidates deemed too critical of Israel. While Democrats all across the nation celebrated Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise win as the beginning of a rejuvenation process for the party, JDCA responded to her victory with an expression of concern over her past positions and a call for engagement to discuss policies regarding Israel. The group has made clear it would not accept Democratic candidates who support BDS and has taken a step away from others who were too critical of Israeli policies and actions.
Dealing with critical positions toward Israel is a growing problem for Jewish Democrats, and while on the congressional level it is manifested in less than a handful of cases, grassroots activists have been noticing the surge for years. Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center poll are growing less supportive of Israel. The reasons, according to experts, could stem from lack of interest or indicate the presence of a stronger progressive streak that tends to sympathize with the strife of Palestinians. This trend has little effect on current congressional races in which JDCA is involved, but could put the organization and its supporters at odds with the Bernie Sanders-led faction of the party which is becoming more vocal and is being credited with breathing new life into Democratic politics.
This is exactly where Jewish Republicans would like to see the JDCA—being cornered into spending their time and resources on distancing themselves from a handful of candidates who are critical of Israel. And the same is true on the other side: There’s nothing Jewish Democrats would like more than seeing their Republican Jewish counterparts struggling to explain the presence of neo-Nazis within the ranks of their party. With millions of dollars about to be spent in coming months by Jewish Republicans, and a much more modest sum being spent by Jewish Democrats, the Jewish political battle lines for the midterm elections are already set: Each side is aiming for the other party’s far margins.