Who Is the ‘Greatest Threat’ to American Jews?
1. Is Trump the “greatest threat” to Jewish Americans?
With less than a year to the elections, both sides are shifting gears and pouring more money into campaigns aimed at all constituencies, including Jewish voters.
On the Democratic side, the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) launched its first 2020 campaign ad which follows the group’s main theme going into this election cycle: Donald Trump, the JDCA claims, is the biggest threat to American Jews. The 60-second video ad seeks to establish this claim by showing some highlights from the past three years: The Unite the Right march in Charlottesville and Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment; the hateful manifesto of Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter who, according to JDCA, echoed Trump’s words; and the president’s claim that Jews voting for Democrats are disloyal. “No wonder anti-Semitism is skyrocketing in America,” the ad concludes.
The title of “biggest threat” to American Jews is hard to define or measure. And more importantly, it’s political. Most liberals would agree that anti-Semitism has reached new records under Trump and that the president’s response to the phenomenon has been less than adequate. Others, however (see, for example, the Stop anti-Semitism online poll “anti-Semite of the year award,” where followers of the group view Ilhan Omar, Louis Farrakhan and Richard Spencer as contenders for the title’) have different thoughts about who’s at fault for the surge in anti-Semitism in America, and the division runs along party lines. Republicans tend to place the blame on left-wing and anti-Israel activists, while liberals pin the blame on extremists from the right and the lack of a clear denunciation from the president.
What’s important is the direction Jewish Democrats are setting for this election year: If in the past Jewish Dems would rally around two issues—generic liberal issues (abortions, healthcare, immigration) and the issue of support for Israel—now they have identified a more explosive cause that touches a raw nerve in Jewish Americans: fear that decades of successful battles to defeat hatred, violence and discrimination are being unraveled.
In the past, Jewish Democratic activists have faced the great challenge of offering voters a unique reason to channel their support for the party through Jewish avenues. After all, most Jews already vote Democratic and care about the same issues other Democratic voters hold dear. But, while still advocating and fundraising for the full gamut of Democratic causes, Jewish Democrats are positioned to head the charges on a cause that is of direct concern to the community.
It won’t move many votes (Jewish Democrats, for all intents and purposes, have pretty much maxed out on the electoral support they can get from the community), but it can inject energy (translated into people knocking on doors and dollars raised) and define a unique Jewish voice in the Democratic support base.
2. Targeting Stephen Miller
While Jewish Dems have singled out Trump as a danger to Jews, a growing voice from within the community is targeting Stephen Miller, Trump’s close adviser and the leading force behind the president’s tough policies on immigration.
A series of leaked emails made public earlier this month exposed Miller, who is Jewish, quoting white nationalist theories on race and immigration and echoing ideas of extreme right-wing pundits. A group of more than 100 House Democrats sent a letter to the White House last week, calling for Miller’s removal.
A similar call has been voiced in a statement signed by leaders of three Jewish denominations: Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. “We call on President Trump to dismiss Stephen Miller immediately and to make clear that white supremacy has no place in the White House or the United States of America,” the statement reads. Hogan Gidley, the White House deputy press secretary, used Miller’s Jewish faith as his first line of defense. “It deeply concerns me as to why so many on the left consistently attack Jewish members of this Administration,” he said.
Miller, to be sure, will not be removed. But more broadly, this latest incident helps underscore the Jewish Democrats’ claim regarding anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
3. Republicans aren’t sitting idle
Jewish Republicans also have their campaign strategy set. While their Democratic counterparts are focusing on anti-Semitism, Republicans are all about Israel (and some anti-Semitism as well).
The first Republican Jewish Coalition ad blasts Democratic presidential candidates (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg) for supporting conditioning military aid to Israel on its policy toward the Palestinians. “It’s sad what’s happening to the Democratic Party. It’s shameful,” the ad’s narrator states, as the word shanda, Yiddish for shame or embarrassment, takes over the screen.
It’s an easy election cycle for Jewish Republicans. At least in terms of the messaging.
Expect Jewish Republicans to focus their positive messaging on Israel: Trump’s decisions regarding Iran, relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israel’s rule over the Golan Heights and his recent step toward accepting the West Bank settlements as legal under international law. Trump’s video gallery is full of clips depicting friendly meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is packed with quotes from Israelis praising his policies.
They will ignore or deflect any Democratic claim about Trump making space for anti-Semitism in the American public discourse by pointing to Trump’s record on Israel and by tagging progressive Democrats, especially congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, as anti-Semitic.
4. Does Trump have a Jewish voter strategy?
As is the case with Jewish Democrats, for Republicans, too, the potential of moving Jewish voters in any way that will be electorally significant does not exist. Years of debates and scores of words have been wasted describing the valuable potential of peeling just a sliver of a percentage of Jewish voters in Florida or Ohio, and thus somehow flipping the state. It’s marginal, and it’s difficult to measure. Sure, in tight races, every vote matters, and that includes the votes of Israel-hawkish Jewish retirees in Florida and of suburban Ohioans. But after all these years, no one has yet to successfully make the case that it is Jewish voters who make these two battleground states red or blue.
But that doesn’t mean Jewish Republican voters aren’t valuable assets in the presidential race. Just look at the time Trump is spending with them. Within one month he will have met with Orthodox Jews at a closed-door fundraiser (well, a Jewish closed-door meeting, meaning everything said was leaked in real time) and at the annual gathering of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), scheduled for early December.
Geographically, these are constituencies that carry little electoral importance. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews are concentrated in New York, and many of the Israeli activists expected to attend the IAC are from California.
They are, however, important in other ways. Trump has successfully established an alliance with the Orthodox community which can help with fundraising (the recent New York event raised $3 million for the president’s campaign chest) and the Israeli ex-pat community can turn out to be useful in driving home the message of Trump as a pro-Israel president (not to mention helping him curry favor with the group’s funders, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson).
5. Not a word on Bibi
The news of Netanyahu’s indictment was received with silence in Washington, DC. Trump, Netanyahu’s great defender and supporter, has not rushed to speak out, and the media was, more than anything else, perplexed: Hasn’t he been indicted before? (yes, but now is the final decision). Why doesn’t he resign? (because the law does not require him to do so). And will he run again in the next election? (most probably yes, if he can pull it off).
The next few weeks will be quite dramatic in Israel, as politicians from the Likud will have to decide whether to challenge Bibi and as the attorney general and the courts rule on just which public responsibilities Netanyahu can hold now in his new role as Defendant No. 1.
For those watching from afar: It’s probably worthless trying to master the ins and outs of Israel’s complex election laws, especially since the entire political system is entering uncharted waters.
What could be useful?
Read up on Gideon Sa’ar, the only Likud member to throw his hat in the ring so far.
Catch up on the negotiations being held to try to form a new coalition, regardless of Netanyahu’s indictment.
And try to imagine a post-Netanyahu Israel. He may not be leaving now, but his political era, which has shaped Israel and its relations with America more than that of any other leader, is nearing its end.