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Jerusalem Post Op Ed: Are Democratic Socialists driving Jewish voters away?


US President Donald Trump’s November 2016 election affirmed that important political tectonic plates among the US electorate were shifting in notable ways and that a political realignment was well underway.

Most notably, the white working class – those without a four-year college degree – powered Trump to a narrow margin of victory in the industrial Midwest, where he won states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, although all by a cat’s whisker. By contrast, affluent, college-educated suburban voters in bedroom communities surrounding metro-political areas moved more firmly into the Democratic column.

While the Trump Republican message of American nationalism spoke to down-on-their-luck white, working class voters, it, by contrast, alienated the more globally minded, progressive professional class.

But as much attention as educational attainment has gotten as a very reliable predictor of voting habits, there is an important and indeed overlooked group which has very much been the subject of Trump’s attention and whose votes he is trying – so far unsuccessfully – to draw into the GOP column: Jewish voters.

Since November 2016, Trump has assiduously worked the Jewish vote hard if not relentlessly – publicly demonstrating unequivocal support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people – even if sometimes very un-artfully. Obviously, Trump’s overtures to Jewish voters are in part designed to curry favor with Christian Evangelical voters who hold very positive views toward Israel, but it is also a clear run at trying to break up the Jewish coalition’s monolithic support for the Democratic Party.

What are we to make of Trump’s focus on Israel, the latest evidence being the recent peace agreement in the Middle East between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates?

While Jewish voters represent just 3% of the national electorate of the US, their political support today disproportionately goes to Democrats. 71% of Jewish voters supported Hillary Clinton versus 23% for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. That’s roughly in line with the 69% who supported Barack Obama in 2012 and the 30% who supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

That said, Clinton’s margin of 48 points among Jewish voters is off significantly from Al Gore’s 60 point margin against George W. Bush in 2000 – a very significant swing of 12 points among Jewish voters away from Democrats.

And add to that, some recent polling which has demonstrated that Trump’s standing with Evangelical voters faltered over the summer. For Trump to win reelection on Election Day in November, he needs to win a resounding victory with Evangelical Christians – he needs the votes of at least eight in 10 of them. Trump sees his unwavering support for Israel as one way he can rebuild his support with Evangelical Christian voters.

And on this journey, Trump has been aided in his quest to win Jewish votes by strong assists from the rising power of the Democratic Socialist faction in the Democratic Party.

In the last two years, New York City alone has experienced the loss of two major pro-Israel, senior Democratic members of congress, Joe Crowley and Eliot Engel, in Democratic primaries. Both Crowley and Engel lost to insurgent Democratic Socialist upstarts – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman.

Bowman, who will waltz into Congress come January, will be starting off at the bottom of the Congressional totem pole. Bowman, of course, will not replace Engel on his perch as the chairman of the very powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Engel has led vigorous investigations into Trump, been a strong and reliable voice against hate crimes and fighting antisemitism, championing a two-state solution, and having been recognized by organizations like the American Jewish Congress for promoting ties between the US and Israel among non Jews.

Engel lost to a candidate in Bowman who has created significant anxiety in the Jewish community. Indeed, in an open letter to Bowman, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, cited a tweet sent by Bowman stating that Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib “do not hate Israel”. Weiss reminds us in his letter that Bowman went out of his way to defend these two members of congress, whose past statements have been condemned by the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Rabbi Weiss also noted in his letter that Bowman’s Israel policy itself was “too questionable” to garner his support.

In full disclosure, we are non-unbiased observers, we were a part of Engel’s team during his most recent loss and have worked on and off on his Congressional races for the last 20 years.

While the overall number of votes cast in the Crowley/AOC and Engel/Bowman races were very small, they are nevertheless changing the face of the national Democratic Party, moving it leftward ideologically, and putting its foreign policy positions somewhat at odds with the traditional policy platform of the Democratic Party.

The open question is whether Bowman’s win – as well as the Democratic Socialist’s rise in the Democratic Party – will further exacerbate the tensions between Democrats and Jewish voters.

And in the age of Trump, these two races are threatening to further fracture relations between the Democratic Party and the Jewish people.

It certainly didn’t help matters that during the Democratic presidential campaign, the main Democratic contenders all blew off the opportunity to address the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference in 2019 and only Mike Bloomberg had the courage to attend in 2020 in person. This would have been unthinkable even four years ago and is regrettable.

Some of those who powered AOC and Bowman to victory have suggested that Democrats must be far more forceful in our disagreements with the government of Israel – no longer blindly towing the line. But that argument misses the point. Indeed, according to polling by J Street, 80% of Jewish voters think that someone can indeed be critical of Israeli government policies and still be “pro-Israel” at the same time.

What Democrats must not forget is that whatever genuine policy disagreements that we may have with whatever government is in power in Israel, the country is a hugely important strategic ally in a volatile region of the world that we need to build even closer ties with. What Democrats need to argue for – loudly and unequivocally – is strong support for a two-state solution, strong commitment and determination to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Democrats need to be very careful not to inject words or phrases which can be construed as antisemitic or anti-Israeli into our rhetoric or social media channels. Words do indeed matter.

Bradley Honan and Elisabeth Zeche are co-founders and partners of Honan Strategy Group, a New York City-based Democratic polling, messaging and data analytics company.