Jewish Week: Ocasio-Cortez Newest Test For Centrist Democrats

Robert Zimmerman, a longtime Democratic National Committee member from Great Neck, L.I., and a staunch Israel supporter, is in a political straitjacket.

It’s one that many centrist Democrats find themselves in as the party’s Bernie Sanders-inspired, progressive wing flexes its muscle in the wake of the stunning upset engineered by 28-year-old Bronx resident Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who knocked off the 10-term Queens Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House in last week’s Democratic primary.

Asked about the progressive wing’s often harsh criticism of Israel — Ocasio-Cortez herself called Israel’s military response to the recent clashes at the Gaza border a “massacre” — Zimmerman pushed back.

“I think these labels and categories are not relevant to the discussion,” he said. “Joe Crowley is progressive. It is not appropriate to label progressives as anti-Israel.”

But Zimmerman then seemed to suggest the bind he’s in.

“The history of building support for Israel in Congress has always been about building new relationships and alliances and educating members of Congress about Israel,” he said. “I don’t know if [Ocasio-Cortez] has ever been to the State of Israel, but her going there might change her perspective.”

The debate in the party over Israel, he admitted, “is critical. While we certainly as a Jewish community disagree with her views about Israel, it is essential to keep an open dialogue with her and share our perspective with her.”

The Jewish Democratic Council of America also walked a tightrope when it came to the victory of Ocasio-Cortez, a former community organizer for Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez, who is seen as a shoo-in to win the general election in the heavily Democratic district that straddles Queens and the Bronx, “deserves credit for running a strong and impressive campaign,” the group said in a statement. “Her victory was achieved largely by her hard work and clear message advocating for economic, social and racial justice for the people of the Bronx and Queens.

“While Jewish Democrats support much of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s domestic policy agenda,” the statement continued, “we disagree with her past statement regarding Israel, as well as her affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America, which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel. In the coming days and months, we hope to learn more about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s views, but at the moment, her position on Israel is not in line with our values.”

After 60 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military in May while attempting to breach the fence along the Israel-Gaza border, Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter: “This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protestors. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”

(While not using terms like “massacre,” some in the Jewish community questioned whether Israel’s response to the border protests was proportionate to the threat.)

That kind of rhetoric on Israel, analysts suggest, is a window into the struggle taking place inside the party between its moderate wing and its progressive side, which has taken aim at Israel for its policies on the West Bank and the conduct of the IDF. Yet in a city like New York, those views could hurt Ocasio-Cortez, a political novice who observers say has a lot to learn as she begins to understand the complexities of the Middle East and Israel’s place in that turbulent region. (Calls to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign for comment were not returned.)

Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined by New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx on June 26, 2018 in New York City. Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated longtime Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for a Queens-Bronx House seat, is seen as a shoo-in in the general election. Getty Images

“If she maintains her anti-Israel stance, she will be a one-term wonder,” predicted George Arzt, a New York political operative. “I don’t think you can have someone with those views in New York City. If she moderates, she could win again. If she doesn’t, there will be massive opposition to her — maybe even a cross-over candidate from the Latino community with pro-Israel views.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist, said he sees Ocasio-Cortez’s overwhelming victory — she won with 57.5 percent of the vote — as “another step in the ongoing divorce proceedings between the pro-Israel community and the Democratic Party.”

“As the Bernie Sanders left gains more traction, support for Israel will diminish,” he said. “That has been fairly consistent if you listen to the rhetoric. Sanders, who is the champion of the left among the Democrats, has been very clear in his distortion of the facts and realities of the second Gaza war. Democrats no longer have unqualified support for Israel.”

Jeff Wiesenfeld, a former aide to both Republican and Democratic elected officials and a pro-Israel hardliner, said he read Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter and Facebook postings and said she has voiced opinions that are “downright hostile to Israel.”

Wiesenfeld, who has been a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC), said he expects the JCRC and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to now reach out to Ocasio-Cortez “to meet with her and educate her to our point of view. But once someone has been ensnared by the hard left and the Bernie Sanders milieu and the so-called progressive milieu, it is very hard to change them.

“We have never stepped into a situation in New York City in which a member of Congress starts out hostile to us,” Wiesenfeld added. “This is a new frontier.”

Posters for progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outside her victory party in the Bronx after Ocasio-Cortez upset incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018 in New York City. Getty Images

Ester Fuchs, a professor of International and Public Affairs and director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said she does not believe Ocasio-Cortez’s views about Israel “were significant” in her victory.

“This anti-Israel position is not the bread-and-butter issue of young people running for Congress,” she said. “The campaign was much more focused on domestic policy — health care, anti-poverty and immigration. She is very vocal on immigration. While he [Crowley] had the right positions on immigration, I don’t think he was vociferous enough in his support.”

Bradley Honan, president and CEO of a Democratic consulting firm, Insights and Strategy, said Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is also an indication that the electorate is “disgusted with politics as usual.”

“We’ve entered into an era of the underdog and a volatile electorate,” he said. “Politics is changing. A generational transformation is knocking at the door. Crowley, 56, outspent her by 18-to-1 and he lost decisively. She was out knocking on doors. We say this is the digital era, but she was also out there meeting people on street corners.”

Zimmerman, the Democratic National Committee member, cited a “generational transformation,” but one that is playing out on the Israel issue.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018 in New York City. Getty Images

“I am profoundly concerned,” he said, “about the lack of support of Israel among young people, whether they are engaged in politics or not. And it is an important challenge to those of us who are dedicated to Israel to re-engage young people who don’t connect with Israel or feel a commitment to Israel. One of my profound concerns is watching so many young people and millennials throughout the country who don’t feel the same commitment to Israel the way I did when I grew up. … But it is very dangerous if we let opposition to Israel be manipulated for partisan political purposes.”

Zimmerman sees an opportunity with Ocasio-Cortez.

“She is an accomplished woman who I hope and believe will be open to new ideas and our perspective about Israel,” he said.

Columbia’s Fuchs agreed.

“The Jewish community should not be wringing its hands but beginning a conversation with her in earnest. She is a bright woman who is very caring and will figure it out.”