Iowa’s tiny Jewish community doesn’t normally play a serious role in the first-in-the-nation presidential-nominating caucuses that make the Hawkeye State the center of attention every four years. But as the New York Times noted this week, a political civil war dividing Jewish Democrats has garnered national attention in the last days before Iowa votes on February 3.
Down the stretch in Iowa, a centrist, pro-Israel super-PAC has launched a major ad campaign attacking Senator Bernie Sanders by name, calling attention to his recent heart attack, and questioning his electability. The well-funded group, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMI), was founded last year to counter a trend in which Democrats are increasingly perceived as drifting away from support for the Jewish state. A half-century ago, Democrats seemed like the solidly pro-Israel party while the GOP was divided on the issue. But in recent decades, Republicans have become the lockstep pro-Israel party, while the Democrats are split between centrists who remain broadly supportive of Israel and left-wing activists hostile to its policies and even its existence.
Though Sanders is bidding, along with the more-centrist billionaire Michael Bloomberg, to be America’s first Jewish president, he is easily the most critical toward Israel of any of the Democratic candidates. Though he supports the Jewish state’s existence and spent some weeks there on a kibbutz in his youth, he also has a record of bashing the measures it uses to defend itself from terrorism. He is not alone among Democrats in being hostile to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or in advocating a return to the Obama administration’s more equivocal stance toward Israel’s government. But he is the only contender in the Democratic presidential field to have advocated a freeze on U.S. aid to Israel as punishment for what he considers to be its “racist” prime minister. He has even argued that some of that aid should be diverted to Hamas-ruled Gaza, whose isolation by the international community he opposes.
Just as important, Sanders’s campaign has earned the support of some of the party’s most fervent opponents of Israel, namely Representatives Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.). In the last year, Omar and Tlaib have been guilty of making flagrantly anti-Semitic remarks about supporters of Israel. Yet Sanders, who has denounced President Donald Trump as a “white nationalist” and accused him of being responsible for violence against Jews, has not distanced himself from them or campaign surrogate Linda Sarsour, the Women’s March leader who has also made a name for herself with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist statements.
Groups such as DMI rightly claim that Omar, Tlaib, and Sanders don’t speak for all Democrats on Israel or anti-Semitism. Yet Omar and Tlaib are treated like rock stars in their party and have faced no real consequences for their anti-Semitic statements or their support of the anti-Israel BDS movement, whose rhetoric is itself drenched in the language of traditional anti-Semitism. And Sanders, who is on record asserting that right-wing hate is a bigger concern than left-wing anti-Semitism, remains one of the front-runners for the nomination.
Centrist Jewish Democrats have seen themselves forced to the sidelines in debates about Israel as liberal groups such as J Street and the openly anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace led the charge against AIPAC and others who are supportive of the Jewish state. Republicans are able to tout Trump’s historic recognition of Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital and of Israel’s right to the Golan. Democrats correctly dismiss fears that Trump will make inroads among Jewish voters because of this; Jews remain among the Democrats’ most faithful supporters. But DMI fears that if Sanders wins the nomination, Israel will become a major point of contention in the general election and that Jewish Democrats will be forced to choose between their partisan loyalties and their affection for Israel.
With Sanders leading the RealClearPolitics average of polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s obvious that DMI is in full anybody-but-Bernie mode, and that more than the Democratic presidential nomination is at stake: The group’s anti-Sanders efforts can be seen as one salvo in a broader war between the left-wing activists and centrists for control of the Democratic party. Israel has flown under the radar as an issue in the presidential race, with most Democrats focused on health care, the economy, and beating Trump. But it could yet play a much bigger role in determining the nominee and the future of his party.