The Democratic Party and Israel: Challenges and Hopes

Freshmen Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan may have unwittingly done the Democratic Party a favor.

The election of the two women, who both support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, has spurred some more discerning and fair-minded Democratic operatives and members of Congress to create a new political group aimed at countering the rising skepticism on the left toward Israel by supporting lawmakers and candidates in 2020 who stand unwaveringly with the country. The group calls itself the Democratic Majority for Israel.

The effort comes after Ms. Omar was appointed by her colleagues to a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which provides her a prominent soapbox from which to share her feelings about U.S. Middle East policy.

Also likely on the new group’s collective mind is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Although he does not support the BDS movement, he has been critical of Israel, at least of its operations in the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in 2005 and became a launching pad for missiles aimed at Israeli civilians.

Polls show that liberals and younger Americans are increasingly less sympathetic than other citizens to Israel. A recent Pew survey indicated that while 56 percent of voters over 65 sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians, only 32 percent of those under the age of 30 said they felt the same way. That unfortunate fact was another factor in the formation of the new group, whose goal is to call attention to what they call the party’s shared values and interests with one of America’s strongest allies.

The group’s founder, longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, stresses that “Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel” and says that “we want to keep it that way.”

The new Congressional group’s aim, Mr. Mellman says, using an apt metaphor, is to ensure that the “few discordant voices” do not “metastasize into a bigger problem.”

Typical of the disturbing voices is that of Simone Zimmerman, 28, a co-founder of the “progressive” group, “IfNotNow,” which opposes what it calls Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

“My generation,” she explains, apparently likening Israel to global warming, “sees the occupation and what’s happening in Israel-Palestine as a crisis the same way we do climate change.”

But veteran Democratic strategist Ann Lewis, a co-chair of the Democratic Majority for Israel, doesn’t concede that younger, “progressive” Americans are beyond hope when it comes to Israel. At AIPAC’s 2013 conference, she contended that it would be a mistake for the pro-Israel community to give up on young, poorly informed citizens.

“We need to speak out more as progressives,” she said, “not to let the other side own the issue of Israel.”

Representative Eliot Engel of New York, a longtime reliable supporter of Israel’s security needs, is less optimistic, lamenting that some younger Democrats are too far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 to have a sound perspective on the Middle East.

“They have had a different experience than my generation had or that my parents’ generation had,” said Mr. Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee that now includes Ms. Omar.

The new pro-Israel Democratic group, whose board includes former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Clinton administration housing secretary Henry Cisneros, will create a political action committee later this year and intends to engage in Democratic primaries. It is also planning an “early states project,” aimed at organizing pro-Israel Democrats in the early nominating states to promote the party’s Israel-friendly presidential hopefuls.

In addition, in order to counter the increasing favoring of the Palestinian cause among younger voters, the group is gathering statements of support from young Democratic lawmakers who support the party’s traditional ties to Israel.

The concerns of the Democrats who are part of the new group are intensified by the increasing association of pro-Israel attitudes with the Republican party — which is largely due to increased support of the party by Christian evangelicals and to President Trump’s apparent good relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the fourth-ranking Democrat and a potential future House speaker, is part of the group, and asserted that “The relationship between the United States and Israel is a special one that is rooted in shared values, an important strategic partnership in the Middle East, perhaps the world’s toughest neighborhood, and a mutual commitment to a lasting two state solution.” He calls the U.S.-Israel bond “unbreakable.”

Strong majorities of both major political parties remain Israel-positive. We hope that Democratic Majority for Israel will be successful in ensuring the persistence of that fact into the future.