Forever an Ally? Israel and the Democratic Party

democratic party israel

Ritchie Torres is widely seen as a bright light for the progressive left. A young, well-spoken Afro-Latino legislator from the South Bronx, Torres emerged from a pack of Democratic Primary candidates last year, to win his congressional seat. Since then, he’s closely aligned himself with the most progressive in his party, on a host of different issues. But on one, he’s taken his own, separate, stance: His support for Israel.

His refusal to join the “Squad,” due in part to their position on Israel, earned him headlines. In an interview with Hamodia, he reiterated this strong, vocal support for the Jewish State. While his general policy positions — as with many progressives — do not align with Torah values, on this issue, he stakes himself out as a firm friend of the Jewish community.

Even as they welcome his support, many in the community have felt alienated by others within his party. The Obama years were contentious ones for the U.S.-Israel relationship. While providing strong financial backing for the Iron Dome, among other projects, in other matters, the relationship began to slip. Overtures to tyrannical Arab regimes, pressure on settlements, the Iran deal — these policies and others opened a rift with Israel that never fully healed.

Moving beyond that period, radical elements of the party reared their heads, calling for boycotts, conditioning of financial aid, and — at the very least — an end to the special relationship that Israel has always enjoyed with the United States. With the party moving ever leftward, supporters of Israel must ask a tough question: Does Israel have a future in the Democratic Party?

Supporting Israel

“When I look at policy decisions across the Middle East, I always ask myself two questions,” Bob Menendez, senior Senator from New Jersey and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, tells Hamodia, “What is the national interest of the United States? And what is in the national security of the United States?

democratic party israel
Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y.

“And indeed, our national security interests and values in the Middle East almost always align with Israel.” What Senator Menendez is saying underscores a key point about Israel’s relationship with the United States. It’s not only a taker — it’s also a giver.

As the longest-lasting democracy in the Middle East, Israel is an island of stability in a region fraught with instability. It remains a staunch American ally in an area where the U.S. is surrounded by foes. And it shares key intelligence and knowledge, in its unique position of being in a perpetual war on terror.

That alone should enshrine Israel’s status as an ally — as long as America stands by those mutual values. However, Israel’s relationship has always gone deeper than merely that of a strategic asset — it’s been a friend, almost like the giant superpower’s little brother. As former President Bush (43) famously remarked, “America is not a land of only three hundred million people, it has eight million more.”

Part of that can perhaps be explained as due to American Jewish influence. But that can’t possibly do it justice. There’s something more, some aspect in which Americans uniquely identify with Israel. Torres explains how he came to that viewpoint.

“Before I went to Israel, I knew that it was considered an ally, I knew that it was a democracy, but I didn’t have a deep knowledge about the region. Going to Israel was a learning experience. It opened up my eyes about the situation.”

“For most of my life, I didn’t have money to travel. When the opportunity came to visit Israel in 2015, as a member of the City Council, I made the decision to go.”

That decision was not a simple one. It didn’t go over easily with some members of the progressive base. For merely deciding to visit Israel, and being able to form an educated opinion about the conflict there, Torres received an avalanche of hatred. He says that the hatred he encountered had the opposite of the intended effect. It turned him into one of BDS’s most outspoken opponents.

“I was the victim of vitriol hate online and met by protesters on the steps of City Hall. I was told by one activist that Hamas was ‘defending the liberation of the Palestinian people.’ That left me in a state of shock.”

“And so, part of my support for Israel comes as a reaction to the BDS movement [which was involved in this tremendous opposition to his visiting Israel]. But another aspect is the personal experience I had when visiting Israel.”

democratic party israel
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

The congressman speaks about touring Yad Vashem, seeing Masada, and other experiences. But it’s when he speaks about his visit to Sderot, that he gets really animated.

“I had no concept of what it was like to live in a neighborhood in fear of rocket fire. It was radically different from anything that I’ve experienced here, in the United States.

“Imagine being a child in Sderot, and being brought up — being trained, to seek refuge in a bomb shelter, in order to escape a rocket. How profoundly traumatic that can be for a child! It was a very rude awakening.”

Upon returning to the States, everything was different for Torres. He felt connected, emotionally involved in Israel’s future. When he speaks to me about Israel, the impression given is that he doesn’t consider Israel to be just another ally. There’s something more in that connection, something stronger. For Senator Menendez, there was similar inspiration.

“On my first trip to Israel, I found a vibrant democracy, with a robust free press, and freedom of religion. I discovered the unique security challenges that Israel faces — the tiny width of the country, with its back to the sea. This was a country that had turned the desert green; a country that had taken risks for peace. I felt that I had found a place that shared our values. I fell in love with Israel.”

Trending Away

Recent rhetoric from those on the far left, though, has supporters of Israel worried. Comments made by Democratic lawmakers in particular had some concerned. Even subtle overtures, such as the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the UNRWA, known for its rabid anti-Israel stance, has some taking notice. Is this an ominous sign for the future, the arrival of extremists dominating the Democratic Party?

Mark Mellman is the founder and president of an organization called Democratic Majority for Israel. He doesn’t worry about that possibility.

democratic party israel
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.

“Look,” he says, “the reality is, that’s not what’s happening. The entire Democratic leadership condemned [Ilhan] Omar’s [perceived antisemitic] comments. Every single proposal to change party platforms to something not very pro-Israel was defeated. This happened across some of the most liberal states in the country.”

Poll numbers have shown declining support for Israel among liberal voters. I question Mellman about those statistics. Mellman says that that’s no reason for concern.

“Obviously, there is a problem — that’s why we started this organization. But in polls that we’ve conducted, the vast majority of Democrats have expressed strong support for Israel, strong support for continued financial assistance.”

Mellman expresses the view that the problems for Israel are not with the base of the party. He takes the position that it’s fringe activists who are making noise. And it will stay that way — on the fringe.

Putting that into context, though, is important. Because, although it’s true that the Democratic leadership has, by and large, continued to stand with Israel, there have been worrying signs from beyond the sidelines.

During Georgia’s recent Senate campaign, hostile comments regarding Israel from then-candidate Raphael Warnock were uncovered. Warnock quickly issued a statement proclaiming his strong support for Israel. But what was said was said. Having linked Israel to an apartheid state, and having called out Israel for shooting Palestinians “like birds of prey,” had supporters of Israel on edge.

Linda Sarsour is infamous for her stance opposing Israel and her strong support for BDS. She spoke at a forum during the 2020 Democratic convention, calling the Democratic Party “our party.” The above cases and others signal that for Israel, the problem is not an isolated one.

Indeed, some from Mellman’s own party take a dimmer outlook for the future. Torres admits that he is worried about what comes next.

“There’s no reason to be concerned about the Democratic Party as it is,” he says. “However, there is what to be anxious about for the next generation.”

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Street lights with American and Israeli flags on the road leading to the new United States Embassy in Yerushalayim.

“We’ve ceded academia to the extremes. Students are being taught that Israel is the oppressor, simply because they are the more powerful country. BDS is gaining momentum on college campuses. It’s a real problem, a problem that we’re failing to combat.”

Torres believes that the problem is an old one. As old as the Jewish people itself.

“Antisemitism is a virus that mutates. On campuses, it’s taken on the form of being anti-Israel. Students are being conditioned to be this way.”

I express my surprise at his vocal pro-Israel stance, given that he attended NYU. He answers with a stab at humor.

“When people ask me why I’m so pro-Israel, I jokingly tell them that I’m a college drop-out. And so, I escaped the pathology of academia thinking.”

Malcolm Hoenlein has been at the front line of organized American Jewish life for over a quarter of a century. It’s from that viewpoint that he sees a worrying trend taking place across American politics.

“It’s not limited to either political party. Extremist trends on both sides of the divide are extremely dangerous for the Jews. It’s important to note, though, that these are pockets of hostility. Certain members of the Democratic Party are very vocal, but they do not speak for the party.”

Hoenlein says that we face danger from extreme elements on both sides of the political aisle. This is a sentiment echoed by many on the left, who point to rising white supremacy as a threat for Jews. However, as we’re just moving away from a Republican administration that was, arguably, the most pro-Israel administration in history, and continue to have vocal supporters of Israel on the right, I press him on this point.

“It is a bigger problem on the left than the right,” he concedes. “Woke politics is especially troubling for us. But if you go far enough, the extremes meet.”

Influencing

While there are different opinions as to the scope of the problem, everyone agrees that there is a problem. So, can anything be done?

democratic party israel
Mark Mellman, founder and president of Democratic Majority for Israel

“I had a poll done that surveyed Americans’ attitude[s] regarding Israel,” Hoenlein says. “And what emerged was that the vast majority of respondents were indifferent. That means that they can be influenced. And that’s what has to be done.”

“We take influencers — people that can sway an audience — on trips to Israel. When an entertainer comes back, when a sports player returns, and says, ‘That’s no apartheid state,’ that makes a big impact. It helps shape people’s view on the matter.”

Both Senator Menendez and Congressman Torres spoke about how their trips to Israel influenced them. Hoenlein says that those trips are a big part of the program.

“You have to get the young guys. Identify people who are going to become major players, and take them. I led a trip in the eighties with Giuliani, Dinkins, and Tim Russert, prior to them becoming what they ultimately became.”

Mellman says that there is a different problem for Israel on the left. One that can be easily rectified.

“American politics has become increasingly polarized. So, when you have an issue such as Israel that for the past 20 years has been spoken about by the right, people on the left just don’t listen. What we do is, to speak to people about Israel from the left. We speak to them in a manner that resonates with them.”

Both Mellman and Hoenlein stress the importance of education. They say that many people have misconceptions. Whether caused by ignorance, or false information, education is a weapon that must be utilized.

“There was a story where a Bedouin village got demolished by the Israeli government. An outcry was raised about it. Now, the facts were simply not as portrayed. This was a small settlement of 70 people, situated in the middle of a live firing zone, a restricted area that the Israeli Supreme Court had ruled unlawful. We made sure to point that out.”

But it’s more than just education, Hoenlein says. Reaching out and building productive relationships is another key. He’s seen first-hand how these efforts can effect change and produce results.

“There was a congressman from the Midwest that was not considered a friend of ours. I brought him down to Flatbush, showed him around, and he returned home with a totally different perspective, impressed by our community.”

“I was also one of the first to reach out to the evangelical community. Of course, I laid down strict rules that there should be absolutely no missionizing. And today, you see what’s taking place. This community is extremely pro-Israel. I know one pastor who sends $7 million to Israel every year — with a lot of it going to frum institutions.”

It doesn’t matter that we share different views from many on the left, says Hoenlein. There are ways of ensuring a productive relationship.

“It makes an impact on them,” Hoenlein says, regarding elected officials. “When they see that we genuinely care about our values. We don’t have to agree with them on everything, but we should define our differences with sechel. It’s important for us to ask our legislators about their votes, and tell them what we care about. These gestures can make a big difference.”

Because, in this realm, Hoenlein believes, it’s building bridges that counts. Not burning them.

Continuing Strong

Political power in the United States is a pendulum that swings between the two major parties. Along with that swing go the policies that each party advocates for. For Israel’s security, it would be disastrous for it to be part of that equation. It must remain bipartisan.

“Look at the recent Abraham Accords,” says Senator Menendez, “which were hailed as historic steps forward by both Republicans and Democrats. I believe that there continues to be widespread bipartisan support for Israel and its sustained security and prosperity.”

“We need to highlight pro-Israel Democrats,” says Hoenlein. “We can’t pay attention to the extremists. Doing that only raises their profile. We can’t afford to make Israel a one-party issue.”

Malcolm Hoenlein

Torres says that for Israel’s support to remain strong, both individuals and institutions must take a stance. Since he is someone who has stepped into that role, being vocal about this belief, I question him. Has he received backlash for his vocal support?

“Most members of Congress, if not all,” he says, “are collegial, professional, and gracious. So, I find that I have a professional working relationship with just about every member I’ve come across. Hostility comes from activists out of Congress — especially online.”

“Would I have a warmer relationship with some of them, if not for this? Perhaps,” he concedes. “Would I be able to work more effectively? It’s possible. I’ll never know.”

So why does he do it? What prompts him — a representative of a district with few Jews, to speak up about an issue barely relevant in his community?

“Because it’s wrong,” he says about the anti-Israel sentiment swirling around him. “Very few people on the progressive side of the aisle are speaking up about this. So, I feel that I have a special responsibility to do so.”

Does he feel disappointed in that other progressives are hesitant to speak up about this issue?

“It’s not my place to speak about that. There are a million concerns in the world, and it’s up to each member to decide what to prioritize. I’ve chosen to prioritize Israel, based on my own experiences. If I had never had those experiences, I might have never spoken up about these issues. So, therefore, I can’t pass judgment on someone else.”

“But for me, Israel will always remain a priority, as long as I remain in public office,” Torres says, closing our conversation. “Progressives [being pro-Israel] is the historical norm. Being anti-Israel is a historical anomaly. People should not be shocked that I am pro-Israel. People should be shocked at other self-claimed progressives that are anti-Israel.”

With everything in perspective, it’s important to remember that we are Jews living in galus. As the safety of our brethren in Israel remains a top priority, we must do all we can to ensure America’s strong backing, building ties across party lines.

At the same time, we must remember that “the hearts of kings are in the Hand of Hashem.” Whatever we do is mere hishtadlus. Ultimately, it’s really all up to Him.

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Unequivocal

During the recent hostilities with Gaza (which occurred after our interview) ,Senator Menendez released a statement about the conflict — a statement that some in the pro-Israel camp took issue with. They felt it lacking; especially when taking into account the Senator’s previous strong record on Israel. In a follow-up statement made exclusively to Hamodia, the Senator’s office reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to Israel, while also emphasizing the complexities of his position in the Senate as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee:

“The Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee has a responsibility to express concern about innocent civilian deaths in any kind of conflict and on attacks on the press and media infrastructure. Particularly when those conflicts involve a critical ally with whom we share an unshakeable relationship based on democratic values. Along with the valid, humane, and democracy-oriented concerns, he expressed and continues to believe that Hamas is unequivocally a terrorist organization and Israel unequivocally has the right to defend itself. That is not up for debate.

“As he stated in his answers to you a few weeks ago, Chairman Menendez is proud to be the leading voice for the U.S.-Israel relationship in Washington, and anticipates to continue being at the forefront of any fight that tries to undermine that relationship.

“I think we are going to let his answers speak for themselves, as they are still as accurate today, as they were back when he gave them. I hope you can see the nuance[s] and complexities of his position as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.”