Democrats Turn Against Israel
Rep. Keith Ellison’s selection as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee is the latest ratification of our party’s turn away from Israel. Mr. Ellison, who complained in 2010 that “United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people,” narrowly lost a bid for DNC chairman, then was chosen by acclamation as deputy.
The Democrats used to be the pro-Israel party. President Truman recognized the Jewish state within minutes of its independence in 1948. In 1972 the convention that nominated George McGovern ratified the first major-party platform to support moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. The Republicans didn’t follow until 1996.
A lot has changed for the Democrats in 45 years. President Obama created an atmosphere of outright hostility between the U.S. and Israel. He made a nuclear deal with Iran and refused to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution in December that condemned settlements in the disputed West Bank.
Hillary Clinton might have been an improvement, but her commitment to Israel has long been questioned. As secretary of state, she referred to Israeli settlements as “illegitimate.” In 2015 she had to reassure donors to her presidential campaign that she still supported Israel. Even during Bill Clinton’s administration, pro-Israel Democrats worried that Mrs. Clinton would influence her husband in the wrong direction.
Then there’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, who as a presidential candidate in April 2016 accused Israel of being “indiscriminate” in “attacks against civilian areas” when defending itself against rockets fired by terrorists from Gaza. Mr. Sanders received 43% of Democratic primary votes.
How did this happen? There was once an inexorable link between support for Israel and for the civil-rights movement. Both were responses to invidious discrimination—anti-Semitism and racism. Starting in the mid-1960s, however, an anti-Israel minority emerged in the form of the New Left. These groups—such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers—saw Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as engaged in a “just struggle for liberation” as Panthers founder Huey P. Newton put it.
In the 1970s elements of the left became steadily more hostile to Israel. A turning point came in 1975, when the U.N. passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. That provided an intellectual and political opening for those who wanted to drive a wedge between supporters of Israel and of civil rights.
An organization called Basic—Black Americans to Support Israel Committee—was formed to condemn the resolution. “We seek to defend democracy in the Mideast, and therefore we support Israel,” the civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin declared. Unfortunately, that was the last time the organized Jewish and black communities worked together.
In 1979 President Carter fired U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, the first African-American to hold that position, for violating U.S. policy by meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Young’s dismissal led several black leaders to break with their Jewish allies on Israel.
In 1984 Jesse Jackson, who’d publicly embraced PLO head Yasser Arafat five years earlier, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. A Washington Post story about his difficult relationship with Jews quoted him as using the slur “Hymie” and calling New York City “Hymietown.” Mr. Jackson won 3.3 million votes in the primaries. He ran again in 1988 and more than doubled the total, to 6.9 million—another sign of the party’s slow shift.
There are still pro-Israel Democrats, but they are beleaguered and equivocal. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, now the minority leader, described himself in 2010 as the Senate’s protector of Israel: “My name . . . comes from a Hebrew word. It comes from the word shomer, which mean guardian.” But how effectively has he played that role?
In 2015 Mr. Schumer was one of four Senate Democrats to vote against Mr. Obama’s Iran deal. But killing it would have taken 13 Democrats, and Politico reported Mr. Schumer phoned Democratic colleagues to “assure them he would not be whipping opposition to the deal.” Mr. Schumer—whose Brooklyn apartment building has been protested by leftist opponents of President Trump—was also an early backer of Mr. Ellison for the party chairmanship.
One reason Democrats have continued the move away from Israel is that Jewish voters haven’t exacted a price for it. Exit polls in 2016 found they supported Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Trump, 71% to 23%, in line with their historic levels of Democratic support.
There’s still an opportunity here for the GOP. Especially if Mr. Trump delivers on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the Jewish vote could start trending Republican. Unless Democrats reaffirm their support for Israel, many lifelong party members—ourselves included—may decide that the time has come to find new political affiliations.