Jewish Democrats risked division with partisan play

With its public condemnation of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for introducing legislation to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) can no longer lay claim to representing the interests of American Jews within the Democratic Party.

About four years ago the NJDC started, as a dubious effort, to do just that. With a Republican in the White House and the 1992 presidential campaign starting, NJDC's founders determined that a partisan organization of Jewish Democrats was necessary to ensure that a broad range of Jewish community interests would be heard, protected and adopted by the Democratic Party and its eventual presidential nominee.

The NJDC aimed to expand the boundaries of Jewish communal interests beyond the single issue of U.S.-Israel relations into areas such as school prayer, human rights and progressive social issues.

At the start, there were inevitable tensions among members about the breadth of the NJDC's mission. What everyone acknowledged, however, was that the NJDC could play a constructive role when the interests of the Jewish community required a stronger voice to be heard above the din of partisan politics.

When such moments arose, the NJDC was to promote the primacy of interests affecting the Jewish community, even where such interests could potentially conflict with the aims of the Democratic Party.

On the issue of Jerusalem, the NJDC failed miserably.

The Dole legislation, which now has 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, requires that the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and that construction of a new building begin no later than 1996. Unlike non-binding Senate resolutions of the past, this legislation has bite. If Jerusalem embassy construction does not start, State Department funding for embassy construction around the world would be cut in half.

To be sure, the announcement and timing of the Jerusalem bill, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, can and should lead many to question the long-term credibility of Dole's legislation. One can even question the wisdom of such legislation at yet another critical stage of the peace process.

What one cannot question is that today, and for the last 20 years, nearly every major American Jewish organization has worked to create a bipartisan consensus on the issue of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Despite historical bipartisan support, the NJDC chose to condemn the country's two leading Republicans for urging the embassy move. To the NJDC, the Dole legislation is nothing but a cynical attempt to pander to Jews in a new election cycle and to box a supportive Democratic president into opposing legislation that in his view does nothing to serve long-term U.S. interests in achieving Middle East peace.

That may well be the motivation of the Senate and House leaders. But actions speak louder than motives. By publicly dismissing Dole's and Gingrich's attempt to implement the U.S. Embassy move as solely a cynical partisan ploy, the NJDC itself thrust Jerusalem into the maelstrom of partisan politics.

By doing so, the NJDC undermined the very reason for its existence. Rather than represent the interests of Jewish Americans within the Democratic Party, the NJDC's Jerusalem debacle exposed the organization as nothing more than a partisan group of Democrats who also happen to be Jews.

While some may disagree with the Jerusalem initiative, it is not the function of a self-described organization of Jewish Americans (even self-described Democrats) to publicly attack elected officials who support a position that earns consensus support in the Jewish community and bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress. Whether or not the Dole initiative is patently political, the NJDC's blunder is no less egregious.

With the onset of the '96 campaign, every politician's remarks can be viewed through the prism of partisan politics. And meetings such as AIPAC's policy conference, to which elected officials and candidates are invited, are designed to extract commitment to specific policies.

Whether the Jerusalem initiative is announced in the midst of an electoral campaign before AIPAC, or the Iranian embargo before the World Jewish Congress, it is surely secondary to the fact that such positions are actually taken — even if the actions can be seen as "pandering." To castigate rather than welcome the initiative undermines the community's achievement in extracting public support for a key item on the Jewish agenda.

The NJDC's counterpart in Republican politics, the National Jewish Coalition, provides a case in point. When the interests of the Jewish community collided with Republican politics, the coalition reflexively pushed the Jewish community interests. Whether the issue was AWACs, Reagan's visit to Bitburg or tension with Secretary of State James Baker, the coalition understood that to do other than promote Jewish interests within the Republican administration was to deny the reason for the group's existence.

So it comes as no surprise that when Clinton announced his Iranian embargo and ordered a U.S. veto of the recent U.N. resolution concerning Israeli expropriation of land around Jerusalem, the National Jewish Coalition applauded the effort, recognizing that even if the president's actions were a cynical ploy to appeal to the Democratic base, the policy remained correct.

Yet when the NJDC had the opportunity to support Dole's Jerusalem initiative (or at a minimum remain silent), it chose to reserve its next dinner reservation to the White House rather than preserve the political maturity of the Jewish community's relationship with Democrats and Republicans on matters that have long received both parties' support.

In attacking Gingrich and Dole for playing partisan politics on the sensitive embassy issue, the NJDC drove the first wedge into the Jewish community's resolve to maintain bipartisan support for Jerusalem. In so doing, the NJDC did more harm to the peace process and Jerusalem than any cynical politician could have dreamed.