Opinions | The Democratic Party and its Jewish problem

In a report released May 5 on “American Views toward Israel and Palestinians,” the Pew Research Center noted the growing partisan political divide on the question of Israel:

“The partisan gap remains wide. Three-quarters of Republicans (75%) say they sympathize more with Israel (just 7% say they sympathize more with the Palestinians). And though a larger share of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, that margin is much narrower (43% vs. 29%). By 52% to 19%, independents express more sympathy for Israel than the Palestinians.”

In this election year some Israel-focused voters may be troubled by the data on the Democratic Party’s commitment to the Jewish state:

“There is also a wide ideological difference within the Democratic Party. By more than two-to-one (53% vs. 19%) conservative and moderate Democrats sympathize more with Israel. Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, are statistically divided in their views: 33% sympathize more with Israel and 40% sympathize more with the Palestinians.”

Of particular concern is the declining support among younger Democrats for Israel, which has significantly eroded over the past ten years:

“The share sympathizing with the Palestinians has risen significantly in recent years, from 9% in 2006 to 20% in July 2014 to 27% today. The share sympathizing with Israel is little changed over this period.”

This study will serve as a wake-up call to the pro-Israel community to focus more of its energy and resources on growing its relationships with younger Democratic voters.

In this current presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders’ announced policy of “even-handedness” and his comments calling on Prime Minister Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians may further contribute to the erosion of Democratic Party support for the State of Israel. Recent statements by the Vermont senator could give license not only to party members but also to politicians to question the pro-Israel orientation of the Democratic Party and seek to shift U.S. policy in the Middle East.

As Hillary Clinton seeks to reassert the case for Israel among Democratic voters, it falls to her campaign to define her differences with Sanders over the Washington-Jerusalem connection, framing in more stark terms the value of a pro-Israel policy.

An interesting sidebar to these findings involves American Jews and their own levels of engagement with the Jewish State. As reported by the 2013 Pew study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” there is a deepening divide between younger American Jews and Israel. The internecine warfare around Israel that today seems to dominate the American Jewish political landscape has led some Jews to jettison their involvement with Israel and its politics. This growing frustration has resulted in a political shift within the community, exacerbated by a renewed focus by millennials and others on American domestic issues, including same-sex marriage, voting rights, equal pay for women and the minimum wage campaign. Transferring this social justice passion to the Middle East has led disenchanted American Jews and others to embrace the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions as an expression of their political disconnect with the Jewish State over its settlement policies and human rights practices.

This transition of political engagement and loyalty away from Israel by a segment of Jewish Americans represents less of a challenge to the Democratic Party than it does for the Jewish community itself, which must identify ways it can rebuild and strengthen the Diaspora-Israel connection.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings can be found at www.thewindreport.com.

Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His writings can be found on his website, thewindreport.com.