President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Avi Ohayon-Courtesy Israel Government Press Office)
President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Avi Ohayon-Courtesy Israel Government Press Office)

In a shift, Democrats are focusing their Jewish campaign on Israel policy

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Democrats are emphasizing President Joe Biden’s pro-Israel chops in their campaign for Jewish votes, a twist for a party that has long made domestic policy front and center in its efforts to get out the Jewish vote.

An online ad released by the Jewish Democratic Council of America Monday contrasts Biden’s visit to Israel early in its war with Hamas against former President Donald Trump’s recent mocking of Israel’s leadership for mishandling the war and his praise for Hezbollah. The video is entitled “President Biden: The leader the world needs.”

“Trump turned his back on Israel,” the narrator says. “Joe Biden is a steadfast friend and supporter of Israel and defender of American Jews.” The ad will target Jewish voters in Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania, all swing states with relatively substantial Jewish communities.

On Friday, the Democratic National Committee took a similar tack on a press call ahead of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference. The RJC conference featured speeches by eight presidential candidates, including Trump, whom polls show to be the strong frontrunner.

“Donald Trump is a disaster for American Jews and for Israel,” U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Jewish Massachusetts Democrat, said on the DNC call. Auchincloss, a military veteran, referred to military officials who worked for Trump in his first term who said they stopped him from making dangerous decisions. “He is dangerous for the security of Israel and his ascension to a second term in office would make our closest ally in the Middle East less secure and make American Jews less safe.”

Democrats, who continue to garner between two thirds and three quarters of the Jewish vote in national elections, traditionally have focused their Jewish campaigns on domestic issues, reflecting the party’s common ground with many American Jews on issues like health care, abortion rights and immigration policy.

In the Trump years, another emphasis has been the former president’s alliances with the far right, including some notorious antisemites.

Republicans have long made Israel the premier issue in their campaigning among Jews, in part because for decades Israel has been led by right-leaning governments more in sync with Republican foreign policy.

Trump especially pleased the right-wing pro-Israel community with his taboo-shattering policies, including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cutting of funding to the Palestinians and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Republicans also have singled out for attack a small but growing group of progressives in Congress who are sharply critical of Israel.

Those dynamics appear to be changing. Biden’s unabashed support for Israel since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 invasion stood in contrast to congressional Republicans who were distracted by a bruising House leadership battle that delayed the passage of a resolution standing with Israel and the delivery of emergency defense assistance to Israel. Some Republicans and political conservatives were moved to praise Biden.

“The contrast of leadership in this moment of crisis could not be more stark,” JDCA’s CEO, Halie Soifer, said in a statement. “Joe Biden has stood unequivocally with Israel and American Jews, while Donald Trump mocked Israel and praised terrorists.”

At the RJC conference, leading Jewish Republicans said Trump would easily withstand Democratic attacks on his Israel record, arguing that his actions were louder than his words.

“I am so looking forward to having this debate about who stands better with Israel and who’s got a better record,” the RJC CEO, Matt Brooks, said at a press gathering. “And I will put Donald Trump’s record over Joe Biden. I will put Nikki Haley’s record over Joe Biden’s.”

Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations , is running for president and also spoke at the RJC conference.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.