This week, Jewish Democrats hurdled toward irrelevance as a force in American politics, and they don’t even know it yet.
A few days ago, Israel found it could no longer sustain its longstanding pretense of esteem for American streams of Judaism. (The flashpoint was worship at Israel’s revered Kotel, or Western Wall.) In response, liberal segments of American Jewry have begun actualizing threats to withhold financial and political support for Israel unless it extends them veto power over its democratically determined religious policies.
Many observers expect one side to blink, but neither will, because American Jews crave something Israel can never provide: equality for heterodox Judaism.
To Israel’s influential Orthodox, American Jews themselves have unquestioned, fully equal status (if you’re mother’s Jewish, you’re Jewish). Their streams, though, have so many theological and practical deviations (and so few Israeli adherents) that Orthodox Jews consider them pesky, even irrelevant. But no matter how many times the nuance “you’re Jewish but your movement is not” is explained, many American Jews take offense and see no reason to support a Jewish state they believe rejects them.
A loss of Diaspora funds for Israeli hospitals and schools would be regrettable, but the Start-Up Nation can pay for the health and schooling of its needy. The blackmail that Israel cannot exist without American Jewish political support, though, is risible. Think about it: American Jews are overwhelmingly Democrats, and both Congress and the White House are run by staunchly pro-Israel Republicans. Why, exactly, does Israel need the political support of liberal American Jews right now?
Jewish Democrats abandon Israel at their own peril, because if they do they will be no more relevant as a force in Democratic politics than red-headed Democrats or Democrats born in October. Though their party has been hurling leftward, including regarding Israel, Jewish Democrats have been a moderating force. Without them, Obama’s Iran deal would have been even more disastrous to the Jewish state. Similarly, Jewish party members helped the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform committee defeat (albeit in a close vote) a plank that condemned the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank.
But if Jewish Democrats become indifferent or hostile to Israel’s needs, what else will distinguish them? Their credibility on matters of prejudice has been shaken by their hyperbole that President Trump “fosters” anti-Semitism. Their opposition to school choice means they have sided with Democratic teachers’ union bigwigs over parents trying to affordably raise their children with Jewish values.
To matter in Democratic politics, American Jews would need a distinct ideological framework regarding issues like the environment, poverty, immigration, and health care. And they do have one – but it’s the same as the party as a whole.
Unless American Jews capitulate in the current conflict with Israel and reaffirm their commitment to protecting its interests, the Democrat Party will have few remaining barriers in its leftward rush on Middle Eastern issues. Young Democrats in particular have begun to cement Palestinian rights within their “social justice” platforms, and stalwart pro-Israel voices in the party like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer increasingly have to share the stage with more hostile figures like Cornel West, Keith Ellison, and Linda Sarsour.
Most American Jews who love Israel more than they love “social justice” will probably eventually become Republicans. But if most liberal Jews break their relationship with the Jewish state over Orthodox religious hegemony, in practice the Democratic Party’s total abandonment of Israel will soon follow.
And for some liberal American Jews, that won’t be a tragedy. While Bibi Netanyahu has been prime minister, they have watched with increasing sadness and alienation as Israel has moved away from its purported commitment to a two-state solution. Blessedly, they understand the obscenity of abandoning Israel over a matter of the nation’s physical survival. But they’ve now found a seemingly nobler excuse to do so: exaggerate their offense that the Kotel they rarely pray at does not look like the synagogues at home they rarely pray at.
Israel would certainly suffer without the support of both American political parties. American foreign policy that swings between pro- and anti-Israel sentiment depending on who is in power could be dizzying and unpredictable.
But most American Jewish Democrats were on their way out anyway. Israel was never going to recognize their streams, and their resentment of Netanyahu’s peace policies won’t stop festering. What they may be overlooking, though, is that without devotion to the state of Israel, a Jewish Democrat is, well, just a Democrat.