The Democratic Party is now in the throes of a bitter intra-party debate about the Israel war that threatens to rip the party in two. It is something that would not have transpired in the 20th or early 21st century when Democrats mostly joined Republicans in unflinching support for the Jewish state. There were outliers and the expected disputes about the type and degree of aid, of course, but they were comparatively mild – until the rise of Barack Obama, who distinctly embraced the cause of Islam, once calling the Muslim call to prayer “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth” while grudgingly accepting our long alliance with Israel.
But with Democrats during the Trump presidency tilting ever further to the left, culminating in the romanticized ascendancy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) from bartender to outspoken socialist congresswoman in New York and founder of a radical “Squad,” the party’s long-prevalent view of Israel as an ally worthy of generous support is now, at best, clouded. And this is especially true in light of the White House both calling for a “humanitarian pause” in combat – largely indistinguishable from a cease-fire, something Israel is understandably unwilling to do – and announcing a campaign to combat domestic Islamophobia. This sudden move to publicize the need to stop anti-Muslim violence is widely viewed as a political concession to Arabs and Muslims, whose support for Biden has collapsed from 59% in 2020 to 17% since the Hamas invasion and Biden’s strong pro-Israeli stance, according to a survey by Reuters. This will cost Biden dearly in swing states with high concentrations of Arab and Muslim voters, especially Michigan, which contains more Arab residents than any other state in the nation.
In recent days, AOC has used the most extreme language available, “war crimes,” to describe Israel’s response to the terrorist invasion by Hamas – saying little to nothing about Hamas’ inarguable crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, fellow Squad members Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Cori Bush (D-MO) have attacked their own president from perspectives well outside the mainstream of accepted political discourse, i.e. essentially pro-Hamas, though disguised by the more acceptable “pro-Palestinian.” Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), has attempted to lower the temperature of the debate, so far without success. And it’s hardly a surprise, considering the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli leanings that are essentially de rigueur among the CPC’s 102 members – roughly half of the entire Democratic House membership. But the inevitable clash between the progressives and left-leaning Jewish members of Congress creates a slippery slope for Biden. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is among nine Jewish senators, all Democrats, while the House includes 26 Jewish members, all but two of whom are Democrats.
The position of Bernie Sanders (I-VT) perfectly epitomizes the tangled web facing the Democrats. As a Jewish progressive, the two-time presidential candidate faces pressure from both sides of the explosive debate and has tried to forge a path down the middle that will both satisfy his socialist brothers-in-arms and honor his own heritage. That is what could aptly be described as a heavy lift. Even more significant from an electoral perspective is that some 80% of American Jews are Democrats despite the party’s creeping associations with Iran and growing hostility to Israel. One would have to figure any tilt by the administration toward the progressive view of the Middle East tinderbox will cost the party at the ballot box, and not just among Jewish voters; evangelical Christians are actually the most passionate in their support of Israel because of its centrality to the biblical narrative.
Israel War: Bound to Cost Democrats at the Ballot Box
For Jews, a 2% minority in the US, self-identity formed by a shared heritage and culture is, if not universal, far more prevalent than in the majority religion, Christianity. Their sense of community forged by historical cycles of suffering and persecution supersedes theology, binding together conservative and reformed Jews in a way Christians cannot truly understand. A prominent example of this is one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, Sandy Koufax. Though he did not attend synagogue nor practice his faith, he felt it important enough to honor his cultural heritage that on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, he chose not to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series.
This sudden and bitter intra-party division – bound to grow even worse as Israel’s sworn enemy, Iran, whips up its proxies and inevitably expands its role in the war – is not like Democrats trying to reconcile conflicting views on, for example, the severity of climate change, rates of taxation, or funding for Ukraine. Those type of disagreements have mostly – until now – been subsumed by a broad agreement on the size and scope of government and common enemies on the right side of the aisle. But this is an issue that cuts far too deeply and personally to be swept aside for the sake of blind party unity. We need not be remind.ed of the manywars fought, the blood shed, and the lives sacrificed over religion throughout the course of history. Religious disputes are nearly impossible to settle, for unlike conflicts about territory or power, which can at least theoretically be settled by negotiation and compromise, there is no negotiating with those who believe theirs is the only acceptable form of faith and that all who believe otherwise must ultimately be, at best, condemned for their very existence and, at worst, as the world has witnessed in recent weeks, slaughtered.
At the same time, with ugly protests undergirding Hamas atrocities and threats against Jews rising across the globe, It is vital at this juncture to emphasize again that there is an enormous difference between a person who is Islamic and one who is an Islamist. One wants to live in peace like everyone else. The other would obliterate Israel and wipe Jews – and the USA – off the face of the earth given the opportunity.
Is this war to Biden what the pandemic was to Trump, his damned-if-you-do-or-don’t moment in which he will infuriate many and satisfy few? Trump will surely condemn Biden’s conduct of the war – and the Ukraine war – from the sidelines, just as Biden blamed Trump for hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths. The only question is the degree to which the 45th president can make it stick to the 46th. For many on the Trump side who know their man was brought low by a pandemic totally out of his control, there may well be a growing sense of schadenfreude over a similar political pickle for Joe Biden. As some might say, payback is hell, and karma is a, well, rhymes with itch.