Last September, on the afternoon of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, Elliott Abrams sat cross-legged on a basement carpet in Virginia playing marbles with his grandson. The former George W. Bush administration official, who supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East, is the father-in-law of a young rabbi at a reform synagogue in Washington that had been torn between its love of Israel and its loathing of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
Abrams, a staunch supporter of Netanyahu, told me that he wasn’t particularly worried about fading Jewish support for Israel, like that on display in his son-in-law’s congregation, even among the more skeptical younger generation. “Fifty-year-olds are always more supportive than 18-year-olds,” he said. “And so give them 30 years, and they will be more supportive. I don’t see any long-term erosion of support.”
What really concerned him, he said, were the non-Jewish voters who make up the rank and file of the Democratic base. “Look, I’m Republican,” Abrams told me. “But the problem that no one wants to talk about is the erosion of support in the Democratic Party.”
I thought of Abrams’s remarks this week, during the final chaotic days before Israel’s national elections, in which Netanyahu — trying to rally conservative support in a tight race against the Labor Party challenger, Isaac Herzog — disavowed the two-state solution, warned about the threat posed by “droves” of Arab voters and acknowledged the tactical appeal of expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. Although he has since tried to walk back his comments about the two-state solution, at least, the Obama administration and Democrats in general remain enraged. The party was already furious with Netanyahu for his slights of the Democratic president, and many now consider him the de facto president of the Israeli chapter of Republicans Abroad.
While a deepening polarization among American Jews about Netanyahu puts Obama’s potential successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a politically uncomfortable position, it is the transformation of Israel into a partisan issue that fills Democratic Jewish officials with dread. Clinton’s advisers can always take solace knowing that the Democratic base will vote for a Democratic candidate no matter what. But Jewish Democrats worry about the prospect of keeping liberal support for Israel a viable long-term position for a party base that is overwhelmingly non-Jewish and increasingly critical of the country.
After all, many younger Americans know Israel only as a nuclear-armed force that is the dominant power in its region. On college campuses, pro-Palestinian groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have long framed the Israeli occupation as the civil rights issue of our time. A Pew Research Center poll over the summer showed that 29 percent of voters under the age of 30 blamed Israel more than Hamas for the war in Gaza, while only 21 percent blamed Hamas more. African-Americans and Hispanics were also more likely to blame Israel.
This trend has clearly frightened the Jewish establishment. The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee has sought to improve its engagement with progressives and college students, calling on, among others, Ann Lewis, a confidante of Clinton, to assist in progressive outreach. And Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told me he was reaching out to Hispanics and Hollywood. “We have now taken several trips of movie stars to Israel,” he said. “We have had the stars of ‘Avatar,’ ‘Twilight,’ ‘Baxter’” — he presumably meant “Dexter” — “‘House M.D.’, ‘Hollywood 202101 whatever.’”
And support for Israel has also declined within American government in general. A recent focus group of congressional staffers — tomorrow’s policy makers — revealed ebbing support for Israel. “If national politics and the presidency continues to be in the hands of the Democrats,” said Hebrew Union College professor Steven Cohen, a leading tracker of Jewish demographic shifts, “then most of the mid-and-low-level policy analysts and foreign-service people will essentially be sympathetic to the Palestinians.”
But as far as Netanyahu’s right-wing government is concerned, the future is now. They see Obama and his potential nuclear deal with Iran as a threat to their security. They see American support for a two-state solution and a freeze on settlement growth as a naïve recipe for more missiles landing on Israeli homes.
And so Netanyahu has essentially thrown his lot in with the Republicans. His open hostility to Obama has infuriated Democrats. When he spoke to Congress this month — an invitation he accepted from the speaker of the House, John Boehner, without informing the White House — several Democratic members refused to attend. Significantly, the boycotting congressmen included members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an indication about the feelings of the party’s base.
This realignment by Netanyahu is a drastic shift. Even as U.S. foreign policy has grown increasingly partisan, support for Israel has generally been a rare point of agreement between Republicans and Democrats, and successive Israeli governments and their allies in Aipac have generally made a priority of keeping it that way. For instance, before returning to Israel in 2013 and entering politics there, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren reached out to progressive synagogues and think tanks for their help in improving the relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party’s ascendant base.