Republicans and Democrats Struggle to Own Conversation on Jewish Vote

In the battle for Jewish votes during the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans and Democrats have each latched onto one core issue which each believes is both its own ace in the hole and its opponent’s downfall.

For the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) following the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and the decision to back out of the Iran deal, Trump’s pro-Israel bona fides speak for themselves. But while the GOP feels confident in its appeal to pro-Israel voters, it struggles to dismiss what the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) describes as a troubling pattern of lending a sympathetic ear to neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Leading Democrats, on the other hand, see rising anti-Semitism and nationalism as their key issue, accusing Trump of giving racism a “green light” in the U.S. and dismissing GOP attacks on the Democratic Party’s Israel record by insisting it is not a partisan issue.

In a set of dueling interviews with Jewish Insider, Matt Brooks and Halie Soifer, serving as executive directors of their respective organizations, parried each others’ criticisms and pounced on the vulnerabilities of the other side.

RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks cited Trump’s achievements since taking office as proof that Republicans are the pro-Israel party. “The consequence of Donald Trump being elected president is that we now have a United States Embassy in Jerusalem, we now have recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. We have ended the flawed Obama deal with Iran,” he listed, also noting the administration’s emphasis on defending Israel in the UN.  Trump himself has often pointed to his Israel record as a defense against charges of anti-Semitism.

Democrats, however, see a growing culture of hatred as the larger issue affecting Jews. “What we have seen since Trump came to office is really, to some degree, the legitimization of Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Holocaust deniers, who all appear to have come out of the woodwork,” JDCA’s Soifer charged. “There are no less than five of them running for office in state and national races, all as Republicans. This just speaks to apparently the view among some Republicans that these folks have credibility. That’s a problem for our country, and it is a problem for the Jewish community in particular.”

“Trump has [given] racism and hatred a green light in this country, to the point where [racists] feel legitimized enough to run for office. We’ve never seen that before,” Soifer asserted. “The Republican Party has to now contend with that. Also, they may have said, ‘Oh, they’re not going to win anyway,’ and disassociated themselves, but we have not seen them go as far as to endorse their Democratic opponents in order to ensure that they’re defeated.”

But the Democratic Party also harbors problematic candidates, RJC’s Brooks argued, in the form of newcomers espousing anti-Israel vitriol, calling the trend “a sort of cancer that’s metastasizing within the Democratic Party right now.”

He pointed to the Democratic Party’s acceptance of candidates “who advocate virulently anti-Israel positions,” singling out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, House candidates running unopposed in the general election. “Their silence and their unwillingness to stand up and to push back on these views and on these candidates fosters an environment in which people believe that holding these views and espousing these views is now part of the acceptable dialog,” he stated.

Soifer denied moral equivalency, saying she “would not equate Neo Nazis, white supremacists, and Holocaust deniers, all of whom are running for office as Republicans, with those on the left who may have espoused different views with regard to Israel.”

While conceding that the Republican Party could do more to prevent fringe candidates from running for office or getting on the ballot, Brooks noted that none of them won a contested primary to get on the ballot. In comparison, problematic Democratic candidates have won competitive primaries and will most likely become members of Congress.

“I think it’s a failure of leadership,” he said. “I think there’s a number of highly respected, strongly pro-Israel leaders in the Democratic Party, whether it’s Eliot Engel, whether it’s Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, whether it’s Ted Deutch, that really should be leading the charge and sort of speaking out against this rise of anti-Israel sentiment within the progressive left of the Democratic Party.”

Soifer defended her organization’s conduct in disassociating itself from the candidates who have gone against the mainstream views of the Democratic Party. “We’re talking about three candidates out of 470 running for the Senate and House on the Democratic side this election cycle. I would not say they represent the mainstream at all on this issue,” she explained. “In addition, if you look at the records in Congress, in the Senate and the House, when it comes to aid for Israel… you see no diminution in support of that assistance or U.S. support of Israel on either side.”

The Republican Party does not own the Israel issue, Soifer insisted. “U.S. support for Israel continues to be a bipartisan issue. That is what we support, and we have seen no change in terms of that in Congress, and specifically within the Democratic Party, among elected officials.”

NOTE: The interviews with Brooks and Soifer were done prior to the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. 

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