Changing of the Guard

Squabble Over Keith Ellison Reveals Dilemma for Democrats on Israel

Conflating anti-Israel policies with anti-Semitic bigotry, some American Jewish organizations are foretelling a split within the Democratic party.

If Israel doesn’t agree to a two-state solution with Palestine, “either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote—apartheid.”

Is that Donald Trump’s soon-to-be Secretary of Defense or a candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee?

How about “United States policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense?”

Both are highly provocative statements. Yet only one of them—the latter, spoken by Ellison—has led Jewish organizations to cry foul: the Anti-Defamation League called the comments “disqualifying.” Meanwhile, the predominant response to Marine General James Mattis remarks has been…. crickets. Only the far-right Zionist Organization of America has objected to his nomination.

Meanwhile, the extreme-hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, whose leadership is heavily represented on the Trump transition team, defended Mattis, contorting itself to say that Mattis now has a chance to become “an even closer friend of the State of Israel.”

Moreover, the ADL’s double standard—attacking Ellison but not Mattis—actually predates the recent revelation of the new tape. On November 25, ADL’s executive director, Jonathan Greenblatt, put a blog post on expressing the “legitimate concerns raised by many as to whether his prospective leadership will help or harm the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship.” (Full disclosure: I was a member of the ADL’s task force on online harassment of journalists, which completed its work in September.)

And the ADL’s new statement was contradictory. On the one hand, it alleged that Ellison’s newly revealed comments “raise the specter of age-old stereotypes about Jewish control of our government.” On the other hand, the statement’s primary complaint is that it “raises ‘serious doubts’ about his ability to faithfully represent the party’s traditional support for Israel.”

Are those the same thing? Of course not. The latter is an alleged policy shift the former is bigotry. So why does the ADL shift effortlessly between the two? And why the lack of outrage at Mattis’s remarks?

Obviously, the answer has to do with the shifting politics around Israel in the American Jewish community—and, perhaps more importantly, within the Democratic Party.

American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Clinton over Trump, roughly 80% to 20%. That’s higher than either of President Obama’s victory margins. The reasons were many: Trump’s fans in the anti-Semitic “alt-right” and the candidate’s refusal to explicitly condemn them; the role of Steve Bannon, who ran “a platform for the alt-right,” as Trump’s campaign manager; and the predominant liberalism among non-Orthodox Jews.

But, the Jewish establishment is disproportionately run by Israel hawks, both in professional roles and donor roles. It makes sense, when you think about it: those Jews who give the most money to Jewish causes also happen to be more ethnocentric and nationalistic when it comes to the Jewish state. Liberal mega-donor George Soros may make headlines, but he is the anomaly. When it comes to supporting Jewish organizations like the ADL, most donors are more like Sheldon Adelson.

And, let’s face it, there’s plenty of Islamophobia within my Jewish community as well. The ADL is a perfect example. It has done great work to combat Islamophobia, but sometimes it encourages it, as when the organization, under its former leadership, spoke out against the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which was not a mosque, not at Ground Zero, and in fact led by moderate Muslims and Sufis.

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The same split has also appeared within the Democratic Party.

On the one side are the traditional Israel hawks who have long comprised the Democrat mainstream: Hillary Clinton, for example. This faction may want to push the current Israeli government to make peace, but remember, so do the vast majority of Israeli generals and intelligence chiefs. A two-state solution is what security hawks—unlike ideology hawks—want.

On the other side, though, are younger Democrats, Bernie Sanders supporters, younger people of color, and other progressives. Their Israel politics are far to the left of the current DNC’s. Many were born after the handshake on the White House lawn; their whole lives, Israel has been Goliath and the Palestinians have been David, and for most of that time, Israel has been led by increasingly right-wing governments. In both ways, this is the opposite experience from that of older generations.

Moreover, many link support of Black Lives Matter and other progressive causes with support of the Palestinian BDS movement; intersectionally, stylistically, and socially, the causes are linked. These younger Democrats may be naïve or idealistic, cloudy-eyed or clear, but for better or for worse, they see the fight against Israeli occupation as their version of the fight against apartheid.

To an extent, this fracture has existed for a long time; Zogby, who is himself Lebanese-American, has been pushing for a realignment on Israel for decades. But he used to be an outlier. Now his view is shared by the (apparently) ascendant wing of the party itself. We saw the effects of this during the drafting of the Democratic platform, when Sanders delegates including James Zogby and Cornel West pushed for language critical of Israel—and were roundly rejected by the majority. But as the angst over Ellison reveals, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Israel is one of issues dividing the Democratic old guard from the new.

And Keith Ellison is a perfect embodiment of it. He is the ideal successor to Sanders: progressive with a sharp tongue and strong vision. And, yes, his politics on Israel are to the left of the Democratic mainstream, let alone the American center. He has been critical of Israeli settlements, of right-wing Israeli governments, and of America’s unconditional support for Israel.

He noted some of those shifts in the contentious comments themselves, when he linked the shift in American politics to the shift in American demographics: “When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million [i.e. Muslim and Arab Americans] get involved, everything changes.” Those are indeed scary words to pro-Israel Jewish Democrats, even if they also reflect reality.

At the same time, it’s clear that Ellison has also been unfairly targeted because he is Muslim. Critics dredge up pro-Farrakhan comments he made when he was a kid—comments which denied, not defended Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. But not only has Ellison apologized, recanted, backtracked, condemned, and otherwise genuflected in the years since, he has also made statement after statement defending Israel. “The world needs a secure Israel.” (2010) “Every country has a right to defend itself.” (2009) But nothing he says seems to be enough.

In 2020, the split between old-school and new-school Democrats will be more acute than this year. The donor base, the establishment infrastructure, the congressional delegations, and older Jewish voters all lean to the traditional pro-Israel side. The insurgents, the Sanders camp, younger Democrats, and younger Jews do not. Whether Ellison becomes DNC chair or not, he is a symbol of the dilemma the party faces. Arguably, it loses either way.