WASHINGTON—Republicans are launching a strategy to woo Jewish voters in 2020, seizing on a political opportunity afforded by divisions in the Democratic Party.
A coalition of newly elected, progressive, pro-Palestine Democrats in Congress is driving a wedge through the party when it comes to support for Israel. The group’s de facto spokeswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has suggested that pro-Israel members of Congress receive financial kickbacks and are more loyal to Israel than the United States. Democratic leaders have stated and restated their support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declaring the alliance “unbreakable and unshakeable.” The House passed two resolutions condemning bigotry, but Republicans and some Jewish Democrats criticized the measure for not specifically targeting anti-Semitism.
Republicans, meanwhile, are highlighting their party’s support for Israel. In Congress, they are pushing a bill to penalize participants in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates punishing Israel economically for its policies toward Palestinian territories. The bill also renews financial and military assistance to Israel. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., passed with a 77-23 vote in February, but Pelosi has yet to bring it to the floor in the House.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Calif., said Wednesday he would file a discharge petition to bring the anti-BDS bill to a vote. Democrats say they will introduce their own nonbinding resolution that condemns the BDS movement instead.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump spoke at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas, and Vice President Mike Pence spoke in March before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, calling out 2020 Democratic hopefuls for skipping the event. Trump and Pence have highlighted the administration’s pro-Israel actions, from moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
About 2 percent of the American electorate is Jewish, but that small proportion can have a dramatic effect on U.S. elections, Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, wrote for The Jerusalem Post a month before the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Rosen pointed out that Jews make up about 3.4 percent of the electorate in Florida, a crucial swing state in which the margin between election winners and losers is often less than 1 percent.
Democrats remain confident Republicans will make little headway with Jewish voters, who traditionally have been a reliable Democratic bloc. The American Jewish Population Project states that 54 percent of Jews identity as Democrat, 14 percent as Republican, and 32 percent as neither. A 2018 Mellman Group poll found that nearly three-quarters of Jews surveyed would vote for a Democrat for president or for Congress. That proved to be the case in the 2018 midterm elections, when exit polls found that 79 percent of Jewish voters supported Democrats. Only 24 percent of Jews voted for Trump in 2016, a slight decrease in GOP support from 2012, when Mitt Romney garnered 30 percent of the Jewish vote.
Carrie Simms, vice president of the Advanced Security Training Institute, said Jews should not be treated as single-issue voters, noting that many rate liberal positions on issues such as abortion, healthcare, or economics as more important than support for the state of Israel. “Jews in the Democratic Party today—some of them might be pro-Israel, but that’s probably the only conservative thing you might find,” she said. But Republicans say that as pro-Israel Democrats become less common, Jewish voters will have to choose between supporting leftist social policies and the state of Israel.
A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that the partisan divide over support for Israel or Palestine is wider than at any point since 1978. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans favored Israel over Palestine, while only 27 percent of Democrats said the same. Republican support jumped 29 percentage points from 2001, while Democratic support decreased by 11 percentage points.
Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum warned that Democrats could be in the beginning pangs of an anti-Semitism controversy similar to one that roiled the British Labor Party in 2015. The controversy culminated in the resignation of eight Labor members of Parliament who said they could no longer stay in a party they described as institutionally racist against Jews. In 2010, British Jews reported an even split in support between the Conservative and Labor parties. But in 2017, only 13 percent voiced support for the Labor Party. A 2018 poll from The Jewish Chronicle found more than 85 percent of British Jews believe Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic.
Trump wants to see a similar shift in the United States. In a tweet sent in March, he seized on the term “Jexodus,” which refers to a growing movement of millennial Jews who encourage their peers to abandon the Democratic Party. “Republicans are waiting with open arms,” the president wrote.