By Jack Rosen
With political tribalism in America ever-rising in pitch, the number of issues where agreement across the aisle is possible appears to be shrinking. Long gone are the days when policy differences stopped “at water’s edge,” and a united front on matters of foreign policy and national security were seen as central to America’s strength and prestige. Perhaps no subject is more emblematic of this partisan estrangement than American support for Israel.
Support for Israel was long a subject of bipartisan consensus. When the Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed in 1995, laying the groundwork for the eventual transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it was with near unanimous support from both houses of Congress. Today, vocal support for Israel is increasingly shifting toward the right wing, and in today’s political climate, when an issue is embraced by the right, it becomes toxic to the left. (And vice versa).
Among Republican politicians today, the support of Israel — its policies, its defense, its right to exist — is essentially party orthodoxy. It has become part of a “package” that Republicans are expected to incorporate into their platforms. As a result, Democrats are keeping support for Israel at arm’s length so as not to appear acquiescent to the other side, and thereby missing out on the chance to support the only country in the region that aligns with their values.
When both parties view themselves so much as opposing teams in tug-of-war, issues like Israel become compartmentalized as extra inches of rope rather than significant, complicated issues. It also creates confusion for voters as to whether their elected representatives are truly for or against Israel, or if they are merely following the herd.
Indisputably, President Trump’s policies have made strong steps for Israel, not only for its defense and prosperity, but also for its normalization and legitimacy on the international stage. But in doing so, Trump has stamped the issue of Israel with his own brand. Only 21 percent of Democrats think Trump is striking the right balance on Israel, but a full 73 percent of Republicans do, according to a Pew survey.
More broadly, data shows the partisan divide on Israel is widening. In 2001, when asked if they sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians, 50 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats said Israel; in 2018, those numbers have diverged to 78 percent and 27 percent, respectively. In other words, as Republicans skew more toward Israel, Democrats skew away. This effect is amplified farther from center; support for Israel among conservative Republicans has reached 81 percent, and among liberal Democrats has dropped to 19 percent.
As a lifelong advocate for the State of Israel, I cannot help but worry that Americans, especially impressionable young voters, will be pushed away from Israel — not by ideology, but by allegiance to a party. The majority of American Jews vote Democrat, but what happens when young Jews believe they have a social obligation to reject the State of Israel?
There are numerous strong reasons that liberals and conservatives alike should align with the support and defense of the Jewish State. As one of the closest allies we have, we cannot allow our discourse to deteriorate such that Americans do not apply their own values case-by-case.
Disturbingly, extreme anti-Israel voices and dangerous political beliefs are increasingly finding footing in the progressive movement and being legitimized in the mainstream. For example, Women’s March leadership with ties to notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan have refused to step down. I cannot imagine that these individuals would have been so embraced in the political climates of decades past.
Last, but far from least, I am gravely concerned by how this effect will manifest itself in the 2020 presidential election. In the past, the president usually reflected the moderate wing of his party. In its search for a young, firebrand anti-Trump, however, the Democratic Party might choose a progressive candidate who subscribes to anti-Israel attitudes. Will their nominee be compelled to oppose Trump on all issues, and reject the current U.S.-Israel relationship for political points? For the Democrats to choose an anti-Israel candidate in 2020 could be disastrous for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
The State of Israel is not a political prop. It is not a partisan matter. It is a thriving, diverse nation nearly 9-million strong. It is a symbol of hope and rebirth for an ancient people scattered around the world, who in it found a second chance after nearly being extinguished. It is a vital ally whose story is intertwined with ours. And it is a bastion of democratic and, yes, progressive values in the Middle East, offering liberty to citizens of all religions and ethnicities. We cannot allow our allies and our values to be made into bargaining chips or publicity items. Israel matters too much to be lost to the tide of party politics.
Jack Rosen is the president of the American Jewish Congress.