American Jews and the Democratic Party: Coda

Party leaders rarely receive the same attention as party candidates, but the proposal for Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC) marks a turning point in US politics.

Ellison stands on the far left of the party, comes from the Nation of Islam, fervently defended anti-Semites like Louis Farrakahn, has supported the BDS movement, is effectively a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and encouraged rewriting the party platform to oppose the Israeli “occupation.” Now, with the support of party eminences like Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and Elizabeth Warren, Jewish groups including the ADL and J Street, and despite the opposition of the Obama White House, he may oversee the Democratic Party into the future.

Despite bland reassurances from Ellison and others that he supports a two state solution to the Arab Israeli conflict, there is every reason to believe he will continue his hostility towards Israel and spread it through the party. More broadly, however, Ellison’s ascent is another sign that Jews and their concerns no longer have a central place in the cultural and political calculus of the Democratic Party.

The marriage of Democrats and Jews has long been one-sided; Jews, in thrall to the impression that the Democrats reflect their values and answer their needs, have been singularly reliable supporters, while Democrats have learned that Jews will support them almost regardless of actual policy, provided the impression is maintained that ‘Democratic’ values are ‘Jewish’ values.

Democratic legislators for decades have indeed been strong supporters of Jewish concerns: Democratic presidents less so. But the elision of progressive and Jewish values has been destructive to the latter; politics is not religion, and Democratic policies cannot be subsumed under an all-purpose certification of tikkun olam. Whether Republicans have been more supportive both of Israel and traditional Jewish values on a moral rather than political basis is another question.

Democrats have long operated on the inverse of the famous James Baker dictum of ‘fuck the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway;’ Jewish (like African American) votes are confidently taken for granted. This assumption has permitted Democrats to expand constituencies and redefine policies, and leave old constituents behind. Their approach is a kind of replacement theology: immigrants, both legal and more importantly illegal, and minorities have been prioritized in order to construct a permanent Democratic majority.

Two groups have pride of place: Hispanics (for obvious demographic reasons), and Muslims. Following the explicit lead of President Obama the Democratic Party and its many propaganda organs have constructed a new narrative of Muslims as hardworking immigrants who seek only freedom but who are beset by innate American racism and discrimination.

Victimology is the longstanding Democratic default mode, but in the 21st century it cannot be applied to anyone besides Muslims, global persecution of Christians be damned. This reflects the passionate self-loathing by a wide swath of post-Baby Boomers, dripping with post-colonial guilt, who identify with anyone so long as they are not Christian, including persecutors. This is also the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, steeped in authoritarianism (provided it is ostensibly aimed at ‘social justice,’) and suspicious of other Americans and hence democracy.

That Jews have a specific place in the new party calculus – as ‘fellow progressives’ and funders and not as a successful American minority group – is unsurprising. They are expected to shut up, get out of the way, and keep opening their pockets while a new favored minority is given deference. With an opportunistic eye on the horizon the Democratic Party has read the projections that see American Muslims reaching numerical parity with Jews before mid-century, and it has realigned accordingly.

American Muslims are, according to polls, far from progressive in terms of attitudes toward gender, including LGBTQ issues, reproductive freedom, free speech and religious liberty. This is apparently irrelevant to the Democrats. So, too, is the domination of the community’s organizations, from local mosques to national groups, by the Muslim Brotherhood. And, if anything, the one issue that has united the diverse American Muslim community since the 1920s is antipathy toward Zionism and Israel. They do, however, tend to believe that government should be larger and provide more services, a core Democratic goal.

The Democratic abandonment of the Jews has few short-term impacts; some 70% of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Their abandonment of the white working class was far more consequential and destructive. But with the evisceration of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of progressives like Ellison, Warren, and Sanders the party has decided to move still further away from traditional constituencies and concerns.

The Ellison nomination will swing the Democrats further to the left, in the direction of the British Labour Party — the party of immigrants, minorities, and socialists. Ellison will give both socialists and antisemites ample space to promote their views. This might marginalize the party nationally, and Jews inside the party, but is unlikely to shift overall Jewish (or African American) support in the short-term. The larger Obama/Podesta project of splitting Jews from legacy organizations like AIPAC, through the creation of J Street and the takeover of others like the ADL, the creation of the Iran deal echo chamber, and more broadly from Israel, has been successful. Ellison’s candidacy, however, highlights the dark underside.

But in the longer term demography is destiny. Democrats have identified another minority as their showcase, and this will shift politics inside the party, and at every level of government, against Israel. For American Jews it is a lose-lose situation. If Ellison is wins, the party will have taken another huge step away from Jews and Israel; if he is defeated, the Jews will be blamed. Either way, party progressives win.

The alternative for American Jews to not to blindly vote for the Republican Party but to calmly assess the power they have and use it, individually and communally, for their own interests and the nation’s. For 80 years Jews have slavishly followed the Democrats: such devotion is religious and emotional, not political. That most American Jews are shocked and adrift amidst the resurgence of ‘nationalism’ and remain committed to rapidly retreating internationalist paradigms reflects poor strategic skills. British Jews have had an equally rude awakening from the massive outpouring of antisemitism from the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Abandonment of European Jews by the Continent’s left shows the terminal results of blind faith in political parties.

Adjusting to affluence and influence has deprived Jews of important lessons, which will inevitably be relearned. Political parties are not religious denominations, votes are not acts of devotion, and cold pragmatism remains the essence of politics. American Jews should examine the experience of their global counterparts for lessons about how quickly things turn, and how rapidly communities must respond. Signs and portents, like the notion of Keith Ellison taking over the DNC, should not be ignored.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.