The American Left & Israel

Everything you need to know about the American left and Israel

Part of: Alma's Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

What is the relationship between liberal Americans and Israel? What do the Democratic frontrunners for the 2020 presidential election think? What does AOC think?! Let’s dive in.

Jewish voters and the Democratic party

The majority of American Jews vote Democrat, voting disproportionately liberal since the late 1920s.

As Professor Samuel Shorstein explained to the Washington Post, “We expect most affluent people to favor the party of the right. As a group, even allowing for individual differences, American Jews rank at or near the top on most measures of social class — education, income, occupational prestige and such. That makes their commitment to the Democratic party and liberal values puzzling.”

But it’s not puzzling when you break it down.

Break it down!

Actually, we’ll let Jewish pollster Harry Enten do that for us, thanks to his article “Why Jewish Americans vote Democratic”:

First, Enten explains, the most important determining factor of voting pattern is partisan affiliation. If you identify as a Democrat, you are likely to vote Democratic. And 70% of American Jews self-identify as members of the Democratic party — compared with just 49% of the general American public.

Two, they identify as liberal (though they identify less as liberal as you move along the religious spectrum, from Reform to Orthodox). Why liberal? Enten writes, “The reason American Jews are liberal is because they tend to sympathize with the less fortunate and with minorities.” Indeed, “Jews sound a lot more like a minority when it comes to discrimination than one might expect from a group of people who are mostly white.” The roots of these liberal values? Most likely the Jews’ history of persecution, Enten argues.

“When you put it all together, Jewish voters are Democratic for a reason. They believe in the party’s liberal ideology, and identify with its core values. They will not be swayed by Republican attempts to switch allegiances, because on the key issue on which the GOP (partly under Evangelical influence) highlights — diehard support for Israel — just doesn’t impress Jews much. They don’t view Israel as essential to their political allegiances in the United States, and even if they did, they think Democratic policy is just fine.”

Thanks, Harry Enten!

Okay. Back up. So liberal Jews don’t care about Israel?

No, we didn’t say that — many just don’t prioritize it when they’re voting. Many may not, say, vote for a candidate who called for the destruction of Israel — but Israel issues don’t rank at the top of the list of what matters most to them.

But still: What is the liberal position on Israel?

Great question. Let’s first talk mainstream Democratic views on Israel — then the new progressive left, headed by politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Alright. What is the mainstream liberal position on Israel?

Generally, strong support for Israel, especially among Democratic members of Congress. It is true that Congressional Democrats are increasingly willing to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians, and supported the Obama administration’s Iran deal (despite Netanyahu’s dire warnings). But most Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly support the existence of a Jewish state and continued U.S. military assistance to Israel, and oppose terrorist attacks against Israel and attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state through BDS and other efforts.

Similarly, there is widespread support in the Democratic 2020 presidential field for basic pro-Israel pillars such as U.S. military assistance and increasingly harsh criticisms of Netanyahu.

Anyhoo, as our favorite Harry Enten points out, “For the better part of the past two decades, the establishment wings of both the Republican and Democratic Party have largely been pro-Israel. Both parties have, at least in their party platforms, maintained pro-Israel positions, including calls to recognize Jerusalem as the Jewish nation’s capital.”

Yet, Democrats are less pro-Israel than they’ve been in decades.

What changed?

As JTA explains, “Polls show that younger Democrats are more likely to be critical of Israel’s current government, and even Zionism in general, than the Democratic establishment. Centrist Democrats insist that the party is still solidly pro-Israel, but both Republicans and Israel’s harshest critics insist that [Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan] Omar represents the ‘new normal’ for Democratic voters and politicians. Many Democrats assert that you can still be pro-Israel and criticize the Israeli government, but they increasingly feel caught in the middle.”

Essentially, Democrats are becoming gradually more critical of Israel. Basically, that’s because Israel has been led for a decade and counting by Benjamin Netanyahu, an increasingly right-wing prime minister who shows no intention of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and control over millions of Palestinians — and frequently clashed with President Barack Obama. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian activists have ramped up efforts to expand their influence on the left.

Via Pew Research Center

There’s lots more fun graphs here.

Which brings us to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez…

…and the rest of the wave of young progressive Democrats elected in the 2018 midterm elections.

“A cluster of activist Democrats — most of them young, most of them cruising toward House seats this fall — has dared to breach what has been an almost inviolable orthodoxy in both political parties, strong support for Israel, raising the specter of a crack in the Democratic Party that Republicans could use to attract Jewish supporters,” reported the New York Times in October.

It’s important to note, in the 2018 midterm elections, 75% of Jews still voted Democrat, which is to say, despite any changes in Democratic support for Israel, the Jewish American voting record has mostly stayed the same. As JTA reported, “Jewish voters’ strong preference for Democrats was driven by their disapproval of President Trump, and their blaming him, specifically, for helping influence the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue two weeks ago, said Jim Gerstein, GBA’s pollster. Seventy-five percent of Jewish voters disapprove of Trump, versus 25 percent who approve, and 72 percent of Jewish voters hold Trump very or somewhat responsible for the Pittsburgh shooting, in which 11 people died.”

Via Pew Research Center

Okay, but you promised to tell me what AOC thinks about Israel.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is more known for her domestic policy positions than foreign policy ones. However, she’s been an outspoken critic of the occupation and advocates for the two-state solution. In May 2018, she critiqued the Israel Defense Forces for their use of deadly force at the Gaza border (see our explainer on those protests here). One of her new progressive colleagues, Rashida Tlaib, endorsed a one-state solution and BDS. (“It has to be one state,” she said. “Separate but equal does not work.”)

While we’re here, what went down with Ilhan Omar?

That’s a whole can of worms. See here.

Does the left have an anti-Semitism problem?

Great question! See intersectionality and the Israeli-Palestinian debate.