A Political Crisis of Conscience
In the wake of the publication of the Democratic National Committee's 2012 party platform, which omits four major pro-Israel statements embraced in its 2008 platform, many Jewish Democrats are now confronting a new political crisis of conscience: how to balance a range of important social concerns with a concern for the future well-being and survival of the State of Israel.
In 2008, when President Obama was first running for the White House, the DNC platform called Israel America's "strongest ally in the region;" insisted that Hamas be isolated "until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel's right to exist, and abides by past agreements;" limited the Palestinian right of return to the new Palestinian state, expressly excluding any Palestinian right of return to Israel; and stated unequivocally that "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel" which "should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths." None of these four pro-Israel points survive in the 2012 DNC platform.
A firestorm of criticism in some sectors of the Jewish community has erupted in response to these glaring omissions in the Israel plank of the DNC platform. But there is an underlying political reality emerging in the controversy, a political reality that has profound implications traditional political patterns in the Jewish community.
It is becoming more and more evident that most American Jews are entrenched in their party affiliations and are virtually immune to any argument from the opposing side, however reasoned the argument might be. As is sadly the case on the American scene in general, there are Jewish Democrats who romanticize President Obama and there are Jewish Republicans who demonize him. And never the twain shall meet.
In a recent [August 24, 2012] issue of The Jewish Week, editor Gary Rosenblatt writes a detailed description of three addresses delivered last month by one of America's leading pro-Israel analysts, Dennis Ross, to a group of very wealthy Jews in Aspen, Colorado. One of the points Rosenblatt quotes Ross, a Democrat, as making is that a president should not be judged by emotions as much as dedication to Israel's security; and that President Obama's acts in defense of Israel have been "unprecedented."
Ross' judgment echoes statements made this year by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, by Israeli President Shimon Peres, and by Israel's US Ambassador Michael Oren--all of whom praise President Obama for his expanding US military aid, for his support of the Iron Dome, for his rescue responses during the Israeli Embassy crisis in Egypt, and for his unprecedented speech in defense of Israel at the United Nations during the Palestinian Authority's bid for statehood.
When I asked the DNC why it chose to omit the extremely pro-Israel statements that were in its 2008 platform, Marie Harf, a DNC campaign spokesperson familiar with the foreign policy planks of the platform explained that the 2012 party platform focuses on President Obama's "unprecedented record" of support for the State of Israel and reiterated the DNC position that the platform makes clear that "the President seeks peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and that he firmly believes that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel's right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements."
When I asked Ms. Harf why the President's record could not simply have been added to the pro-Israel statements that were in the 2008 platform, Ms. Harf only observed that "Nobody can read that platform and come away thinking the President has been anything less than a steadfast supporter of Israel--as his record of unprecedented support for our ally over the past three and a half years shows."
For many in the Democratic party, Jews and non-Jews, there is no reason to question the President's fidelity to Israel.
However, nothing about the presidential record seems to matter to American Jews who feel President Obama did unprecedented harm to the State of Israel in his pro-Muslim address at Cairo University where he limited the rationale for a Jewish state to the Holocaust, in his citing Israeli settlements as the major obstacle to peace and insisting on a total building freeze in every West Bank community (including East Jerusalem), and in a notorious interchange with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House during which the President reportedly disrespected the prime minister (though others who claim they were there at time dispute that account).
These views should neither be trivialized nor dismissed by Jews who support the President for they flow out of a very real and legitimate concern.
The reason President Obama's actions are so upsetting to many American Jews is that as much as Israel needs the kind of on-the-ground support that the Obama administration has given Israel, the greatest danger many Jews see facing Israel today is an existential threat to Israel's survival.
The BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement is real. There is a concerted global effort to delegitimize the Jewish State. Iran is currently ruled by Islamic fanatics who fantasize about wiping Israel off the map. And many Jews are convinced there remains an Arab mentality with the Palestinian leadership bent on Israel's total destruction.
Any American statement or change in US posture that can be seen as undermining Israel's strength in the Middle East, or can be interpreted as a weakening of the US commitment to Israel as its strongest ally, is seen as emboldening the Palestinian leadership's determination to eliminate the "Zionist entity" on sovereign Muslim soil.
This is a real divide within the American Jewish community. There are those Jews who truly fear for the very existence of the State of Israel and there are those Jews who do not. And both Jewish views exist among Jewish Democrats--creating a new crisis of conscience among Jewish Democrats for whom the survival of the State of Israel is the transcending issue.
It is reasonable to assume that the DNC realizes that the majority of American Jews for whom Israel is of paramount importance have already abandoned President Obama and nothing they do is going to win them back in 2012. On the other hand, the actual number of such American Jews is relatively small within the overall American Jewish community.
That may be painful for many American Jews who care deeply about Israel to hear, but it is the simple truth. The American Jewish community traditionally leans liberal and votes Democratic. In 2008, more than 75 percent of the Jewish community voted for Barack Obama and most experts believe the number will be somewhere around 70 percent in this election.
But the greater Jewish political reality is that the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not place Israel at the top of their personal concerns. Fewer than 40% of American Jews have ever visited Israel. The vast majority of American Jews are more devoted to "liberal causes" (a woman's right to choose an abortion, gay rights, the environment) than they are to "Jewish" concerns and the well-being of the State of Israel. And many liberal Jews who are also committed to Israel often have strong disagreements with what they perceive to be Israel's "right leaning" power elite (including Prime Minister Netanyahu) while applauding President Obama for putting pressure on the Israeli government to stop settlement growth, to end what they see as an oppressive occupation and to make the necessary concessions that would bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table to implement a two-state solution.
For the overwhelming majority of liberal-minded American Jews, Romney's pro-Israel rhetoric does not outweigh his conservative negatives. Even in a swing state with a significant Jewish population such as Florida, the President will still most likely have the necessary Jewish majority to capture the states electoral votes.
In essence, the DNC platform speaks loudly and clearly to its overwhelmingly liberal base promising that while President Obama remains committed to the State of Israel, he is also prepared to pressure Israel in directions the Administration deems best for US. Middle East interests, as well as what it considers to be in both Israel's and the Palestinian's interests.
The problem, therefore, is not for the Democratic party; rather, the problem is for a small but significant number of traditional Jewish Democrats for whom their Jewish identity in general, and their profound worry for the very survival of the Jewish Israel in particular, is of overwhelming importance.
For these traditional Jewish Democrats, there is a clear crisis of conscience. As important as are the social issues of abortion, gay rights, the environment, universal health care, and programs to protect and educate those in need, there is yet a more overriding concern: combating the growing reemergence of European anti-Semitism that threatens to devour Jewish communities in western Europe and threatens the enormous Jewish "family" residing in Israel which increasingly is facing political, if not physical, annihilation.
In the end, this is the dilemma emerging from the changes in the Israel plank of the 2012 DNC platform, one that will plague some Jewish Democrats until election night, when their visit to the voting booth will be their ultimate moment of truth.
Rabbi Mark S. Golub
President & Executive Producer