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Washington — For pro-Israel advocates, progressive Democrats have been a difficult target group. Pollsters have found that progressive voters tend to identify with the perceived underdog and often look unfavorably on strong assertions of nationalism, and these views have distanced them from the pro-Israel cause.
Though a majority in both parties heavily favors Israel over the Palestinians, there is a clear gap between Democrats and Republicans in the magnitude of this tilt. A November 2012 CNN poll, which mirrors other recent data, found that 51% of Democrats sympathize mostly with the Israelis and 16% with the Palestinians in the conflict between the two groups. This compared with 80% who favor Israel versus 5% who sympathize with the Palestinians among Republicans.
“It is a small problem that could get bigger,” said Democratic political adviser and pollster Mark Mellman, who has advised Jewish and pro-Israel organizations. He noted that polling results show that progressive Democrats holding negative views of Israel do not make up a significant portion of the party, “but you need to address problems when they are small.”
Addressing the problem includes highlighting a side of Israel rarely discussed in AIPAC settings. For example, this year’s conference featured a breakout group at which participants played up the Jewish state’s robust social safety net and its high-level public education system, two issues that many on the liberal side are struggling to improve in the United States.
Another point was Israel’s national health care system, a model that progressives here pushed for before President Obama decided to back a less ambitious approach. Activists also cited Israeli policies related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, noting that Israel has never limited service of gay men and lesbians in the military. They pointed also to representation of Arab Israelis in the Knesset (though only one has ever served as a Cabinet minister), Israel’s absorption of immigrants (although the country welcomes only Jewish immigrants) and enabling women to serve in military combat units.
Bakari Sellers is one of AIPAC’s key presenters when it comes to approaching the liberal community. The 28-year-old African-American Democrat was the youngest member of South Carolina’s state legislature. He first engaged with AIPAC as a student leader at Morehouse College, a historic black institute, and has since visited Israel and spoken at many of the lobby’s events.