Each presidential election cycle, the Republican Jewish establishment spends zillions of dollars to lure liberal Jews to its side. The arguments touch upon domestic policy and social issues, but the core, emotional attraction hinges on unquestioned support for Israel — the promise that Republicans alone understand the many dangers Israel faces and are far more willing than their squishy Democratic counterparts to project strength in a volatile, unfriendly world.
Extracting Jews from the Democratic fold has been an uphill challenge since Ronald Reagan was first elected president. After last night, Republican Jews may well feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain with great effort and no success, the job got that much harder.
Renegade Donald Trump appears to have swept nearly all the five states voting in this latest Super Tuesday, knocking out Marco Rubio — a favorite of many establishment Jews — and succumbing only to John Kasich in Ohio.
Trump’s ascendancy has ignited the potential implosion of the GOP as we know it. That may please many of his supporters, who’ve been burned and neglected by the party elite; it may fuel insurgents’ anger and self-righteousness; it may fill liberals with a glowing sense of schadenfreude; it may even be one for the history books.
But it’s not good for the temperature of the body politic, which is already sizzling to a dangerous degree. It is not good for those who believe that compromise is not nearly as dirty a word as the gutter talk heard in Republican debates. It does not bode well for the two-party dynamic that has defined American politics since the first Alexander Hamilton took the stage.
And it may not be good for Israel and the Jews.
Like so many of his platforms, Trump’s policy on the Israelis and the Palestinians is filled with contradictions. He vows to stay “neutral” on the conflict in order to make a deal, but such vagueness only alienates both sides. To many Jews, neutrality is a code word for getting too tough on Israel. For Palestinians, Trump’s professed love for Israel and the Jews, and his concomitant disdain for Islam and Arabs, cancels out his “neutrality” and hardly makes him an honest broker.
Trump’s refusal to pledge full allegiance to Israel, a key precept of Republican orthodoxy until now, seriously undermines Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to U.S. politics, which has been to align himself with the GOP standard-bearers. But those standards have systematically been knocked to the ground by the Trump stampede: Former House speaker John Boehner (remember him?), the one who invited Netanyahu to make his controversial and, in the end, futile speech against the Iran deal before Congress, endorsed Kasich. Will Kasich’s win in Ohio make any difference? Many GOP Jews were ready to embrace a President Rubio, now just an expensive memory. Big moneyman and Bibi backer Sheldon Adelson has stayed quiet and therefore irrelevant so far.
As Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev wrote recently: “The belief that any Republican president who will follow Obama will be better for Israel is eroding with each passing day. Faced with the Trump phenomenon, Netanyahu’s Fortress GOP strategy is collapsing like a house of cards.”
This collapse goes beyond the candidate’s rhetoric. Trump’s success has been fueled by his ability to attract white working-class voters — his beloved “poorly educated” — who are alienated from the economic and political system, many of whom have not voted in recent elections. We don’t know what their views are on Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East.
If they are drawn to Trump because of his anti-Muslim rhetoric, that may translate into support for the Jewish state. But if they are emerging from the civic wilderness to vote for Trump based on his pledge to single-handedly fix the economy and find them jobs, they may not cotton to continuing an expensive aid package to Israel and our other allies. Their xenophobia may bleed into isolationism.
We’ve seen this happen lately in France and Germany, where authoritarian politicians have stoked nativist sentiment for success at the ballot box. Will the new Trump voters fit that pattern? Who knows?
“Israel needs bipartisan support,” Shmuel Rosner wrote in yesterday’s New York Times online. “It needs stable, predictable American foreign policy. It desires candidates who sing Israel’s praises as often and as loudly as they can. Mr. Trump… offers Israel none of these.”
Americans remain largely united in their support for Israel, but the latest Gallup polling shows that Republicans are far more likely to sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians than Democrats are, by a 79%–53% margin. The softening of support is even more pronounced among younger Americans.
This might have been ripe ground for a centrist Republican with strong foreign policy credentials, but that expectation has been scrambled by Trump’s unorthodox and controversial march to the nomination.
Jewish Democrats may cheer now and in November, and their bond between the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Obama may well remain strong. But we all should be concerned about the collapse of a major political party and its destabilizing consequence at home and abroad — especially at the hands of this Republican front-runner.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.