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Will Rising Criticism Of Israel Help Jewish Democrats — Or Hurt Them?

The escalating conflict in the Middle East has spurred liberal Democrats to take a much more critical tone on Israel — but it’s unclear whether the shift will galvanize the progressive base or dampen enthusiasm among more moderate Jewish voters.

More than a dozen senators, including Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein, signed a letter describing the situation in Gaza as a “humanitarian crisis” and calling for the State Department to help alleviate the Israeli blockade on the strip. The move was applauded as overdue by many on the left, but could cause some Jews who are more supportive of the Israeli government to head to the right.

“I see it among traditionally observant Jews,” Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations told the Forward. “That trend may just be growing [if there are] increasing criticisms and wobbly support among Democrats for Israel.”

Abrams, who served as deputy national security advisor under President George W. Bush, said polls show a growing partisan divide in the U.S., which may embolden more Democrats to criticize Israel.

“If that’s true, I expect some Jewish Democrats to move toward the Republican Party,” he said. But he added that Jewish Democratic dislike of President Trump “will delay any such move.”

Other advocates agreed that Democrats appeared to be shifting their stance on Israel, but thought the Jewish liberal base — even those who are more supportive of the Israeli government — will remain galvanized, at least for now, because of their dislike of the president.

“Jews will vote in overwhelming numbers for Democrats, considering we don’t take them granted,” said former Bill Clinton aide Steve Rabinowitz. “Jews vote Democratic — they just do. Donald Trump isn’t making it different; certainly not with an embassy move.”

J Street director of communications Logan Bayroff agreed that the responses to the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the violence in Gaza would not dampen liberal Jewish voter enthusiasm ahead of the midterms.

“Republicans or anyone stained with Trump’s foreign policy are not going to be popular with American Jews,” he said.

Indeed, an overwhelming number of American Jews still identify as center-left, with 76% of the community saying they were moderate to liberal, according to a September 2017 American Jewish Committee poll.

The study also showed only 16% supported an immediate embassy move, while 80% either opposed it or said it should be done at a later date in conjunction with peace talks.

But a relatively large number, 40%, said they approved of Trump’s handling of U.S.- Israel relations, while 54% opposed, signaling a closer split over how forceful America should be in its criticisms of the Jewish state and an area where Trump and the Republicans could court more pro-Israeli-government Jewish voters.

While a wide-scale shift to the right among voters who support and prioritize Israel may be delayed in the age of Trump, small changes could affect the outcome of an otherwise close race. In Pennsylvania, for example, a high-profile Democrat is facing criticism within the Jewish community over the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

A charitable foundation run by Scott Wallace, the Democratic nominee in a swing district in a heavily-Jewish suburban district near Philadelphia gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that promote BDS. Wallace says that he opposes BDS, but questions are likely to remain.

“It might cost him the election,” former Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council leader Burt Siegel told the Forward last week.

Such a shift is more likely in areas with growing Orthodox communities, experts say.

“Those more supportive of Israel are likely to be voting more Republican more frequently,” New York political insider Hank Sheinkopf told the Forward. He added that the growth of the Orthodox community, who are more likely to hold Israel policy as a central voting concern, will cause more of a split.

“[Orthodox Jews are] going to become much more Republican over time,” he said. “It’s a survival mechanism.”

The situation in Gaza could also complicate a key race in the most Jewish state in the country, New York.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo canceled a planned trip to Israel last week amidst the fighting, though his office said that he plans to return soon. Cuomo is engaged in a primary battle with Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging him from the left.

Nixon hasn’t released an official statement on the situation in Gaza, though she supported Israeli artists who boycotted a West Bank settlement in 2010.

Although state and city governments rarely have reason to debate policies toward foreign states, Sheinkopf said relations with Israel could become a more complicated political issue in New York as the Orthodox population continues to expand.

“[It’s a] pretty good guess that over the next several years, [the Jewish population of] New York City will be almost 50% Orthodox and 50% non-observant,” he said. “There’s more of a divergence.”

Contact Ben Fractenberg at [email protected] or on Twitter, @fractenberg

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