The Trump administration on Monday made its latest policy move that doubled as a bid for Jewish and Evangelical Christian votes ahead of next year’s election, declaring that they would no longer consider Israeli settlements “inconsistent with international law.”
Monday’s announcement followed the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. All three moves reversed longstanding American policies toward Israel that had been held by both parties. But this latest decision is unlikely to chip away at the strong majority of Jews who consistently vote Democratic, although it might reinforce Jewish Republican allegiance.
“I’m skeptical this is going to produce much in the way of change,” University of Florida political science professor Kenneth D. Wald, who studies Jewish political attitudes, told the Forward.
The status and future of the settlements are a “longstanding, divisive debate” among American Jews, said Dov Waxman, a professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.
Indeed, Jewish religious groups issued statements on both sides of the debate. The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the nation’s largest Jewish denomination, said they were “greatly concerned” by the announcement, while the Coalition for Jewish Values, which represents over 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, wrote a letter praising Pompeo for having “righted an historic wrong and demonstrated your affinity for fairness, justice, and the Jewish People all at once.”
But just because there are split opinions does not mean that the division is 50-50, Waxman said, arguing that studies show that most American Jews oppose settlements.
That stance is not about the ins and outs of international law, he said. Rather, it comes out of concern for Israel. The opposition to settlement flows from “the view that they undermine Israel’s security and are unhelpful to the pursuit of peace.” For that reason, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s emphasis on international law in his declaration was unlikely to be persuasive to the left-leaning American-Jewish majority.
Pompeo said in his speech that the State Department’s legal ruling was “not meant to send a message” for Israel to build or expand more settlements. But Waxman predicted that that’s how American Jews would view it anyway, likely leading to further opposition to a president who has worse approval ratings from Jews than from any other religious group.
Of course, American Jews weren’t the only target of this gambit. Evangelical Christians, are often strongly pro-Israel for ideological, geostrategic and theological reasons. Despite the number of pro-Israel Orthodox Jews in the Trump administration – including United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who reportedly was crucial in pushing for the policy change – it was likely Evangelicals who were top of mind when thinking of the announcement’s domestic political implications, Wald and Waxman said. After all, they represent a much larger political bloc than American Jews do.
Still, Trump and Republican Jewish leaders have been making a concerted effort to get more voters and donors to support the man who the Republican Jewish Coalition have called the “most pro-Israel president ever.” (Full disclosure: I interned for the RJC for a college semester)
Jews are a small but valuable group to have in a politician’s corner. They’re no more than 2% of the population, but vote, donate and volunteer at a higher rate than average.
“Trump and the Republicans for some time have tried to turn Israel into a wedge issue, and put Democrats in a difficult corner,” Waxman said.
To be sure, Waxman predicted that the announcement, as part of the larger trend, could attract a small but possibly significant number of Jewish donors and voters who usually vote Democrat but would be energized by Trump’s support for Israel and dismayed that Democrats came out against the policy change and similar previous events.
But Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who studies American Jewish political behavior, wasn’t optimistic that that would be effective. Democratic politicians understand that Israel “is not necessarily the driving interest or agenda for many American Jewish voters,” he said.
Wald, the author of “The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism,” said that even among Jews who do put Israel at the top of their issue list, the settlement issue was much more complicated. Those whose esteem for Trump grew this week because of his settlement support “are already firmly in the Republican camp,” he said.
In theory, it could shore up support among Jews wavering due to Trump’s other controversies – abandoning the Kurds, further revelations of Stephen Miller’s white nationalism, the impeachment inquiry. And perhaps it could add to the Republican talking point that Democrats who oppose Trump’s policies are anti-Israel.
But because the settlements are more divisive among American Jews than, say, the status of Jerusalem, the fact that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders came out against this particular Trump move isn’t likely to change pro-Israel liberals’ opinions of them one way or another.
Even so, the fact that Trump and the Democratic candidates are now on opposite sides of yet another Israel policy question is worrisome to many Jews, Waxman said.
“The politicization and the ways in which it’s increasingly a partisan issue - even mainstream, middle-of-the-road American Jews who are very supportive of Israel are alarmed by this development,” he said.