PHILADELPHIA — A brief mention at a Jewish gathering on July 26 demonstrated how fast and dramatic the fall was for the Democrat Party’s top Jewish official.
“I’d like to applaud Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler said as he opened his speech at a Jewish roundtable discussion on the sidelines of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. But thanks to the damaging leak of thousands of internal party emails, instead of the automatic round of applause, the room fell silent. Just a handful of the more than 200 Jewish activists present clapped in support.
In many ways, Wasserman Schultz embodied the enormous influence that American Jews have within the Democratic Party. A Jew with deep communal involvements, she was a key pillar of support for the mainstream pro-Israel lobby in Congress and within the party. As both chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a member of Congress sitting on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations — a panel that votes on all major government expenditures — Wasserman Schultz was at the nexus of U.S. policy, politics and political fundraising in a way that few others matched.
Still, in the wake of her fall, most Jewish Democrats dismissed that it portended any decrease in American Jewry’s strong presence in the party as politicians, activists and donors.
“Jews and the Democratic Party? We have no problem,” New York City Council member David Greenfield said. “People don’t think of it in that way in the Democratic Party.”
Until just before the Philadelphia convention began, Wasserman Schultz was supposed to be the busiest person in it. But instead of running the Democratic Party’s biggest show, she was nowhere to be found. Keeping a low profile after she was forced out of her position as chair of the DNC following a WikiLeaks email hack, Wasserman Schultz refrained from attending public events and avoided the media.
Her departure left the community with mixed feelings: sympathy for the plight of a well-appreciated Jewish politician who had successfully combined Jewish communal involvement with local and national politics, alongside anger at her conduct as DNC chair and relief at her decision to step down.
“I think it’s unfair that she’s gone, but this is a difficult situation that could have created a distraction,” said Marc Stanley, former chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “For her sake, I’m glad she’s not the punching bag for the rest of the week.”
On July 25, a group of Wasserman Schultz’s supporters, many of them prominent Jewish backers from southern Florida, threw a lunch in her honor. It was a welcome respite from recent days’ turmoil, and it came only hours after she got booed in a breakfast meeting with her own state delegation.
“People wanted to show their appreciation,” one participant at the event said. “Some of them felt bad that she had to take the fall” for the DNC being biased against the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and in favor of Hillary Clinton during the primary season.
But others felt it was not a minute too soon.
According to press reports, John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign, asked for Wasserman Schultz’s removal months ago but was blocked by President Obama, who did not want to draw negative attention to the party.
“Leaving her [in place] would have created a distraction,” said Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish progressive organization focused on domestic policy. “It’s important that this convention and this moment not be sidetracked by the unfortunate circumstance that led to the departure of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.”
Instead, Wasserman Schultz was kicked out of her post as chair a week after a WikLeaks dump of 3,000 emails from DNC staff members revealed an ingrained and institutionalized bias within the committee, which was supposed to be neutral, against Sanders.
Especially damning was an email suggesting that Sanders’s religious beliefs could be raised to weaken his support among Christian voters. The email proposed putting out the idea that Sanders, a Jew who does not actively participate in Jewish communal life, is an atheist.
This specific email “really turned my stomach, and I don’t want that type of mentality,” Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen said. The Jewish congressman from Memphis called for the firing of DNC staffers behind the offensive email, saying they “crossed the line.”
Facing mounting pressure, and after speaking to Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Clinton, Wasserman Schultz announced her resignation July 24, less than 24 hours before she was scheduled to gavel in the party’s national convention. Sanders had demanded her firing for months, claiming that under Wasserman Schultz, the party did not maintain impartiality and could not appeal to progressives and liberals.
Wasserman Schultz represented a strongly pro-Israel line within the Democratic Party that objects to American pressure on Israel over its conflict with the Palestinians and puts much of the blame for lack in progress toward peace on the Palestinian side. This was one of the points of contention between the DNC and Sanders, who tried to push the party to adopt a platform that acknowledges the rights of Palestinians.
At the end of the process, the Clinton-DNC line prevailed, leaving most of the platform plank on Israel untouched. The committee in charge of the party’s platform rejected attempts to refer to Israel’s rule over the West Bank as an “occupation,” or to criticize Israel’s policies of expanding the presence of exclusively Jewish settlements there.
“Look at the final result of the platform language,” Clinton’s Jewish outreach director Sarah Bard, told a supporter who expressed concerns over a perceived leftward tilt on the issue of Israel.
For Jewish Democrats preparing for the general election, the need to move past the email scandal and mend fences with Sanders was urgent, as they presented what they see as a real danger to the community if Democrats lose the elections and Donald Trump becomes the next president. “He is so far away from the norm,” Colorado Rep. Jared Polis said at a Jewish roundtable discussion, referring to Trump. “It should be scary not only to the Jewish community but to all Americans.”
Polis, like other Jewish Democrats, is pinning his hopes on Jews on the other side of the political divide taking a principled position against their candidate. “We have a unique opportunity with our Republican brothers and sisters to ensure they don’t support this nominee,” he said. “This nominee is beyond the pale.”
While most focused on the Democratic inner debate that flared up following the email disclosure, some looked at the motivation behind WikiLeaks’ decision to publish the leaks on the eve of the Democratic convention and at the potential involvement of the Russian government in hacking the DNC email accounts.
While the Obama administration was investigating a link to the Russian government, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called on Russia to hack more of Clinton’s emails.
WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, made no secret of his hope that, by damaging Democratic party unity, the email leak will harm Clinton, whom he views as a personal foe and a “problem for freedom of the press.” He also cited Clinton’s foreign policy positions, excoriating her as “a liberal war hawk.”
Some were left wondering if Clinton’s adamant support for Israel was part of what Assange had in mind after WikiLeaks posted a tweet hinting that critics of the organization were Jewish. The tweet raised concerns about anti-Semitism in the group’s work.
As for Wasserman Schultz, she will return from Philadelphia to a primary race in Florida that has just become more challenging.
Her rival, progressive Democrat Tim Canova, whom Sanders endorsed, intends to file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission based on the WikiLeaks emails. According to Canova, who will face off with Wasserman Schultz on August 30, the emails allegedly show that the DNC chair used party resources for her own primary race.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.