At AIPAC, Trump Policy on Israel Divides American Jews
Anxiety was a consistent theme throughout the conference: American and Israeli leaders condemned rising anti-Semitism and consistently took shots at Representative Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democrat from Minnesota who caused an uproar over her use of anti-Semitic tropes and criticisms of Israel. Many speakers wrung their hands over the way Israel is allegedly becoming a so-called wedge issue in American politics, lamenting partisan divisions over support for the Jewish state.
And yet, the two men who have been among the greatest drivers of U.S. political division over Israel, Trump and Netanyahu, were celebrated. Inside the grand ballroom at AIPAC’s annual conference, longtime attendees and political leaders forcefully maintained that support for Israel is as strong and unifying as it has ever been. Outside the hermetic world of AIPAC, however, the American political conversation about Israel is shifting, in part because of backlash against America’s and Israel’s right-wing leaders.
In the lead-up to AIPAC’s policy conference, Republican leaders, including Trump, have been pushing the narrative that Israel and anti-Semitism might be defining issues in upcoming elections, and that American Jews might come to feel like their votes—and donor dollars—no longer belong in the Democratic Party. The president quoted a Fox News segment in a tweet, claiming that Jews are leaving the Democratic Party in a so-called Jexodus. At the conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed concern over “the growing tide of anti-Israel sentiment,” describing it as a movement that is “increasingly shaping the left’s agenda.”
Survey data and historical trends suggest that both of these arguments are tenuous. Jews overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party: 71 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, and 79 percent voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. And Democrats overwhelmingly believe Israel is an important ally of the United States: In a 2016 University of Maryland survey, 70 percent of Democrats said this is the case.
Still, Democratic leaders found themselves, yet again, on the defensive. Across the three days of the conference, party representatives sought to assure attendees that Democrats are staunchly pro-Israel, repeatedly taking thinly veiled shots at Omar’s suggestions that American support for Israel conflicts with loyalty to the United States or is motivated by money. AIPAC’s leaders were emphatic that their organization is “relentlessly bipartisan,” which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi later echoed: “Support for Israel in America is bipartisan and bicameral,” she said, “relentlessly.”
But even as American political leaders forcefully maintained that U.S. support for Israel hasn’t changed, they avoided addressing the incredible discomfort that many American Jews, almost all Democrats, and a wide range of self-described Israel supporters feel about Trump and Netanyahu. Many people who would count themselves among these groups believe that Trump has enabled the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States, including the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that led to the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last fall. In 2018, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that 71 percent of American Jews rate Trump’s performance as unfavorable. (Disapproval of Trump is even higher among Democrats as a whole.) And according to AJC’s survey, 57 percent of American Jews disapprove of how the president is handling U.S.-Israel relations. American attitudes toward Netanyahu are less commonly measured in polling data, but anecdotal evidence from events in recent years suggests that American attitudes toward the Israeli prime minister are cold.