Red, white and Jew: inside the US election

Red, white and Jew: inside the US election

Americans go to the polls on November 3 in one of the most crucial ballots in history. What issues are important to Jews and what impact might the result have on Israel policy?

US President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photos: Jim Watson/Saul Loeb
US President Donald Trump and Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Photos: Jim Watson/Saul Loeb

POLITICS in the United States of America has never seemed so polarised. 

On the one hand, there’s the incumbent Republican President Donald Trump, whose outlook and methods are by now well-known. Never far from controversy, America’s most unorthodox Commander-in-Chief is loved by his base and detested by moderates and the left for his uncouth manner and among other issues, what they perceive as his failure to condemn the extreme right. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party – the historical political home of the majority of America’s Jews – forms an uneasy tent between old-school moderates such as presidential challenger and former vice-president Joe Biden and an emerging far-left faction littered with representatives that have problematic views on Israel and Zionism.

As Rabbi Yonatan Sadoff of Kehilat Nitzan in Melbourne – a Minnesota native – explains, “As an American voter, it’s a complicated political climate.

“The big issues for me personally, and probably a lot of American Jews, are social justice and environmental policy,” he said.

“And that offers a dilemma – because unfortunately, usually the left is more progressive on the environment, and the right or the Republicans, oftentimes, are more favourable for Israel.”

An additional complication, he added, is that Trump is seen as being “very positive for Israel” but on the other hand, white supremacists have been emboldened under his administration. 

Donald Trump in 2019. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Indeed, race has arguably been the biggest issue in America in 2020. The killing of African American man George Floyd in May sparked a wave of demonstrations and solidarity, and sadly also violence, across the country. 

It catapulted the profile of the Black Lives Matter movement – supported by many Jews despite itself having problematic positions on Israel – to the forefront of the national conversation.

Its aftermath has also severely tested an already fractured society where opposing views on race, gender and identity are being hardened and right and left have drifted further away from the centre than ever before.

“It’s very disturbing and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be temporary,” Rabbi Sadoff said.

“This descent of public discourse and polarisation seems to be an ongoing process of degeneration.”

There are many who are quick to blame Trump for these divisions, but Rabbi Sadoff agrees it’s not so simple.

“Someone like Donald Trump never would have been elected unless there were some underlying issues plaguing American society,” he said, adding “the worst part” is people are not listening to each other. 

“They can’t hear the subtleties of different truths for different people, their different sides or perspectives on issues,” he said.

And while “it will probably be better for America if Biden were to be elected”, he said, “I don’t see things getting better immediately or him being able to solve the really deeply entrenched issues that are going on … it’s going to be hard no matter what happens.”

Joe Biden in 2016. Photo: Debbie Hill, Pool via AP

Rabbi Sadoff, who has past involvement with the America–Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), intends to vote for Biden – for environmental and social justice reasons, “but also Jewish reasons”.

“Israel is not the only Jewish issue. Jews have experienced more antisemitism during the last four years in America than in any time during my life,” he said.

“The millions of Jews living all over the world, not just in Israel, they all have to be safe. And I don’t think Jews are safer globally under a Trump government than they are under a Joe Biden government.”

MEANWHILE, a survey conducted in February this year for Jewish Advocacy group the Ruderman Family Foundation found that liberal American Jews – who make up the vast majority of the Jewish population – are feeling less connected to Israel. 

But Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney Bruce Wolpe told The AJN Israel’s security is still a top foreign policy issue for Jewish voters.

“A presidential candidate openly hostile to Israel would be very unpopular in the Jewish community,” said Wolpe, who worked with the Democrats during the first Obama term and also served on the staff of former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Echoing Rabbi Sadoff, Wolpe said most Jewish Americans “are at home” with the Democratic Party.

He added, “For all of Trump’s support for Israel, there is great disquiet in the Jewish community on his equivocation on white supremacists and their support for his presidency and re-election and, in the wake of murders of Jews in synagogues across the country, of Trump’s stand on gun rights.”

But he also noted that the President enjoys stronger support in the Orthodox Jewish community. Last week, Trump defended ultra-Orthodox Jews rioting in Brooklyn against coronavirus restrictions.

“In addition to Trump’s strong support for Israel, his conservatism on social values issues resonates strongly with them,” Wolpe said.

As for the far-left of the Democrats, the Jewish world has been closely watching figures including Senator Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish but highly critical of Israel, and the so-called Squad, a group of left-wing congresswomen. 

Its most high-profile member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently controversially withdrew from an event making the 25th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin after a backlash from pro-Palestinian activists.

Another member of the group Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American, openly supports the anti-Israel boycott movement, along with fellow representative Ilhan Omar, who last year found herself at the centre of antisemitism allegations after linking money to American political support of Israel, tweeting, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

Wolpe said disparate views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is “a long term issue that will continue to evolve” in the party.

“Muslim Americans are also coming into their own politically in electorates across the country, and they have a growing presence in the Democratic Party and in Congress,” he said.

“And the issue of Palestine and Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza is understandably extremely important to them.

“While this issue can continue to be bridged with strong support for a two-state solution … significant rifts among Democrats could emerge if Israel were to unilaterally annex land in the West Bank. This would provoke a very visible and difficult debate across the political spectrum.”

IT follows the other big unknown in this election: how will it affect American policy towards Israel and the wider Middle East region?

Should Trump prevail, we can likely expect “more of the same”, according to Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice-president for research at Washington think tank the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

“We can expect Trump to continue to maintain strong ties with the Israeli leadership, to reject Palestinian intransigence, and to foster peace between Israel and some of the peripheral Arab states,” said Schanzer, a frequent media commentator who often testifies before Congress and has written widely on the Middle East.

But he said one concern to note is that Trump “remains eager to engage with Iran at the negotiating table”, which “can go sideways rather quickly for American negotiators”. 

In terms of what we can expect from Biden’s foreign policy, Schanzer told The AJN he does not believe Sanders or the so-called Squad will have outsized influence.

“It’s the general mood of the American public that will put wind in their sails,” he said.

“This is a particularly volatile moment in American politics. Progressives have a louder voice than they would normally … but what that means in terms of foreign policy is still unclear.”

He said much of Biden’s approach will hinge on who runs his foreign policy, observing “there are still competing factions” within his camp.

“The pragmatists and progressives are jockeying for position. Who emerges stronger will likely determine the trajectory of the Biden Middle East strategy,” he said.

Schanzer said his sense is that Biden “will try to engage again with the Palestinians, in line with previous administrations that prioritised their grievances”, but could pursue such a track while simultaneously continuing Trump’s focus on peace between Israel and the wider Arab world.

Photos: Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP

Biden was Barack Obama’s vice-president, when in the last days of his administration, the latter allowed the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which called all Israeli presence over the Green Line – including East Jerusalem and the Western Wall – a “flagrant violation” of international law.

“That was the culmination of years of acrimony between Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. There is no reason to suspect that such tension would exist at the outset of a Biden term,” Schanzer explained.

As for whether a Biden administration would recommit to the JCPOA – the flawed deal brokered by Obama in an attempt to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions – Schanzer said many Democrats feel Trump “unceremoniously withdrew” from the deal but failed to replace it with another instrument to limit Tehran’s ambitions. 

In the vice-presidential debate last week, Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris – whose husband is Jewish – said the move “made America less safe”. 

But Schanzer said it is not clear if Biden will recommit, speculating that “if pragmatists win out internally”, Biden’s team would endeavour to negotiate a better deal.

Looking at the Middle East itself, he said the Palestinians and Iranians believe a Biden presidency would “be a return to the status quo ante”.

“Conversely, the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and perhaps a few others fear a Biden presidency, stemming from their fears of a return to the status quo ante, primarily because of the rather lax Obama policies on the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran,” he said. 

“Interestingly, Israelis are likely to welcome Biden if he wins. Yes, they are fearful of pro-Iran or pro-Islamist policies. And yes, they like Trump. But Biden is a known quantity from his decades of legislative service. Israelis know they can work with him.”

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