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How to Keep Bipartisan Support for Israel Strong

The House of Representatives Building and the East Portico of the US Capitol. Photo: Flickr.

Over the last year, much of the political rancor involving the US-Israel relationship was focused on the presidential race. Yet historiographical evidence reveals that Congress plays an extremely important role in the US-Israel relationship.

In 1981, an intense lobbying effort on the part of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) helped convince the Reagan administration to abandon an $8.5 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that included five Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) planes. As a result, the House voted to block the sale by a vote of 301-111, and while the Senate eventually approved the transaction, their approval only came after increased assurances on the part of the Reagan administration that Israel’s security would not be compromised.

Decades later, the Obama administration’s refusal to exercise its veto power during the passage of UN Resolution 2334 was met with a swift rebuke from Congress. In its statement of opposition to the US abandoning its longstanding policy of supporting Israel at the UN, the House of Representatives condemned the administration’s actions by a vote of 342-80.

Until recently, Congressional support for Israel has been largely immune to the expansive partisan divide plaguing the rest of the country. Recent political trends show that both parties have begun to politicize the issue — and the election of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Georgia to the US Senate, reinforce a declining clarity regarding bipartisan Congressional support for Israel (though Warnock says he is a supporter of Israel).

In an article in Mosaic magazine titled “What American Jews Can Do To Keep Herzl’s Dream Alive,” former Senator Joe Lieberman writes:

These days, many are worried that bipartisan American support for Israel is collapsing. “Collapse” is too strong a word. But there are indeed places on the political spectrum where support for Israel is clearly diminishing and storm clouds are gathering.

The appropriation of funds to Israel is perhaps the most crucial way Congress expresses its support for Israel. Threatening to undo decades of US policy towards Israel — as evidenced by recent calls to condition foreign assistance to Israel by several Democratic Senators — challenges that history and reaffirms the sentiments expressed by Senator Lieberman.

In July 2019, the House passed H.Res.246, which condemned the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and also endorsed a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What hardly seems like a controversial show of support for Israel passed the House by a vote of 398-17. There were also five members who regarded this piece of legislation with some ambivalence and abstained. Out of the 21 Democrats who voted “no” or “present,” 14 had been elected within the last 12 years.

Comparatively, in 2006, H.Res.921, which expressed solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism, passed the House by a vote of 410-8, with four abstentions and with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) casting the only Republican “no” vote.

Although the 2019 vote was still beyond overwhelming, there are some signs of ebbing support.

The ability of Senator-elect Warnock to whitewash his incendiary comments about Israel is troubling. And even following his statements of friendship, he continued to welcome the support of  anti-Israel lawmakers such as Omar and Tlaib, as well as activist Linda Sarsour.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), which “actively promotes policy consistent with socially progressive, pro-Israel, Jewish community values,” endorsed his candidacy, while nearly 200 rabbis and cantors issued a letter defending Warnock against the “false and divisive slander entering our community.”

Our community is also miscalculating how this type of charitableness directed at candidates who have espoused anti-Israel views threatens to undermine relationships with those who speak out on behalf of Israel.

Several Democratic senators, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) bucked their party’s position in 2015 regarding the Iran deal and stood steadfast in their opposition to the flawed accord.

And progressive assumptions regarding Israel were also quickly dispelled when Ritchie Torres (D-NY), a young star within the left-wing of the party who has traveled to Israel twice told the The New York Post: “The act of singling out Israel as BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement) has done is the definition of discrimination.”

The cultural and demographic shifts within our country will likely be reflected in the rise of progressive lawmakers like Torres, and it is critical that they understand how vital the US-Israel alliance is to our community and our country.

It’s important to note, however, that Torres says he knew very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or BDS before he was attacked for planning to visit Israel; afterwards, he said, he did his own investigating, and became an even stronger supporter of the Jewish state — and an opponent of BDS.

This shows that the answer is first, not to abandon our values and priorities in order to curry favor with some politicians; second, it shows the importance of engaging with those who may not be inclined to support Israel and try to educate them, rather than casting them aside as “anti-Israel” and enemies to be fought. For some, like Omar and Tlaib, that is going to be the case. But if we leave those who don’t know much on the subject to Omar and Tlaib’s influence, the trends in support of Israel in the Democratic party are likely to deteriorate further.

Further, throughout Jewish history, it was often the actions on the part of the dedicated minority who effectuated change. Nowhere is this more evident than in examining President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress’ refusal to allow European Jews to enter the United States in the early 1940s. While rabbi Stephen Wise, who was President of the American Jewish Congress, did not push Roosevelt nearly far enough on the subject — a young Jew by the name of Peter Bergson (also known as Hillel Cook, nephew of Rabbi Avraham Cook) protested government negligence by engaging directly with American Jewry and their representatives in Congress.

As a result of Bergson’s efforts along with others, and his ability to work with both sides of the aisle, the War Refugee Board (WRB) was established and the Roosevelt administration was forced to take greater action.

As American Jews, we have a collective responsibility to continue Bergson’s legacy by thinking beyond our own Congressional districts and partisan lines by advocating for lawmakers whose policies reflect what is best for our community. And as for Senator-elect Warnock and others like him who have spent years disparaging Israel, a healthy dose of pragmatism and intellectual honesty on our part wouldn’t hurt.

Irit Tratt is a freelance writer whose pieces have appeared in The Algemeiner, The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel (blogs).

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