For at least five years, pro-Israel groups who want Israel to enjoy bi-partisan support in the United States have been worried about Democrats. While evangelical Republicans are some of Israel’s most passionate supporters, young Democrats are less likely to support Israel than in past generations.
The groups have tried to reverse this trend in lots of ways: free junkets to Israel for everyone from feminists to firefighters, increased educational programming on college campuses, and new organizations like Zioness. AIPAC, the major pro-Israel lobby, has particularly emphasized the growth (or stopping the decay) of liberal support for Israel, even naming a director of progressive outreach.
On Monday, a new group was incorporated in Washington, with a flashy website, a roster of diverse and distinguished board members and a write-up in The New York Times: the Democratic Majority for Israel.
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The new group says it’s independent and distinct from AIPAC, proudly progressive where AIPAC's bipartisanship limits how far to the left it can go.
But of its 15 board members, 11 have either worked or volunteered for it, donated to it or spoken at its events. The company that made DMFI’s announcement video has long worked with AIPAC, including designing its Policy Conference app.
“For years, even before this last election, AIPAC has been discussing credibility problems with progressives at the highest level,” a pro-Israel Democrat familiar with AIPAC’s works, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely, told the Forward. “And they have been exploring the possibility of creating a Democratic group that would push AIPAC policy and fight the pro-Israel fight within the Democratic Party. That’s something they’ve been discussing for years.”
Ann Lewis, the group’s co-chair and the White House Director of Communications under President Bill Clinton, said the organization came about as a result of 18 months of discussions about how best to ensure continued support for Israel in the Democratic Party. “People who are active in AIPAC were sitting around some of those tables,” she said.
The group’s numerous institutional connections to AIPAC, one of the best-funded and most powerful outfits in Washington, were unsurprising given their shared interests, said CEO Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic pollster who has also worked for AIPAC among other Jewish groups. (Full disclosure: I interned for AIPAC for a college semester.)
AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman did not respond to questions about whether the lobby or its leaders played a role in the group’s founding.
The group may have been in the works for a while, but it launched at a moment of high anxiety for pro-Israel Democrats.
Freshmen Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first two members of Congress to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel – but the party’s congressional leadership, including the committee chairs who would actually determine the fate of Israel-related legislation, are proud supporters of the Jewish state. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, have endorsed DMFI.
“Yes, there are two Democrats who have a contrary view,” Lewis said. “There are 200-plus who are with the Democratic majority. It’s a little frustrating because those two get more press attention than everyone else combined.”
There are other mixed signals when it comes to support for Israel in the Democratic Party. Nearly all Democrats voted in favor of the Iran nuclear deal, which was vociferously opposed by the Israeli government, AIPAC and other major Jewish organizations.
DMFI leaders told the Forward that the group hopes to work in the early presidential primary states to make sure support for Israel is on the campaign agenda. They are also likely to start a political action committee and a super PAC – which would funnel campaign contributions to support pro-Israel candidates.
AIPAC’s negative reputation in many progressive spaces, which was eroded by its “apocalyptic” rhetoric against the Iran nuclear deal, could undermine the new group unless it demonstrates its independence from the lobby, the pro-Israel Democrat predicted.
“Are they going to be critical of Bibi in a way that progressives would normally be?” he asked. “That will be the proof. Is there going to be a time when they disagree with an AIPAC legislative priority?”
Mellman said the board would decide the group’s policies. “There may be some individual issues that are question marks,” he said. “I think most of us can tell the difference [between being pro-Israel and not]. But we’re very clear that being pro-Israel does not mean that you have to support the policies of any particular government.”
Because the group is so new, it hasn’t yet filed forms that would reveal its donors. Mellman said some board members have pledged contributions and promised to get others to donate.
A measure that would codify former President Barack Obama’s $38 billion military aid deal with Israel advanced in the Senate on Monday – but in a stark departure from past such votes, which are often unanimous or nearly so, only around half of the Democratic caucus voted for it, because the Republicans also attached a controversial anti-BDS bill that was backed by AIPAC but opposed on First Amendment grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union. Of all the nine senators running for president or known to be considering it, only two voted for the bill: Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado. But senators who voted no still said they supported the other elements of the bill.
That anti-BDS bill was also opposed by J Street, the left-wing Israel lobby that backed the Iran deal and is far more willing to criticize the Netanyahu government than AIPAC is. More than half of the current Democratic congressional delegation has accepted J Street’s endorsement.
“The actual Democratic majority for Israel opposes the policies that Trump and Netanyahu are pursuing — both here and in Israel — and believes our values demand speaking out for a two-state future and an end to occupation,” J Street tweeted on Tuesday.
Other groups operating in this space welcomed the new organization.
“We know that the Jewish electorate is not monolithic and cares about a lot of other issues,” not just Israel, Jewish Democratic Council of America executive director Halie Soifer told the Forward.
The leader of NORPAC, one of the largest pro-Israel political action committees that (unlike AIPAC) directly provides donations to candidates, wasn’t afraid that DMFI forming its own PAC would be duplicative or siphon away support.
“We can use as many allies as we can get,” said NORPAC president Dr. Ben Chouake. “I’m grateful that people want to throw their hat in the ring and correct an injustice and make sure the risks of anti-Semitism are minimized.”
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