Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has often proved to be a gift that keeps giving for Democrats and a thorn in the side of fellow Republicans.
The stubbornly independent Paul’s dogmatic advocacy of libertarian ideas about governance has often thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of the Senate leadership. That proved again the case this past week.
After all the drama about U.S. funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system had already played out in the House, and both Democrats and Republicans were eager to pass the measure and then move on to other issues on which they could resume tearing each other apart. But Paul decided the issue was far from settled.
Exercising his prerogative to overturn a call for unanimous consent which would streamline the legislative process, he objected and placed a hold on the legislation to the frustration of just about everyone else on Capitol Hill.
Shots from the lobby at Paul are nothing new.
Of greater interest to the Kentucky politician, who, like most GOP office-holders depends on the backing of evangelicals to stay in office, was the way the Christians United for Israel group, and its leader Pastor John Hagee, went ballistic over the issue.
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Hagee, who heads the group that claims to be the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization said, "Senator Paul needs to stop playing games with the safety of the Israeli people."
But that anger was matched by the barely-concealed mirth of Jewish Democrats whose interest in making a meal of Paul’s grandstanding had as much to do with re-establishing a moral equivalence between the parties on Middle East issues as it did with any actual impatience with his stunt.
Democrats have been taking a beating from pro-Israel activists ever since the May conflict with Hamas, which prompted a series of exchanges on the floor of the House of Representatives in which progressives made their distaste for Israel and its policies known.
That was compounded by the embarrassment suffered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who was outwitted by members of her own caucus last month when she tried to slip Iron Dome funding into a House budget bill that raised the national debt limit. But since a considerable number of left-wing Democrats refused to vote for it because they oppose Israel, she had to withdraw it.
Two days later and after a torrent of criticism for being outmaneuvered by members of the so-called "Squad," the House leadership submitted Iron Dome as a separate measure.
Determined to both answer the claims that their party had turned on Israel and to reassert control of their caucus on a budget issue on which freelancing is considered highly dangerous, Pelosi and her team struck back. Using all the considerable leverage and powers of intimidation at their disposal, the whip was cracked and even most progressives fell in line.
In the end, only nine House members voted against Iron Dome, a total that included eight left-wingers and one Republican, fellow Kentucky libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie.
Even the ringleader of the Squad, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) felt the pressure and, at the last minute, tearfully changed her vote from "no" to "present." Though AOC subsequently apologized for a decision for what she described as insufficiently supportive of the Palestinians and critical of Israel, the lesson was learned.
Further burnishing the honor of House Democrats was the speech of Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) who accused another Squad member — Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) of antisemitism for spreading the "apartheid state" lie about Israel.
So when Sen. Paul stopped the Senate’s approval of Iron Dome in its tracks, Democrats felt vindicated. It's not surprising that Halie Soifer, the head of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, swiftly claimed in a tweet that Paul’s actions were actually more damaging to Iron Dome funding than what House progressives had done.
Some went further than that and argued that the fact that the Democrats who tried to stop Iron Dome were criticized with greater heat and with charges of antisemitism while Paul was, at least by comparison, let off with a slap on the wrist. They said that showed how distorted the debate about Israel has become.
Despite the attention given the Squad and its allies, some liberals contended that these events proved that not only was the bipartisan consensus on Israel holding but that any arguments that aimed at showing a real difference between the parties on the Jewish state was misinformation.
But while the Democrats had a point about the damage Paul was doing, the attempt to assert a moral equivalence on Israel inside the two parties is simply untrue. If pro-Israel activists are more upset at left-wing Democrats than they are at the GOP’s libertarian outliers, they have good reason for thinking that way.
Though it’s easy to lose perspective in the heat of political debate, the truth remains that the two parties have largely swapped identities over the last 60 years.
Where once the GOP was split between those who were sympathetic to the Jewish state and a much larger faction that was indifferent or hostile to it, today it is a virtually lockstep pro-Israel party. Most have views on the conflict with the Palestinians that fit in somewhere between the Likud and even more right-wing Israelis like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Even dissenters like Paul and Massie, who oppose aid to Israel, do so on the basis of their opposition to all foreign aid and, will, if asked, speak of their admiration for Israel.
By contrast, the Democrats, who could a generation or two ago, claim to be the home of pro-Israel opinion, are badly split on the issue. A significant portion of its left-wing base looks at Israel through the prism of intersectionality and critical race theory and believe it to be a manifestation of white privilege whose stance toward the Palestinians is no different from that of racists in the Jim Crow south in the pre-Civil Rights era.
Their dissent against the Iron Dome was merely the tip of an iceberg that betrays a growing hostility toward Israel that even some who claim to be Israel’s supporters — like the left-wing J Street lobby — are quick to note when they claim that right-wing Israeli policies are alienating Americans.
Among the grassroots activists on the left there is considerable sympathy for the BDS movement as well as for views such as that of Tlaib, who views Israel’s existence as illegitimate. Though many Democrats disagree and are enthusiastic backers of a two-state solution that now seems more utopian than practical, there is no disguising the fact that, thanks to the increased support for intersectionality on the left, there is a real divide in the party between its establishment members and the Squad as well as many of the members of the 100-strong Progressive Caucus in the House on Zionism.
Even more troublesome is the fact that this divide seems to be largely generational, both among the activists and in the House, where the contrast between AOC and her allies and the octogenarians who still run the House leadership is too obvious to miss.
Given the popularity of the former among both the Democrats’ cheering section in the mainstream press, and, more crucially, the late night comedy shows, where people like Ilhan Omar, Tlaib and AOC are treated like rock stars, it’s not irrational to worry that, the recent vote notwithstanding, the left represents the party’s future.
And although few pro-Israel activists are willing to say so publicly, most will admit in private that Rand Paul had a point. Israel is strong and rich enough that it ought to begin to wean itself from the constraints of American military aid, even if most of the money is spent in the United States.
While his proposal that Iron Dome be funded out of the allocation of foreign aid to Afghanistan now that it has fallen to the Taliban is a non-starter in legislative terms, it’s easy to sympathize with it and hardly equivalent to the kind of vicious libels being put about by the left about Israel’s efforts to silence Hamas terrorist missile and rocket fire.
While the Kentucky senator gave Jewish Democrats a good talking point, that doesn’t make up for the fact that a lot of liberals now buy into the arguments that falsely characterize Zionism as a form of racism.
Rather than seeking to pretend that the actions of two neo-isolationist libertarians who are allergic to spending taxpayer money on anything are just as bad as the anti-Zionism and antisemitism that has found a home on the left, Jewish Democrats need to follow Deutch’s example and concentrate their efforts on winning back their party from an increasingly influential faction that makes no secret about its disdain for Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin