Four years ago, in the summer of 2016, the Democratic National Convention witnessed a chaotic scene after hundreds of disgruntled supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, who lost that year’s Democratic nomination fight to Hillary Clinton, gathered to protest outside the convention in Philadelphia.
At one point, the angry crowd started burning an Israeli flag, creating an image that the opposing campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump was happy to use in election materials for weeks afterwards.
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Fast forward to 2020, and this year’s Democratic National Convention had nothing close to those levels of drama, anger and tension. The convention this year, which will wrap up on Thursday night, was held entirely virtually because of the COVID-19 crisis, so there was no place for anyone to protest. For supporters of Israel within the Democratic party, though, the difference wasn’t just about not having a physical venue for the event. A big change from 2016 was also felt on more substantial fronts.
Traditionally, the Democratic National Convention has two clear purposes. First, it unites and rallies the party around the presidential and vice presidential nominees. Secondly, it offers a glimpse into the future of the party by spotlighting rising stars and articulating a vision for policy objectives.
Supporters of Israel within the Democratic Party didn’t need much convincing with regards to the first task. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are viewed favorably by the pro-Israeli elements of the party. But when it comes to the fight for how the party will look like in the future, and who will be its leaders, the view was less clear for pro-Israeli Democrats.
Much of this was by design. Onstage and off, the convention organizers delicately and carefully walked a tightrope in order to create as unified a front as possible. They needed to show respect to Sanders, who came in second in the primary contest, and to win the trust of high-profile acolytes like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so that the party’s activist progressive wing will remain engaged in the election.
At the same time, Biden’s campaign is laser-focused on trying to keep the support of independent and swing voters who have soured on Trump, and are considering to cast their vote for the Democratic nominee come November. This was evidenced by the multiple appearances of Republicans who were crossing party lines to support Biden on the convention’s main stage.
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The result of this delicate balancing act is that while the Sanders wing was visually represented in the multiple-night reality TV show, gaining multiple prominent speaking slots, its left wing on key issues, including on Israel, were downplayed as much as possible.
The message to progressives was – we respect your leaders and want to hear your voice. The message to moderates and independents was – on policy issues, this is Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, not Bernie Sanders’ one.
On the politically sensitive issue of Israel, the Biden campaign made sure to firmly tamp down internal policy diffences already in the lead-up to the convention. For the first time in a decade, there was no visible battle over the wording on Israel and Palestine in the party platform. In 2012, the pro-Israel camp was upset by a decision to remove a reference to Jerusalem as Israel's capital from the platform.
In 2016, Sanders supporters on the platform committee – Arab-American activist James Zogby, public intellectual Cornel West and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison – publicly – and ultimately unsuccessfully – tussled with Hillary Clinton supporters over wording that would have explicitly condemned settlement activity and called for an end to occupation.
This time around, no hard-hitting battle was waged over language highly critical of Israel, and Sanders’ suggestion that military aid be conditioned or withheld, was quickly and overwhelmingly defeated by the platform committee in a 117-34 vote. While Zogby didn’t hide his disappointment, he seemed resigned to the situation, telling his Arab-American Institute at a webinar that “I dare say most people never even read the damn thing after it’s done,” and that since “the platform is never adhered to even by Democratic administrations” it didn’t necessarily compel the future foreign policy of a Biden-Harris White House.
The muted response was part of a deliberate decision by much of the Sanders wing to put its differences with Biden aside in service of a higher priority: getting Donald Trump out of the White House.
Given the platform, and a solid center-left voting record on Israel by both Biden and Harris, there was nothing at the top of the ticket that Republicans could seize on to make the case that a radical, supposedly “Israel-hating” wing of the party might somehow hold sway over a Biden White House.
Their chance would have to lie in the secondary goal of the convention – the choice of a face to represent the next generation of the party. That was made impossible by the fact that there was no single “future of the party” star this time around. Instead of a first-night headlining keynote speaker like 2004’s Barack Obama, which launched his future as a star – or 2016’s Elizabeth Warren, which pointed to a leftward, progressive shift in policy, the convention chose to shine the light on no fewer than 17 up-and-coming young Democratic politicians.
In the absence of any 2016-style tension or provocation, Republicans found a consolation prize in the form of a truncated quote from Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour at a convention side event for Muslim voters. The GOP pile-on was as rapid and intense as if Sarsour, not Harris, had been chosen as Biden’s running mate.
Sarsour, who gained national fame during the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, spoke on the second day of the convention on a virtual panel hosted by the DNC’s Muslim Delegates and Allies Assembly. She said that “The Democratic Party is not perfect, but it is absolutely our party in this moment,” adding that “I am here to say that I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking to defeat fascism and I hope our Muslim American community understands how important this election is.”
Within minutes, video clips and quotes of Sarsour uttering the phrase “The Democratic Party …. is absolutely our party” instantly exploded across conservative websites and pro-Trump social media platforms.
Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks quickly issued a statement calling it “outrageous that the Democratic National Committee would allow Linda Sarsour to represent their party to American voters. Sarsour is a rabid antisemite, a friend of Louis Farrakhan, and a proponent of the BDS movement against Israel. She spreads anti-Israel lies and champions the cause of terrorists.” Brooks also added that “If Linda Sarsour is the face of the Democrat Party, then the Democrat Party has truly become the party of antisemitism and too toxic for American Jews.”
But just as effectively and quickly – the Biden camp hit back , working to shut the attack down by disassociating the campaign from Sarsour and her comments.
“Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of antisemitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform,” Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman told CNN. “She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
In regard to both Sarsour and an appearance at a DNC Black caucus event by former Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory, who left that organization in the wake of an antisemitism scandal, a Democratic official told the Daily Beast defensively that "the caucus and council chairs come up with their own programming and select their own speakers.”
All of this action, of course, took place on the Internet. Unlike a traditional convention, complete with funny hats and balloon drops, this year the ‘action’ was all taking place on Zoom, Skype, Twitter and other screen-reliant platforms. This also meant that Jewish Democrats were deprived of the opportunity for face-to-face gossip, shmoozing, and showing off cool merchandise with their candidates’ names printed in Hebrew.
The closest thing to a communal pow-wow took place virtually at a “Jewish American Community Meeting” held on Tuesday, featuring high-profile Jewish Democratic politicians who hammered home their anti-Trump, pro-Biden message. Speaking first, Colorado’s first Jewish governor, Jared Polis, said: “The contrast between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is extremely glaring. Joe Biden has been steadfast in standing against all forms of hatred, he’s been a strong supporter of Israel and an opponent of antisemitism in all its forms.”
Cracks in the image of party unity were mainly visible only by contrasting the Zoom sessions and webinars held by advocacy organizations.
At a J Street briefing featuring its president Jeremy Ben-Ami and Michigan Rep. Andy Levin, Ben-Ami celebrated what he said were significant “shifts” in the positions Democratic party on Israel. Levin agreed the concept of being “staunchly pro-Israel” is changing – and that he believed he fit that definition, despite the fact that he believed the idea of withholding aid to Israel under certain circumstances was justifiable – specifically, if Israel moved ahead with annexation of parts of the West Bank.
A different breed of Democrat was on display when Rep. Max Rose joined congressional contenders Ritchie Torres and Kathy Manning – who have won Democratic primaries in heavily blue districts and are heading to Congress – at a web session hosted by Democratic Majority for Israel. Rose slammed colleagues for partisan-fueled opposition of Trump policy moves favorable to Israel, like the recent UAE deal.
“There is so much that this administration does that we can oppose. That we should oppose,” Rose said. “But let’s not make this one of those issues that we are fighting tooth and nail with a blind spot of partisanship. It is just wrong and it does not help Israel.”
Rose, an Army veteran who served in a combat role in Afghanistan, is facing a tough re-election battle in his New York district that gave a majority of its votes to Trump in 2016. He is exactly the kind of Democratic politician that could be hurt by Republican attacks surrounding the Democratic party’s positions on Israel. But aside from the Sarsour pile-on, the convention this year did not give Republicans too much material to work with.
As actor and Jewish activist Josh Malina observed in a tweet , “it’s entertaining to watch @rjc do backbends to try to oppose pro-Israel @KamalaHarris. If Biden had chosen Moses as his VP, they’d be saying “Soft on Israel. He never stepped foot in Canaan!”
Knowing his bible and never one to be easily daunted, the RJC’s Matt Brooks was ready with a humorous comeback: “True: He [Moses] Failed to lead his people into the promised land.”