Race for Top House Committee Position Reflects Democratic Party's Israel Dilemmas

Next week's race between Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) points to tensions over Israel among Democrats, on a range of issues from anti-BDS bills to Israeli interference in U.S. politics

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON - A battle currently being waged within the U.S. Democratic Party over a top position on the House Judiciary Committee represents the growing divide within the party on Israel. The Democratic members of the House of Representatives will decide next week who will replace Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), a veteran member of Congress who recently resigned as the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee over alleged sexual misconduct. The two leading candidates for the post represent two different approaches regarding Israel among Democrats on Capitol Hill. 

The current ranking member on the committee, who replaced Conyers temporarily last month, is Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a Jewish lawmaker from New York. Nadler is considered a strong supporter of Israel, although in 2015, he came under sharp criticism from some groups in the Jewish community for voting in favor of the Iran nuclear deal. Nadler is running to become the permanent ranking member on the committee, and is considered the favorite to win the position. 

His opponent for the post is Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who is affiliated with the left-wing, progressive faction of the party. Lofgren voted during the 2014 Gaza war against additional funding to the Iron Dome missile defense system (one of only eight members of Congress to cast such a vote), and in 2009, did not support a congressional resolution denouncing the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza. 

"I think if you asked them directly, both of them would tell you that they consider themselves supporters of Israel," a Democratic staffer who has worked with the offices of both Nadler and Lofgren told Haaretz. "But of course, there would be a big difference in how exactly they both define support for Israel. This is the big question the party is facing on Israel: where does our support begin, and where should it end. Different groups within the party are offering very different answers to that question." 

The Judiciary Committee doesn't regularly deal with foreign policy questions, and its jurisdiction doesn't directly address Israel most of the time. Democrats involved in the race between Nadler and Lofgren, however, did mention two issues that could come up in discussion before the committee, and are of concern to Israel: legislation against boycotts of Israel and its settlements in the West Bank; and international legal investigations concerning IDF actions in the West Bank and Gaza - such as the 2009 Goldstone report. 

On these two issues, a statement by the leading Democrat on the Judiciary Committee "could definitely influence how it will be discussed within the party," said a senior official in a leading pro-Israel organization. 

Legislation to outlaw boycotts of Israel and the settlements have been approved in more than 20 U.S. states in recent years, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently challenging two of them in court, claiming that the legislation harms free speech and violates American citizens' first amendment rights. 

In addition, a number of prominent Democratic Senators and members of the House have criticized a bi-partisan bill titled "the Israel Anti-Boycott Act," after the ACLU warned it could lead to the imprisonment of American citizens for calling to boycott Israel. Some Democratic supporters of the legislation have advocated a change in the bill's language in order to "avoid ambiguity" and clarify that it would not limit American citizens' constitutional right to call for boycotts of Israel. 

Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told Haaretz that he sees in the Nadler-Lofgren race a micro example of the larger questions facing the Democratic Party on Israel. "The vast majority of Democrats remain pro-Israel, especially on key votes regarding military and security issues," he said. "But there is a concern about decrease in support among the progressive wing of the party. Nadler is a traditional progressive supporter of Israel. Lofgren in my view is an example for the erosion of support for Israel within the progressive wing." 

A staffer for a prominent progressive lawmaker said that much of the blame for Israel's problems within that "faction" of the party starts with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "interference in American politics." The staffer said that "there is still a strong memory of Netanyahu intervening very aggressively against President Obama's agenda, in a way that many considered inappropriate, and even tinged with racism," the staffer said. "It was bad to see the Israeli prime minister echoing Republican attacks that Obama doesn't represent 'real America.' Many democrats considered that very offensive, and won't forget it anytime soon." 

Netanyahu's speech at the U.S. Congress in 2015 represents another issue on which Nadler and Lofgren differ. Nadler, despite his eventual support for the Iran deal, attended the speech. Lofgren was one of dozens of Democrats who decided not to attend it, in protest over Netanyahu's actions. 

The vote on whether Nadler or Lofgren will replace Conyers on the committee will take place next week. The broader Democratic discussion on Israel, however, will continue long afterwards. 

Ron Klein, a former Congressman from Florida and the current head of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told Haaretz that "I don't think this is a unique issue for Democrats. There are also voices on the far-right that support isolationism and question American support for Israel, just like you have that on the far-left. The idea that this is only a problem for Democrats is propaganda being pushed by Republicans."