By Dave Schechter
No one appears to motivate Jewish Democrats better than President Donald Trump.
Their antipathy for the Republican occupant of the White House was front and center as about 100 people attended an Oct. 2 gathering sponsored by the resurgent Jewish Democratic Council of America. The event, held at Congregation Shearith Israel, featured U.S. House members Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Lucy McBath, who represents Georgia’s 6th congressional district.
Jewish Republicans – through the Jewish Republican Coalition – have been better organized at the national level, but their Democratic co-religionists are looking to level the field. Founded after the August 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., JDCA is creating local chapters.
“We are the only explicitly partisan organization on the Democratic side that marries a Democratic political agenda with a Jewish values advocacy agenda,” JDCA executive director Halie Soifer told the audience.
Soifer touted exit polls that showed 66 percent of Jewish voters backing Democratic candidates in the 2014 mid-term election, rising to 72 percent in the 2016 presidential election, and to 79 percent in the 2018 mid-terms.
JDCA backed 58 candidates in 2018 and 49 won (45 in Congress and four governors), Soifer said. Wasserman Schultz credited JDCA with helping to flip 28 U.S. House seats as Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 election.
The Florida Democrat recalled cutting her political teeth as a 22-year-old travel aide working on Democrat Cathy Steinberg’s unsuccessful 1988 campaign for a seat on the Georgia Public Service Commission. Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish woman in her state’s congressional delegation, has represented her south Florida district since 2005.
She tossed the Atlanta audience several partisan red meat lines. “I don’t think anyone in our lifetimes have seen the corruption and insanity coming first out of his [President Donald Trump’s] campaign and then the White House,” she said. “It’s so much worse than we expected.”
Nonetheless, it was not until the issue of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president that Wasserman Schultz backed her party’s move in the House to begin impeachment proceedings. “The dam broke in the last 10 days for a reason . . . when President Trump was caught abusing his power using the White House and Oval Office and all the powers available him, he pressured the president of Ukraine and withheld vital foreign aid assistance that they needed to keep the Russian incursion at bay,” she said.
She also rebuked Trump for his Aug. 21 remark that “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.” In response, she told the Atlanta gathering, “We don’t need or want Donald Trump speaking for our community. He knows nothing about our values.”
Wasserman Schultz pushed back against Republican charges that Democrats are becoming an anti-Israel party, based on the rhetoric of two first-term House members, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. “We have been faithful and really – in a committed, genuine, committed way – consistently supported Israel,” she said. “There is no danger that we are going to deny foreign aid assistance to Israel; it’s not a realistic threat.” She also noted that 90 percent of the Democratic caucus voted in favor of a measure that condemned the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.
“Trump is trying to run against a Democratic party that does not exist, using the Jewish community and Israel as a shield,” Soifer said.
Israel is important, Soifer acknowledged, but tends to rank behind domestic issues for non-Orthodox Jewish voters, with health care topping the priority list in the 2018 mid-term election.
Soifer also cited a Jewish Electorate Institute poll showing that 73 percent of American Jews feel less secure than they did two years ago; 71 percent disapprove of Trump’s job performance; and that 59 percent of Jews feel that Trump bears at least some responsibility for the October 2018 massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the April 2019 shootings that killed one person at the Chabad Center in Poway, Calif.
JDCA has made Georgia one of its priorities for the 2020 election, in part because both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot. Soifer said that JDCA will not make any endorsements of candidates in the March 24 party primary.
McBath cited what she called parallels in her life experience and the Jewish experience, pointing to the years when her father was president of the Illinois branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “I know what it looks like to be discriminated against,” she said. “My family fought that good fight alongside the Jewish community.”