Democrats were conspicuous by their absence from the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem this week.
Fourteen members of Congress made the trip: four Senators, ten Representatives, and all of them Republicans.
There were only two Democrats of note: former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and attorney Alan Dershowitz. Neither holds elected office, and both have been ostracized by their party for dissenting on matters of policy or principle.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, facing a tough primary race, was supposed to make the trip to Israel two days after the new embassy opened. But he postponed his trip. The deaths of more than sixty Palestinians at the border in Gaza had made Cuomo’s trip unpalatable to the party base — never mind that 50 of the 60 were terrorists.
Democrats even stayed away from the Israeli embassy’s own party in Washington, D.C.
The idea of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem had been a rare point of bipartisan consensus for more than two decades. Through all the ups and downs in the region, and in U.S.-Israel relations, the Democratic Party understood — at least officially — that Jerusalem would always be Israel’s capital under any conceivable peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Yet not one elected Democrat showed up to honor that simple commitment.
The illusion of bipartisan support for Israel is now dead. And the truth is that it had been dying for a while.
Starting with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, growing numbers of Democrats have been taking anti-Israel positions in public. The emergence in 2008 of J Street, a radical, George Soros-backed organization that opposes most of what Israel does to defend itself, emboldened left-wing Democrats to express their real views.
In 2012, the party dropped a plank supporting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital from its electoral platform. The plank was later restored at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, but only after the presiding officer, then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pretended that the changes had been approved by voice vote, when they clearly had been rejected.
The party’s base had shifted decisively against support for the Jewish state. And soon, the establishment of the party began to shift also. It did so because President Obama decided to create “distance” between the U.S. and Israel in the hope of improving relations with the Muslim world. When he pursued a nuclear deal with Iran, the Israeli government publicly opposed his efforts and the agreement.
Rather than challenge Obama’s reckless approach, Democratic leaders fell into line behind their leader.
Since President Donald Trump took office, Democrats have become more critical of Israel precisely because the administration has been so pro-Israel. Democrats today define themselves largely in opposition to Trump. If Trump is for it, they are against it; and if Trump does it, it must be wrong.
The fact that Israelis like Trump and support his policies is deeply frustrating to Democrats, and some are taking their frustration out on Israel.
All of that is good for Republicans, who can appeal to Jewish voters and donors as the only real pro-Israel party. But it is bad for the U.S. and bad for Israel.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) observed in Jerusalem, “There’s too much going on in this region to send mixed signals.” Our enemies see our divisions on Israel as a sign of weakness.
And when Democrats return to power — as they will, one day — they may punish Israel out of spite.
I spoke this week with Dr. Michael Oren, Israel’s former Ambassador to the U.S. and now a member of the centrist Kulanu party in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. As an historian and a diplomat, there is no one who understands the U.S.-Israel relationship better than he.
We met over lunch in the Knesset cafeteria— “Bad food, large portions,” he quipped — to discuss, among other things, the challenge of declining Democratic support for Israel.
“You cannot look at what’s happened at America’s relationship with Israel without knowing what’s going on in America itself,” Oren told me. The Democrats’ rejection of Israel over the past decade is “symptomatic of the ever-deepening polarization of U.S. politics,” he said, “and has deep roots in the American kulturkampf,” the culture wars that began in the 1960s and have intensified in recent years, on college campuses and beyond.
It does not matter that Israeli society is even more liberal than American society, he explained, with its protection of gay rights, its higher percentage of women in politics, its socialized medicine, and so on. The problem is that “everything that we [Israelis] are, increasingly they [Democrats] aren’t,” he said.
“Israel stands for territoriality, and devotion to force when necessary. We are also patriotic, and deeply embedded in tradition and belief.”
These are values that the western left no longer shares or expresses with any real enthusiasm.
Oren noted that the most vicious debates in Europe are about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “There are 200 territorial disputes in the world, Europe is overrun with refugees, and what are they debating viciously? Israel.” The debates, he said, have little to do with the Palestinians, and everything to do with Europe’s ongoing identity crisis.
“It’s the same in America,” he observed. “The debates about Israel may not bear any relation to what Israel really is. It’s not about who we Israelis are, but about who they are. There’s a Europeanization of the American discourse on the Middle East.”
Young, liberal American Jews are increasingly distant from Israel. “It’s not about the Palestinians. They simply see us as an intolerant, illiberal, concrete-bound Haredi [religious] state.”
The only solution, he told me, is to bring as many of them as possible to Israel, to see the country for themselves. Liberal American Jews who have been on a Birthright trip, Oren observed, do not feel hostile to the country. But they are a small group.
“It’s a resources issue,” he noted. It is not practical to pay for millions of Americans to visit, nor is Israel particularly enthusiastic about investing in new media to reach them indirectly.
Increasingly, some liberal American Jewish institutions even have a vested interest in attacking Israel. Whereas Jewish organizations once defended Israel to motivate donors and volunteers, Oren told me, there is now a “more insidious process” in which some groups are “mobilizing criticism of Israel to mobilize support for their movements.”
That has not affected public support for Israel, which keeps rising, but it marks a profound break.
The week was an historic one, both for America and for Israel. But it is a page of history from which Democrats will be absent.
That creates an opportunity for Republicans. But it may create new risks for Israel. And it confirms the deep divisions among Americans.
As Sen. Graham said in Jerusalem, it hurts.
It means the values upon which our society was built — values in common with Israel — are no longer shared, and no longer secure.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named to Forward’s 50 “most influential” Jews in 2017. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.