Very few people are heart and soul true to one political ideology. Socially liberal and fiscally conservative, completely conservative but with a liberal jag when it comes to LGBTQ+ policy – whatever the mixture, tension between potentially conflicting belief systems is incredibly common. Lately, though, a more jarring and striking disharmony has become prevalent: substantively different positions on foreign aid to Israel which fails to conform to the rest of an individual’s political ideology. The dissonance comes in two parts; firstly, many Jewish democrats break from party platform to support Israel, secondly, many openly anti-Semitic conservatives almost paradoxically also support Israel. Both components are striking in that they fail to conform to casual political expectations, and are worth talking about.
To understand how this discord came to be, it’s important to first understand how the GOP became the party associated with pro-Israel sentiments. Traditionally, Jewish Americans have overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates, a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s defeat of Hitler and New Deal policies (President Harry Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel in 1950 further solidified this support). At the same time, Republican domestic and foreign policy served as a strong deterrent to Jewish voters: Israel’s socialist bent scared away conservative anti-communists, and the party’s foreign policy experts cautioned that supporting Israel would undermine American ties to oil-rich nations.
The turning point came after the 9/11 attacks with increased American military involvement in the Middle East. Because Israel’s struggle with terrorism mirrored our own, they became our ally in a perceived clash of civilizations pitting Western culture and religion against Islam. Around the same time, baby boomers in the American Jewish community began to reject traditional affinity for the Democratic party and connect with a Republican platform attempting to reaffirm American power. Together, these conditions realigned Judaism with conservatism.
Domestic politics within Israel also had a significant impact on American ideology. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rise to power signified to the GOP that they had an ally, someone cut from the same ideological cloth as their leaders. His more recent struggles with former President Barack Obama only heightened that sense of familiarity.
So now that we’ve established a brief timeline of events and shifting alliances, let’s talk about anti-Semitism. As early as Richard Nixon’s presidency, influential conservative players gave off distinctly anti-Semitic vibes. Nixon himself, though he supported Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, was exposed as a raging anti-Semite when tapes of his conversations were released decades later. But the real wave of anti-Semitic, pro-Israel conservatism came in the 1990s with the rise of evangelical Christianity. While the community’s relationship with Israel has been historically rocky, many believe it essential to the second coming of Jesus or that God has issued a literal mandate to support the nation. Another subsection believes their religion all but commands that they wage war against Islam, an act which would be profoundly easier with Israel’s help. Whatever the reason, these evangelical voters overwhelmingly lean conservative, which has created an arguably more hawkish platform than that supported by most American Jews. Whereas the majority of U.S. Jews believe Israel can peacefully coexist with an independent Palestine, for example, the GOP supports Israeli construction in the West Bank.
Now that we know why a uniquely high number of anti-Semitic conservative voters and politicians support pro-Israel policies, let’s take a quick look at why increasingly high numbers of self-identified liberal Jews are breaking from the Democratic platform to support those same policies. For many – and especially those on college campuses – Israel’s current bullheaded progression towards a one-state solution constitutes an offense worthy of opposition. Liberal American Jews criticize the government’s policies, hurling accusations of racism and colonialism. The continuing occupation of the West Bank and striking similarities between Trump and Netanyahu are among the primary causes of this revolution. Many college students feel a contradiction between what they believe are Jewish values and the policies of the Netanyahu government. As a direct result, for the first time, Democrats today are about as pro-Palestine as they are pro-Israel.
Israeli policy and behavior has become something that American Jews must constantly try to explain to those around them. Because there’s no real way to assume pro or anti-Israel sentiments based on political ideology, the subject just isn’t discussed as much as other policy issues. Understanding why this discord exists and how it came to be is the first step towards starting that conversation, and creating an environment where open discussion might lead to a tangible product.