The turmoil associated with the American presidential elections has impacted on much of the nation, and certainly on the Jews. Many, both liberal and conservative, feel that their traditional political affiliations have been destabilized.
Grass-root voters have rebelled against entrenched long-term politicians and have astounded analysts by supporting relatively obscure personalities who have introduced levels of primitive populism into American politics unseen since the days of Huey Long.
Those deeply concerned about Israel find themselves in a special quandary.
Democratic supporters witnessed a struggle between Hillary Clinton — who until recently faced virtually no competition — and Bernie Sanders, a relatively unknown older Jewish senator from Vermont, a leftist throwback to prewar Jewish socialists raging against the “domination” of Wall Street and calling for a redistribution of wealth. He is also highly critical of Israel and a J Street supporter, pandering to the growing anti-Israeli sentiment among left-wing Democrats. His populism has generated substantial support, especially from young people.
Nevertheless, despite being widely resented and distrusted in her own party, Hillary Clinton is likely to win the Democratic nomination. But the dramatic flow of support of the radical views promoted by Sanders has created concern that in office, she would seek to placate the radicals within the party. That, in turn, could encourage her to revert to the hostile attitude that prevailed during her term as secretary of state toward Israel and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also reinforces concerns about some of the vicious anti-Israeli advisers she had engaged in the past, who were exposed in her declassified emails.
Every presidential candidate invited to the recent annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), passionately supported the Jewish state. The only exception was Sanders, who declined to address AIPAC and spoke at another location where he bitterly criticized Israel. But electoral pledges and passionate undertakings by presidential candidates and politicians at AIPAC must be treated with considerable cynicism, as from experience, they are frequently watered down or breached.
Yet, Clinton’s address to AIPAC was significant (click here to watch Clinton address). Despite justifying President Barack Obama’s Iran policy and criticizing Israeli settlements, her powerful endorsement of support for Israel was warmly received. She distinguished herself from Obama by promising that a renewal of good relations with Israel would be a priority, and that one of her first acts in office would be to invite Netanyahu to Washington. She expressed these views obviously aware that she would be intensifying the ire of the radical anti-Israel elements in her party.
The uneasiness concerning the Clinton candidacy shared by some traditional Jewish Democratic supporters pales when compared to the turmoil among many Republican supporters at the explosive ascendancy of Donald Trump, who was initially perceived as a clown, with virtually all analysts predicting his early political demise.
Trump primitively denigrates intellectual discourse but has displayed an extraordinary populist talent to communicate and reach out to the disaffected masses who have flocked to support him, ditching seasoned leaders like former Governor Jeb Bush, eliminating Senator Marco Rubio, and at this stage enjoying a substantial lead over Senator Ted Cruz, his sole remaining credible opponent.
He has adopted crude, inconsistent and contradictory policies but struck a responsive chord from many Americans alienated and frustrated with their current status and seeking radical solutions.
He has created a major schism in the Republican Party because of his rabble-rousing, vulgarity, abusive remarks about women and discriminatory outbursts against minorities — especially Mexicans. Many traditional Republicans, including senior party leaders, refuse to endorse him and some have even stated that they would never vote for him as president. His critics include the neoconservatives and the most prominent conservative thinkers and commentators who are outraged by his isolationist outbursts and demagogic anti-intellectual approach.
Trump attests to his long track record of friendship for Jews and Israel and constantly highlights the fact that his daughter converted and leads a traditional Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
But those voters seeking the restoration of warmer relations between the United States and the Jewish state are concerned with Trump’s ad lib flip-flop responses in relation to Israel.
Initially, he antagonized supporters of Israel by stating that he would be “neutral” in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On one occasion, he promoted the extreme isolationist view that Israel should not be reliant on U.S. defense support and should repay American military aid. He even suggested that the U.S. should withdraw from NATO. He particularly angered Jews when initially, perhaps in ignorance, he dismissed calls to dissociate himself from support he was receiving from white supremacists and extreme anti-Semites.
When it was announced that Trump would join other presidential candidates and address AIPAC, a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis planned a demonstrative walkout as he approached the podium. Their widely publicized threat turned out to be farcical and resulted in the boycott of only about 30 of the 18,000 participants.
Trump’s address to AIPAC (click here to watch Trump’s address) was his first attempt to present a crafted policy on any subject. He used a teleprompter which diverted him from his customary ad-libbing. It was an extraordinary political coup in which he received repeated standing ovations as he swept the audience off its feet by pressing all the pro-Israel buttons and systematically presenting a coherent case for Israel. He contradicted some of his earlier critical remarks, including his intention of being “neutral” in order to consummate a “deal” between Palestinians and Israel. He also announced his intention to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump’s direct critique of Obama drew such a demonstratively wholehearted response from his audience that Lillian Pinkus, the newly elected president of AIPAC, desperate to display ongoing bipartisanship, felt obliged to go to the other extreme and reprimanded him, tearfully apologizing to Obama supporters and castigating the enthusiastic applause of Trump’s denigration of the president.
Events of the past few weeks indicate that, barring a dramatic last-minute turnaround at the national convention, Trump should win the Republican nomination.
But he is widely distrusted and considered unpredictable, even among those who are bitterly opposed to Clinton. Indeed, some may ultimately support her as the lesser of two evils.
Ironically, the hostility Trump faces among segments of the Republican Party matches the opposition Clinton faces from within her own party. It is unprecedented for both party representatives to face such resentment and distrust from their own circles.
AIPAC can take satisfaction that the 18,000 enthusiastic participants at their convention included a healthy and diverse cross section of young people, demonstrating that, contrary to what much of the media and liberals maintain, committed Jews remain strongly supportive of Israel. It also highlights the fact that, notwithstanding its confrontation with Obama over Iran, AIPAC has not lost its clout and remains one of the most effective bipartisan lobbying groups in the U.S.
There could be many surprises before a new president is elected. Although today, polls suggest that Clinton seems destined to win overwhelmingly against Trump, one should not underestimate the huge anti-establishment anger that prevails among voters.
Undoubtedly, Trump gained support from some Jews with his unexpectedly coherent pro-Israel AIPAC address. But other than the most committed supporters of Israel, the majority of Jews will not vote exclusively or even primarily on a single issue.
Yet if Trump’s AIPAC speech was the harbinger of a more responsible and coherent approach, dispensing with vulgarity and seeking support from centrists, predictions that he will be defeated by a landslide could prove to be wrong. Further terror attacks, especially an incident in the U.S., could also tilt many voters in his direction.
Indeed, many Jews — like other wavering American voters — will probably only decide at the last minute, and even then may hold their noses when they go to the polling station, concerned that their candidate will prove to be unpredictable and will not live up to their expectations. Some may even abstain, although most will retain their allegiance to the Democratic Party.
There is one ray of sunshine: Irrespective of who is elected, the next president will endeavor — at least initially — to reaffirm and repair the relationship with Israel. And whoever is elected should still be a massive improvement on the current U.S. president.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom