WHITE HOUSE — Shelley Berkley spent 14 years in Congress representing the western swing state of Nevada. The lifelong Democrat is worried about her party’s ability in next year’s presidential election to maintain the traditional support of her fellow Jews.
“Growing up, I didn’t know anybody that was Jewish who wasn’t a Democrat. The two went hand in hand. If you’re Jewish, you’re a Democrat. Things have changed dramatically,” according to Berkley.
The party’s rising left wing is less inclined to reflexively support Israel, while President Donald Trump has decisively aligned with Israel’s right-wing president, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There’s a lot of folks like Congresswoman Berkeley increasingly concerned about the direction and tone the Democratic Party is taking as it relates to the Jewish community and Israel,” says Matthew Brooks, national executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Jews were staunch Democrats, traditionally allied with the labor movement and religiously coming out to vote in force.
As important, according to American University professor of history Alan Kraut, “is the influence that Jews wield as opinion leaders, journalists, contributors and activists – as a people basically who are never afraid to raise their voices one way or another.”
Pollster Mark Mellman contends data show that has not changed, with the Jewish community remaining “strongly Democratic to this day, and certainly anti-Trump, even though some are appreciative of some of the things that Trump has done vis-a-vis Israel.”
Both Berkley and Mellman say most Jewish voters detest Trump’s policies in general, as well as his behavior and lack of intellectual curiosity.
But Trump is trying hard to woo them, portraying the Democratic Party as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
“The reality is, the American Jewish community is not going to be voting for Donald Trump. … And for him to invest so much time, effort, energy, in trying to create a wedge between the American Jewish community and the Democratic Party isn’t really a very good use of his time,” says Mellman, who heads one of the most prominent Democratic marketing research and polling firms. But he acknowledges “there are some increasing doubts and concern.”
Berkley says her children remain strong Democrats but are concerned about whether they can continue to support their own party.
“Now that doesn’t mean they are embracing the Trump revolution. Hardly. But people like us, pro-Israel moderate Democrats, where do we go?” she asks.
At the RJC, Brooks is looking to lure those disaffected Democrats. He contends the rival party is overconfident about the Jewish vote.
“It’s going to be very hard for any of the Democratic candidates to have, like President Trump, an unvarnished pro-Israel agenda, because the grassroots in the base of the Democratic Party won’t allow it,” Brooks predicts.
“If we move 5% of the Jewish vote in Los Angeles or New York, it’s not going to make a difference,” Brooks says. “There’s no chance we’re winning New York state or California. So, our focus is very strategic and very targeted in the battleground states.”
At the forefront are Ohio and Florida, both with significant Jewish populations. Also seen in play: Arizona and Nevada out West, as well as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the Midwest.
“Since Trump has been in office, has he been able to attract and to peel away Jewish support from the Democratic Party? I believe the answer to that is yes,” says Brooks.
The head of the Republican Jewish Coalition says American Jews look not just at a candidate’s stance on Israel, but also at economic issues.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to make these incremental gains,” Brooks tells VOA.
Mellman says Brooks and other Republicans are overly optimistic “when you have a community that has consistently voted Democratic for many years. And right now, even after all these things, hates Donald Trump. Now, could that turn around in 17 months? It’s possible. But there’s never been that kind of wholesale turnaround in public opinion.”
Kraut sees the best opportunity for Republicans with “older Jewish voters, men and women, who lean toward Trump because of Israel. And because he does seem to them to fly in the face of what they regard as the left wing of the Democratic Party that’s taking shape” around congressional first-termers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, according to Kraut.
“They don’t like these people. They don’t trust these people,” says Kraut of the older Jewish voters.
“I’m apoplectic about my party’s response to the comments Omar and others have made,” she tells VOA. “Members of the Democratic caucus have made anti-Semitic statements that were no accident. They actually believe what they’re saying.”
This sentiment likely will be more of a factor prior to the general election as Jews could have an outsized role in selecting the Democratic Party’s nominee.
While early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire have negligible Jewish populations, the big and solid Democrat states – New York and California – do.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is viewed by much of the Jewish bloc as stable and predictable with foreign policy, respected around the world, and representing their core social and moral values, according to Kraut.
“If I were a betting man, I would say that if Biden is the candidate of the Democratic Party, the Jews are going to flock to him” in the general election against Trump, Kraut says.
He sees Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont as struggling for Jewish votes, despite him being the only Jew running for president.
Some may find that ironic.
“It’s worse than ironic. It’s very unfortunate, actually,” laments Berkley, who says she opposes Sanders’ candidacy “because of his lack of support for Israel.”
Mellman says Sanders has stated he is “100% pro-Israel, that he believes Israel has every right to exist in peace and security without being subject to terrorism.”
Jewish leaders acknowledge Trump’s embrace of Israel may also be motivated by his desire to retain the support of Christian evangelicals (who believe that Israel must continue to exist as a harbinger for the return of Christ as the Messiah).
“Being good to Israel has many, many political advantages in the United States,” notes Kraut. “The Jewish vote alone isn’t going to put Trump over the top.”