Dems, Jewish leaders takin’ it to the streets? (UPDATED)


EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post included anonymous criticisms that should not have been published. The post has been revised to reflect JTA’s standards.

Five years or so ago, top Democrats convened an emergency session: How do we get Jews back into the Democratic fold?

The panic was premature, and predicated on the ephemera of President Bush’s post-Sept. 11 popularity, soon to diffuse with the failures of the Iraq war. John Kerry won 75 percent of the Jewish vote, and for Dems all was right in the world.

No longer, but this time it’s the Jews who might want to convene a meeting on how to get Dems back into the fold.

The most recent fashla (Hebrew for Snafu) is the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ failure until the last minute to invite someone from the Obama campaign to attend its rally Sept. 22 to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attendance at the U.N. General Assembly. (So says the Obama campaign.)

The seriousness of the upset was underscored by the unsolicited call I got Wednesday morning from an Obama campaign official: “The Obama campaign was not called until this morning, after the debacle with Sen. Clinton.

Them’s fighting words, and unusually strong ones at that.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had been invited, separate from the camapign; she pulled out Wednesday when she learned that Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was to attend. (Palin has not confirmed, according to the latest reports.)

The Dems logic is as follows: A senator is not the same as someone on the ticket. As soon as the Conference of Presidents got Palin (last week apparently) they should have called Obama’s folks, is how the thinking goes.

Additionally, there’s nothing the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would love more than a Clinton-Palin pairing (the real kind, as opposed to the Saturday Night Live version): it would lend credibility to the campaign’s claim to the women voters who felt shunted by Clinton’s loss in the primaries.

Dem insiders say that fits a pattern of what they claim is a rightward tilt at the conference, under the leadership of executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein. We’re trying to reach Hoenlein for a reply, but in his defense it must be said that he recently gave Howard Dean, the party’s chairman, free rein at a conference session this summer. Not to mention that some of the conference’s right-wing members have been know to grumble that, despite some liberal claims to the contrary, Hoenlein is not one of them.

It’s Hoenlein’s second to-and-fro with the Obama campaign. In February, he expressed concerns about the “change” tone of the election: Obama campaigners thought that was directed at their candidate, who has most emphasized change, but Hoenlein said he was talking more broadly about campaigns within both parties. Whether it was related or not, weeks later Hoenlein was touting the bipartisan credentials of the conference’s 60th anniversary of Israel committee.

Scrambling to kiss and make up might not do it this time, though: Dems are not afraid to say, on the record, that they perceive a pattern of some Jewish establishment leaders allowing themselves to be used by the Republicans, whether it’s because of shared neoconservative values, or because there’s a longstanding tradition in Washington of, well, fearing Republican retribution more than the Democratic kind.

Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Hoenlein has to explain more than just this incident because it’s not his first time in the hot spot. “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, there’s a good chance it is a duck,” he said of his suspicions of Hoenlein’s Republican sympathies.


There have been occasions in recent years when similar tensions have arisen between Democrats and major Jewish groups, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Congressional Democrats were furious last summer when AIPAC failed to excoriate Republicans for voting against the foreign assistance package. AIPAC has long made support for the package the sine qua non of getting into its good graces, partly, of course, because of its Israel component; but also because the organization sees an overall American commitment to global foreign aid as a pillar in perpetuating support for Israel. It’s made mince meat in the past of Democrats who have voted against the appropriation in the past (to protest perceived Republican underfunding of overseas aid) but was silent in 2007 when the GOP whipped against the bill in a bid to depict Democrats as overly generous overseas and as committed to programs that fund abortions.

That and other rifts have led Democrats to more outspokenly carpet AIPAC when they think its steering wrong – listen to Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Obama’s running mate, blow a gasket when I asked him about his pro-AIPAC voting record earlier this month. (Some close to the situation say that the Obama camp has said that Biden mistakenly thought I said that AIPAC itself had criticized him, when in fact I had cited attacks fro the Republican Jewish Coalition.)

The latest manifestation – unrelated to the Clinton-Palin-Hoenlein contretemps – was today (Wednesday) when J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby aiming to undercut the pro-AIPAC consensus on the Hill, hosted a “strategy session” on the Hill with its endorsees. At first, establishment Jewish leaders mocked the J Street endorsee list as marginal, but it now includes Jewish pro-Israel heavyweights, including U.S. Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.) Schakowsky and Filner both spoke at the event, and said they welcomed the opportunity to be perceived as pro-Israel beyond the traditional Jewish establishment constraints. Schakowsky said debate on the peace process is more robust in Israel than in Washington, a trope that was once unimaginable from a Jewish lawmaker.

Filner agreed, telling J Street: “You give us the option to vote the way we should be voting.”

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