WASHINGTON (JTA) — When Ron DeSantis, the Republican congressman running for governor of Florida, was asked in a debate to defend his record on race, he pivoted to his Democratic opponent’s record on Israel.
DeSantis and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum each have a problem that won’t go away — DeSantis with racially charged language and Gillum with associates who are anti-Israel. That may not be surprising in a swing state where substantial Jewish and African-American minorities can make the difference, and where the race is too close to call.
But it’s not just Florida: In race after race, sometimes in areas with few Jewish voters, from upstate New York to Virginia wine country, to Texas and Minnesota, two third rails for American Jewish voters — bigotry and Israel — are touching each other and setting off sparks.
In their campaigns to get out the Jewish vote, and to elicit donors, the two partisan Jewish groups, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition, are seizing on the other party’s vulnerability and defending their own side.
White nationalists “have a home in the Republican Party because our president has legitimized these movements,” Halie Soifer, the JDCA’s executive director, said in an interview.
Matt Brooks, her RJC counterpart, referred to about a half-dozen Democratic nominees that his group has singled out for sharply criticizing Israel — in one case to say that it should not exist as a Jewish state.
“It’s total hypocrisy of the Jewish Democrats to throw these grenades at us, yet not do anything and embrace some of the problematic elements in the Democratic Party,” he said.
There is substance to the concerns expressed by both sides. Democrats continue to adamantly profess to be pro-Israel, but years of tensions between the Obama administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have left many Democrats willing to openly criticize Israeli policies, and more. The party’s relief in having a surefire congressional nominee in Detroit like Rashida Tlaib, who says Israel should not exist as a Jewish state, would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
On the Republican side, President Donald Trump has not rebuffed — and at times has seemed to welcome — the support of white nationalists. On Monday, campaigning for incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, Trump denounced “globalists” who he said don’t care enough about the United States and called himself a “nationalist.”
Neither term is necessarily anti-Semitic nor bigoted. But “globalists” is often a code on the far right for Jews, and white supremacists have adopted the “nationalist” label as their own.
“For those of us who remember history, to hear an American president embrace and describe himself as a ‘nationalist’ is alarming, and it sends a shiver up our spine,” Abe Foxman, the former national director for the Anti-Defamation League, told Jewish Insider.
Also increasingly popular on the right are attempts to link George Soros, the liberal philanthropist, to every GOP bogeyman, including opposition to the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and the caravan of migrants heading from Central America toward the U.S. border, often with scant or no evidence. There are an array of major donors on the left, but it is Soros, who is Jewish, who is singled out most often, and sometimes with anti-Semitic undertones. A pro-Trump, far-right evangelical group that emerged during the 2016 election put out a video this week calling Soros “evil” for trying to “deChristianize a culture and a nation.”
The DeSantis-Gillum exchange on Sunday evening was emblematic of each side’s tactics and vulnerabilities.
CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper asked DeSantis why the candidate had not returned a donation from a backer who used the N-word on Twitter to attack President Barack Obama, and why he urged voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum, who is black.
DeSantis answered the first question: The donor, Steven Alembik, had apologized. He did not answer the second question, instead claiming a past in which he fought with and for blacks, first in the military and then as a prosecutor. Then he pivoted to Gillum.
“I look at what Andrew has done in terms of aligning himself with groups like the Dream Defenders, who one of their — he stood on the debate stage and said he stood with them and by them, but one of their main planks of their platform is to boycott, divest from and sanction the State of Israel,” he said. “I think he should disavow them because I can tell you this, if you want to unify Florida, taking positions about Israel like that, that may be unifying if you’re running for the mayor of the Gaza Strip.”
Gillum has spoken of his support for Dream Defenders, a black activist group that backs education and prison reform, and also has endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.
Gillum pushed back — “my relationship with Israel is beyond reproach,” he said — and returned to the race issue.
“The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all,” Gillum said. “And he has only continued, and the course of this campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. And the truth is, you know what? I’m black. I’ve been black all my life. So far as I know I will die black.”
In races across the country, alleged alignments with the extreme right or the anti-Israel left have become an issue:
* In Southern California, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican facing a tough race, has been criticized for endorsing for the Orange County school board a Republican who in the past has made anti-Semitic and racist comments on social media.
* In Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, encompassing the city of Charlottesville and Virginia’s wine country, the state Republican Party has called Democrat Leslie Cockburn “anti-Semitic” for a 1991 book she co-wrote that questioned the U.S.-Israel relationship. Cockburn, in turn, has sought to attach the name of her opponent, Denver Riggleman, to the Republican nominee for U.S. senator, Corey Stewart, who has associated with white nationalists, including a leader of the deadly August 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. (Riggleman has denounced the marchers.)
* In New York’s 19th Congressional District, an upstate region encompassing the Catskills and the Hudson Valley, embattled Republican incumbent John Faso in a debate this week rapped his opponent, Antonio Delgado, for suggesting that as long as Israel maintains control of the West Bank Palestinian population, it is not a “Jewish democracy.” (“I am committed to a two-state solution — a Jewish state of Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state — because it is the only way for Israel to fulfill its own aspirations to remain a Jewish democracy for future generations,” Delgado told Jewish Insider in response.)
* In Iowa, Rep. Steve King, a safe Republican incumbent, endorsed for Toronto mayor a white nationalist candidate, Faith Goldy, who has associated with neo-Nazi websites and referred to the “Jewish question,” commonplace anti-Semitic parlance.
* In Minneapolis, Ilhan Omar, the surefire Democratic nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives, has called Israel an “apartheid regime.”
* In Texas, Cruz, in a surprisingly tight re-election bid, has attacked his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, for accepting the endorsement of J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, and once voting against emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. (O’Rourke has said he objected on procedural grounds.)
The Jewish partisan groups have made clear where they stand on at least some of its bad actors: Brooks has said that the Republican Jewish Coalition will have nothing to do with Virginia’s Stewart or Iowa’s King, and Soifer’s Democratic group has spoken out against the Israel views of Tlaib and Omar.
Part of the mission of Jewish partisan groups is to explain to the national party why it opposes a trend or an individual. Both Brooks and Soifer said they are doing just that, but that they did not expect the national party to shut out actors like Omar, Tlaib, King or Stewart.
“It’s important, as we do within the Republican sphere, that we stand up and make clear what the boundaries are in terms of the statements that some of these candidates are making,” Brooks said. “It’s easy for us who have a clear set of values to say ‘this guy’s views do not align with where we are.’ It’s harder for the party, which has a broader, bigger tent.”
Soifer said it was important to distinguish between foreign policy positions, however outlandish, and bigotry.
“To have an issue on a specific foreign policy issue is very different than associating oneself with a movement of neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers,” she said.