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As Democrats stay divided on Israel, Jewish voters face politically uncertain future

A strong majority of Jewish Americans are Democrats, but the Israel-Hamas war is highlighting fault lines in the Democratic Party over U.S. policy toward Israel.

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Yaffa Rubinstein has long voted for Democrats. She's a strong supporter of President Biden's handling of Israel's war against Hamas.

"But I'm upset and I'm sad," she said. She held a sign that read, "I'm a Pro-Israel Democrat" at a recent march in support of Israel in Washington, D.C.

Yaffa Rubinstein, 75, attended a recent pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. She supports President Biden but says she's disappointed with what she calls anti-Israel rhetoric from some Democrats.
Yaffa Rubinstein, 75, attended a recent pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. She supports President Biden but says she's disappointed with what she calls anti-Israel rhetoric from some Democrats. Sarah McCammon | NPR

"Where are they now?"

Rubinstein, 75, grew up in Israel but has lived in the United States for more than four decades. In the past, Rubinstein says she's helped Syrian refugees, and pushed back against former President Donald Trump's so-called "Muslim ban."

"We met the refugees. I said that if Trump tried to force one of them out, I would protect them in my own home," she remembered. "Where are they now - where are the progressive Democrats?"

Now, she feels betrayed by what she describes as "anti-Israel" sentiment from some left-wing Democrats.

Leib Kaminsky does too. He says he's appreciated Biden's handling of the crisis, but as a gay Jewish man, Kaminsky, 57, has felt isolated by the antisemitic rhetoric he's heard from some progressives.

"It's extremely difficult being in the LGBTQ community, because they have turned their backs on Jews," he said. "You try to be as open-minded as possible, but when people are coming at you and saying that Hamas is right, and they support the LGBT community, you're like - 'these people don't know what's going on'."

Thousands of people traveled to Washington, D.C. for a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall on Nov. 14.
Thousands of people traveled to Washington, D.C. for a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall on Nov. 14. Sarah McCammon | NPR

A moment that reveals fractures and could shift alliances

In responding to the Israel-Hamas war, Biden has had to navigate complex political realities. A strong majority of Jewish Americans have consistently voted for Democrats, but the war is highlighting fault lines in the Democratic Party over Israel policy.

Even so, Sam Markstein of the Republican Jewish Coalition says he thinks this could be a moment to win over some Jewish voters to the GOP. He notes that his organization co-hosted the most recent Republican primary debate.

"The Democratic Party of today has had a very loud and growing and ascendant anti-Israel voice and wing and they've been coddled and enabled by leadership for years," Markstein said. "That, I think, has led to a point where you will see Jewish voters who may have never voted Republican in their lives seriously considering voting Republican for the first time ever in 2024."

But Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America says there's no indication of a major shift. She points to a new poll released Thursday by the Jewish Electorate Institute, in which 74% of Jewish voters said they approve of Biden's handling of the war.

"There is a misconception that is out there regarding Jewish voters that somehow because Republicans have tried to politicize this, that Jewish voters may be leaving Democratic Party or may be leaving their support of President Biden amid this crisis," she said. "And that is patently false."

While Jewish voters make up only a small percentage of the electorate, their turnout numbers are consistently well above-average, Soifer says, and many live in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Ohio.

For Biden, pressure mounts on all sides

The JEI poll also found a generational divide among Jewish voters that somewhat echoes the general population: more than 80 percent of Jewish voters over age 36 approved of Biden's Israel policy, while just over half of younger Jewish voters said they did.

Jay Saper is with Jewish Voice for Peace, a group which describes itself as "anti-Zionist."

"If [Biden] is hoping to inspire young people to turn out to the polls, he cannot further support the Israeli military at this time," Saper said. "We who are in the streets, who are raising our voices, will have to be withholding our votes from the president, if he continues to not call for a ceasefire."

Biden is also facing pressure from Muslim and Arab leaders, who've also warned they will withhold support from candidates who back Israel's continued war against Hamas, begun in response to the terrorist attacks last month that left at least 1,200 Israelis dead. Since then, more than 11,000 people have died in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.

Mark Mellman, founder of the pro-Israel group Democratic Majority for Israel, says as a longtime pollster and strategist, he's skeptical of those threats - particularly with former President Donald Trump as the overwhelming frontrunner in the Republican primary.

"I find it hard to believe that Muslim Americans are going to rally behind the Islamophobe-in-Chief, Donald Trump, who instituted the Muslim travel ban and has said Palestinians should be deported," Mellman predicted. "I just don't see that happening."

At the Israel march, Yaffa Rubinstein says she holds out hope for a two-state solution that will provide a home for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In the meantime, she hopes supporters of Palestinians will not abandon Biden.

"Because if they don't vote for Biden, who's going to win?" Rubinstein asks. "Trump. Do you know what Trump said he would do to them? And you be sure that when he said he will do it, he will do it."

NPR's Elena Moore contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

And we're going to hear more now about the Biden administration's response to the war between Israel and Hamas. The president has had to navigate complex political realities, and he's had to be very diplomatic in his approach to the issue. In an op-ed published yesterday in The Washington Post, he outlined his efforts for peace in the region. But are those efforts resonating domestically? Jewish voters have long been an important Democratic voting bloc, but the war is highlighting fault lines in the Democratic Party over Israel policy. NPR's Sarah McCammon talked with Jewish voters about the crisis and has this report.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Yaffa Rubinstein has long voted for Democrats, and she's a strong supporter of President Biden and his handling of Israel's war against Hamas.

YAFFA RUBINSTEIN: But I'm upset, and I'm sad.

MCCAMMON: Rubinstein is 75. She grew up in Israel but has lived in the U.S. for more than four decades. In the past, Rubinstein says, she's helped Syrian refugees and pushed back against former President Trump's so-called Muslim ban. Now, she feels betrayed by what she describes as anti-Israel sentiment from some left-wing Democrats.

RUBINSTEIN: We met the refugees. I said that if Trump tried to force one of them out, I will protect them in my own home. Where are they now? Where are the progressive Democrats?

MCCAMMON: Rubinstein came from her home in suburban Maryland to a pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. So did Leib Kaminsky of Falls Church, Va. He says he appreciates Biden's support for Israel, but as a gay Jewish man, he's felt isolated by the anti-Semitic rhetoric he's heard from some progressives.

LEIB KAMINSKY: It's extremely difficult being in the LGBTQ community 'cause they have turned their backs on Jews. You try to be as open-minded as possible, but when people are coming at you and, you know, saying that Hamas is right in doing these things and they support the LGBT community, and you're, like, well, these people don't know what's going on.

MCCAMMON: A strong majority of Jewish Americans have consistently voted for Democrats. Even so, Sam Markstein with the Republican Jewish Coalition says he thinks this could be a moment to win over some Jewish voters to the GOP. He notes that his organization hosted the most recent Republican primary debate.

SAM MARKSTEIN: The Democratic Party of today has had a very loud and growing and ascendant anti-Israel voice and wing. And they've been coddled and enabled by leadership for years. And so that, I think, has led to a point where you will see Jewish voters who may have never voted Republican before in their lives seriously considering voting Republican for the first time ever in 2024.

MCCAMMON: But Halie Soifer with the Jewish Democratic Council of America says there's no indication of a major shift. She points to a new poll released Thursday by the Jewish Electorate Institute in which 74% of Jewish voters said they approve of Biden's handling of the war.

HALIE SOIFER: There is a misconception that is out there regarding Jewish voters that somehow - because Republicans have tried to politicize this - that Jewish voters may be leaving the Democratic Party or may be leaving their support of President Biden amid this crisis. And that is patently false.

MCCAMMON: While Jewish voters make up only a small percentage of the electorate, their turnout numbers are consistently well above average, Soifer says, and many live in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio. The JEI poll also found a generational divide among Jewish voters that somewhat echoes the general population. More than 80% of Jewish voters over age 36 approved of Biden's Israel policy, but just over half of younger Jewish voters said they did. Jay Saper is with Jewish Voice for Peace, which describes itself as anti-Zionist.

JAY SAPER: If he is hoping to inspire young people to turn out to the polls, he cannot further support the Israeli military at this time. We who are in the streets, who are raising our voices will have to be withholding our votes from the president if he continues to not call for a cease-fire.

MCCAMMON: Biden is also facing pressure from Muslim and Arab leaders, who've also warned they will withhold support from candidates who back Israel's continued war against Hamas, begun in response to the terrorist attacks last month that left at least 1,200 Israelis dead. Since then, more than 11,000 people have died in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.

At the Israel march, Yaffa Rubinstein says she holds out hope for a two-state solution that will provide a home for both Israelis and Palestinians. In the meantime, she hopes supporters of Palestinians will not abandon Biden.

RUBINSTEIN: Because if they don't vote for Biden, who's going to win? Trump. And then do you know what Trump said about - he will do to them? And you be sure that when he said that he will do it, he will do it.

MCCAMMON: Trump remains the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. He said if he's elected again, he will deport those he sees as sympathizing with Hamas. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALEZ'S "ESCHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.