Republicans are trying to lure Jewish voters from the Democratic Party by using Israel and anti-Semitism as wedge issues and by creating a campaign — that turns the story of Jewish slavery into something of a quip — to target millennials.
President Donald Trump has gone so far as to assert that Democrats don’t care about Jews or Israel.
But the so-called “Jexodus” that the White House and other conservative lawmakers have trumpeted is little more than a barebones website created by a political operative with close ties to the Trump campaign and other far-right causes.
Republicans are insisting there is a sizable and growing movement among American Jews — especially younger ones — to abandon the Democratic Party for supposedly embracing anti-Semitism, or at least anti-Israel positions. Trump himself made the case this week via Twitter, signal boosting one of his own former campaign staffers who is now purportedly the face a new group calling itself “Jexodus.”
“Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party. We saw a lot of anti Israel policies start under the Obama Administration, and it got worsts & worse. There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party. They don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.” Elizabeth Pipko, Jexodus.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2019
The “Jexodus” that Trump promoted to his 59 million followers? It’s little more than a landing page, set up the day before the 2018 midterm elections, directing people to sparse Twitter and Facebook accounts. The first thing on the homepage states: “We are proud Jewish Millennials tired of living in bondage to leftist politics.”
One might reasonably assume the “we” in that sentence refers to a collection of like-minded Jewish millennials, but in fact the entire “Jexodus” operation is the brainchild of Jeff Ballabon, a far-right Trump campaign adviser in his mid 50s. Ballabon has been predicting an end to the Jewish community’s support for Democratic candidates for more than a decade, and his “Jexodus” campaign is just the latest effort to bring his empty promise to fruition.
“Any time you create a new term for the purpose of utter partisan politics, it’s really damaging, and I think it’s the dangerous weaponization of anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a social justice organization. He also noted the sheer irony of trying to make a portmanteau of “Jew” and “Exodus.”
“It makes it hard to differentiate what is truly anti-Semitism and what is partisan politicization,” Pesner said.
For the past few weeks, congressional lawmakers of all political persuasions have gone to great, sometimes embarrassing, lengths to demonstrate their unwavering support for Israel, their disgust with anti-Semitism, and their disapproval of colleagues who don’t similarly fall into line.
The latest iteration of this age-old ritual began with a series of tweets last month from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who used some troubling language that bought into anti-Semitic tropes to level criticism toward the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
The White House called on Omar to resign. Democrats, loath to cede any ground on the issue of Israel, demanded Omar apologize for her comments, which she did. And conservative political operatives quickly seized on the opportunity for their own political gain.
The allure of politicizing anti-Semitism to the detriment of Democrats’ electoral prospects was enough to get Ballabon booked on conservative cable news following the flair-up over Omar’s tweets. In early March, he appeared on Fox Business News and repeatedly called Omar “filth” before host Stuart Varney stepped in and asked if he felt comfortable using such strong language about one of two Muslim women in Congress.
“I’m using this as a Jew,” said Ballabon. “I’m using this as someone whose family directly feels threatened — literally threatened, physically threatened — in the culture that’s being created now by the mainstreaming by the Democrats of these kinds of people.”
Ballabon appeared far more comfortable days earlier, when he took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference to formally announce his “Jexodus” campaign alongside Sebastian Gorka, the former Trump administration staffer and a sworn member of a Hungarian Nazi group.
Ballabon’s selective concern about anti-Semitism is a microcosm of the GOP’s attitude toward the issue.
“The Republican strategy is to somehow weaponize the charge of anti-Semitism in order to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the progressive group J Street, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s the cynical and political manipulation on the right to turn this into a political football.”
It’s also not a new tactic. Republicans have for decades tried to undermine Jewish support for Democratic candidates, with each attempt falling flat.
“There’s a constant effort by Republican operatives to peel off Democratic voters,” said Ben-Ami. “It just doesn’t work. American Jews are a base-Democratic constituency.”
Since the turn of this century, the smallest proportion of Jewish voters to support a Democrat in a presidential election was 69 percent, for President Barack Obama’s reelection. In 2016, 74 percent of Jewish voters supported Hillary Clinton and 24 percent backed Trump. In the 2018 midterms, the margin grew even further, with Democrats capturing 79 percent of Jewish voters.
“[Jewish voters] are not budging,” said Ben-Ami. “This is a failing political strategy, and is not going to serve them well.”
Indeed, the Republican fixation on Omar’s comments appear to have little to do with combating anti-Semitism. If anything, the party has spent the last three years demonstrating a willingness to tolerate or even openly embrace anti-Semites and engage in anti-Semitism themselves when politically expedient.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), one of just two Republican Jewish members of Congress, hosted a fundraiser last year with Gorka and white supremacist Steve Bannon, the former Trump aide who has been linked to white nationalism by the Republican Senate Leadership Fund. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) considers himself a white supremacist. Several avowed neo-Nazis won Republican primaries during the 2018 midterm elections. And when violent gangs took to the streets in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 shouting “Jews will not replace us” to counter-protesters, Trump initially refused to condemn them, saying there were “very fine people” on both sides.
If Jewish voters make up a base constituency of Democratic voters, anti-Semites have become vocal supporters of Republicans.
While Republicans say they care about the well-being of the Jewish people, their passion actually is Israel. As far back as the presidential campaign, Trump prioritized the far-right’s long standing effort to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, over the strong objections of much of the international community, Middle East policy experts, and members of his own cabinet.
Trump has no stronger foreign ally than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And while the overwhelming majority of voters in his own country disapprove of him, Trump’s approval ratings in Israel are overwhelmingly positive.
Republicans’ support for Israel is not about winning meaningful numbers of Jewish votes. It is, however, about winning evangelical ones.
For starters, Jews make up a tiny fraction of the American electorate. The Pew Research Center estimates that less than 2 percent of Americans identify as Jewish, and a disproportionate number live in heavily Democratic areas like New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Comparatively, evangelicals make up a quarter of the electorate, and they support Israel almost as overwhelmingly as Jewish voters. A central tenet of evangelical Christianity is that Israel was ordained by God as a home for the Jewish people. A 2017 poll of evangelical attitudes toward Israel found that 69 percent believe Jews have a historical right to the land, and 80 percent believe that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy that will shepherd the return of Jesus Christ.
The idea of a sovereign Jewish homeland is shared by an overwhelming majority of Jews as well, but for American Jewish voters, Israel is not a top voting issue.
“Jewish voters understand that the Democratic Party is not only pro-Israel, but that it also shares their concerns about a wide range of domestic issues,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “Most Jews are not one-issue voters.”
Polling backs it up. In the 2018 midterm elections, just 4 percent of Jewish voters identified Israel as one of their two most important issues when deciding whom to vote for. In fact, Israel didn’t crack the top 10. Jewish voters share the same concerns as non-Jewish Americans, with health care, gun violence, the social safety net, the economy, and immigration making up the top five voting concerns.
“The intended audience for many Republicans is their base for whom their issue is actually not about the best interests of Israel,” said Ben-Ami, of J Street. “It is a values issue. Israel has become objectified.”
And the inability to have an honest, nuanced conversation about Israel, Jewish settlements, and Palestinian sovereignty is destructive, said Pesner.
“It is absolutely not only reasonable, but it is responsible to be critical of the government of the State of Israel,” Pesner told ThinkProgress. “Whether one is a Jew or not a Jew, that in and of itself is not anti-Semitism. It really is dangerous if we can’t have an honest dialogue about Israel.”