Trump vs. Biden: a Jewish Primer

By Martin J. Raffel, Board Member, Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania

We are approaching what many have described as the most important election of our lifetimes. American Jewish voters can make a difference, especially in some of the “battleground states.” Surveys have consistently shown that Jews choose their parties and candidates based on the same domestic criteria as most other Americans, including healthcare, the economy, the environment, and matters of social and economic justice.

Historically, Jews have shown a strong preference for the Democratic Party and its candidates. This is not surprising given Jewish political sensibilities. According to a 2019 survey by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute, there are more than twice as many Jewish liberals (42%) as Jewish conservatives (20%), with 37% identifying as moderates.

As all Americans, Jews look at how the Trump administration has mishandled the pandemic and the resulting economic dislocation. They look at how the administration has mishandled the protests and civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of a police officer. They look at the administration’s response, or lack thereof, to Russian interference in the 2016 election, interference that continues to this very day. They look at the president’s demeaning of women, immigrants and asylum-seekers, certain minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, military war heroes and red star families.

Because honesty is a Jewish value (e.g., vigorously fighting against Holocaust denial), they look with disdain at the president’s assault on truth and his attacks on the media with his constant charge of “fake news.” Given our history and respect for America’s democratic institutions, Jews look nervously at the president’s authoritarian tendencies. Trump is now acting on those tendencies to try to steal the 2020 election by falsely discrediting reliable mail-in voting, which is especially necessary during a pandemic, undermining the viability of the postal service, limiting the use of ballot drop boxes and otherwise doing everything in his power to suppress voter turnout. Therefore, no doubt, most Jews will vote for the Joe Biden/ Kamala Harris ticket.

However, there may still be some Jews who will vote for Trump because they believe his economic philosophy is more closely aligned with theirs. Yet, other Jews may consider voting for Trump because they believe the false claims that he has been the “best president” Israel has ever had in the White House, and that the Democratic Party has become antagonistic to Israel. This Q/A document is intended to enable Democratic candidates and activists to effectively counter that false narrative when speaking to Jewish audiences, writing op-ed pieces and letters-to-the-editor, and preparing for town hall meetings and debates.

Is Trump good for American Jews and Israel?

  • Meeting for the first time, President Kennedy asked Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion what he could do for Israel. Ben-Gurion’s response: “Mr. President, be a good president to the United States.” Unequivocally, Trump has been bad for the United States.

  • America has been Israel’s reliable friend in a world that has been less than hospitable to the one and only Jewish state. Therefore, it is in Israel’s fundamental security interest for the U.S. to be strong militarily, economically, and diplomatically. It is important to remember that control of the White House and Congress swings back and forth between the two parties. Therefore, it is vital for American support for Israel to remain bipartisan. Trump’s persistent efforts to make Israel a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats undermines the resilience of this pillar of American support.  

Has Trump maintained American strength?

  • The answer is a resounding “no.” We are suffering through a once in a century pandemic that is far worse than it needed to be because of the abject failure in national leadership. More than six months after the first cases of Covid-19 erupted, we still have no overall strategic plan for dealing with this virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 165,000 of our fellow citizens, crippled our economy with skyrocketing deficits and high unemployment rates, and caused allies in Western Europe and elsewhere to regard us with pity rather than respect. Trump’s ineptitude in dealing with the virus in the economy also has had a devastating impact on the Jewish nonprofit sector, including advocacy organizations such as AIPAC, which had to cancel its 2021 annual policy conference.

  • The erosion of American influence and leadership long preceded Covid-19. Following issuing his chilling “America First” mantra, with its resonance to U.S. pre-World War II isolationism, Trump demeaned the critical NATO alliance, encouraged Russian readmission to the G-7 against the wishes of our allies, withdrew U.S. support from previously signed international agreements such as the Paris Agreement on climate, and fawned over some of the world’s worst dictators such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Russian interference in our democracy, under the Trump presidency, has not only gone unchallenged. It has been encouraged.    

  • American strength also is dependent on basic societal cohesiveness. The country was experiencing significant polarization and partisanship before Trump took office. But his irresponsible rhetoric and policies have torn America’s social fabric into shreds. Racial divisiveness appears to be integral to Trump’s reelection strategy. A house divided cannot stand for itself, let alone for others such as Israel.

What is Trump’s connection to antisemitism in America?

  • Anti-Semitic hate crimes are rising at an alarming pace, and, according to the Anti-Defamation League 2019 saw the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents since tracking began in 1979.

  • It is impossible to know whether Trump, himself, is an anti-Semite, although he has used stereotypical references occasionally when speaking to Jewish groups. But the noted Emory University scholar Professor Deborah Lipstadt readily characterizes him as an antisemitism enabler. In her book “Anti-Semitism: Here and Now,” she asserts that in his rhetoric Trump has “hit almost every millennial-old anti-Semitic stereotype.”  

  • Extremist groups on the far right have been emboldened by the president’s rhetoric, such as “there are fine people on both sides” following the march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us.” Once again, David Duke, the notorious racist and former KKK member, has endorsed Trump for president and urged him to replace Mike Pence with Tucker Carlson because he has espoused “white ethnic cleansing in America.”

  • The Jewish community was traumatized by the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest assault against Jews in this nation’s history. The mass murderer responsible for the assault had listened to the president’s words about an alleged large-scale “invasion” of illegals coming into America from the southern border. He wanted to punish this Jewish congregation, which had hosted a program with the pro-immigration organization HIAS, and, in his twisted mind, was abetting the so-called invasion.  

Wasn’t Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy a great thing?

  • Yes, symbolically, it was positive. But it did nothing to enhance Israel’s security, nor did it move the international community any closer to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It made it difficult even for those Arab countries that otherwise might want rapprochement with Israel to move in that direction. This explains why every U.S. president, Republican and Democrat, campaigns on the issue of moving the embassy, but once elected, resists doing so knowing it only will further complicate chances for negotiations between the parties.

  • Trump’s decision is inconsistent with previously signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the Oslo Accords, brokered by the U.S. and supported by the international community, which called for the status of Jerusalem to be resolved only through negotiations.

  • At the end of the day, the Jewish people did not need Trump to recognize Jerusalem as their eternal capital. That is a historical fact going back three millennia.

What about Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights?

  • No one was pressing Israel to relinquish control over any part of the Golan Heights, especially since Iran and terrorist groups are operating today in Syria.  Again, this recognition was purely a symbolic gesture that changes nothing on the ground, does not affect the legal status of the Golan (in December 1981, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 497, which declared Israel’s annexation “null and void’), and only engendered international ill will.

How about Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal?

  • The Iran deal was complex and there were many credible arguments both for and against.  While Israeli political leaders generally opposed the deal, there were many Israeli military and security experts who favored it.

  • The organized American Jewish community also was deeply divided on the issue, reflecting the issue’s complexity and an understanding that the sides could not be understood simply from a normal ‘right-left’ perspective.

  • Trump’s decision to pull out has shattered the international sanctions consensus that the Obama administration had meticulously built over time to confront Iran.

  • Iran, feeling released from its obligations under the deal because of Trump’s unilateral action, has resumed largely unchecked uranium enrichment. Until Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Commission had concluded that Iran was in full compliance. In the wake of Trump’s action, Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups has escalated along with other of its malign activities in the region.

  • Even some groups that had originally opposed the deal, like the American Jewish Committee, disagreed with the decision to pull out because of its negative effect on the U.S.-European alliance on the issue.  

Isn’t Trump’s decision to declare Israeli settlements to be consistent with international law and his ‘Deal of the Century’ peace plan, which sanctions Israeli annexation of 30% of the West Bank, a win for Israel against the Palestinians?

  • It may be a political win for Israel’s right wing, but it is far from a win for Israeli security. It seriously erodes, if not kills altogether, the potential for separating the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea into two states, a state of Palestine living side by side in peace with Israel. That scenario might look remote now, and Palestinian intransigence over the years must be acknowledged. But we ought to keep pursuing the two-state outcome as it is the only viable way of sustaining the Zionist dream of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.

  • Most Israelis and Palestinians support the two-state outcome, which remains a consensus position of the international community. The Trump peace plan might refer to two states, but it is nothing more than a prescription for an unworkable binational Jewish-Palestinian state.

  • In addition, Israel’s possible unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank would undermine the stability of the Palestinian Authority, whose ongoing security cooperation with Israel has thwarted terrorism, and Jordan, a vital strategic partner to Israel’s east.

Yes, but doesn’t the groundbreaking Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreement to normalize their relations, which was facilitated by the Trump administration, make peace more likely?

  • The agreement between Israel and the UAE to move toward normalized relations, which the Trump administration deserves credit for encouraging, is a welcome development, and we hope such agreements will be reached with other Arab states in the months and years ahead.

  • That the Israeli government has suspended its intention to annex areas of the West Bank also is a positive development, although it would be preferable for this step to be made permanent. Contrary to the vision of the Trump peace plan, which recognizes a right of Israel to annex part of the West Bank unilaterally, the status of this territory should not be altered outside of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. To do otherwise would violate agreements previously signed by Israel.

  • Trump has irreparably damaged our relationship with the Palestinians through a variety of actions taken these last three years. Therefore, the leverage we might have had to build on the Israel-UAE agreement to advance the peace process is lost. A Biden administration, which has pledged to restore our relationship with the Palestinians, will be in a much better position to achieve a peace agreement based on two states for two peoples.

  • It is important to understand that the driving force behind the Israel-UAE agreement was not U.S. policy. The UAE and other Sunni Gulf states long have viewed Israel as a vital ally in their confrontation with a hegemonic and malign Shiite Iran.  Their security cooperation, mostly carried out under the radar, has been going on for many years. The decision to go public with the Israel-UAE relationship less than three months before the 2020 election — rather than doing so a year ago or a year from now — reasonably could be understood as being politically motivated to help Trump’s re-election bid.

  • At the end of the day, the most important thing for Israel’s long-term security is for the U.S. to be strong and healthy and respected by the international community. On this, Trump has been an abysmal failure. A Biden-Harris administration can and will reverse America’s decline.

Doesn’t the fact that Trump pledged his unshakeable loyalty to Israel’s security count?

  • Tell that to the Kurds, the courageous people who fought and died alongside American forces fighting ISIS in Syria. Trump precipitously pulled our troops out of the Syrian-Turkey border, and Turkish forces promptly invaded the area, killing Kurdish civilians and forcing tens of thousands from their homes.  After three and a half years in office, it should be clear to all that Donald Trump’s loyalty first and foremost is to Donald Trump.
  • When Congress passed bipartisan resolutions in 2019 seeking to reassert its oversight role with respect to an $8.1 billion sale of highly sophisticated military equipment to Saudi Arabia, Trump vetoed the resolutions arguing that American jobs were at stake. He did so without any reference to the potential implications for Israel’s security.

Biden and Harris are good for the Jewish Community and Israel

What is Biden’s relationship with the Jewish community and his position on Jewish security?

  • First elected to the Senate in 1972, Joe Biden has an almost half century record of unwavering support for the Jewish community and Israel.  

  • The Charlottesville event and Trump’s ignominious response to it led Biden to get into the presidential race as a fight “for the soul of the nation.”  Unlike Trump, he will not hesitate to condemn extremism and hatred whatever the source. Biden is committed to adoption of a domestic terrorism law and to a more robust prosecution of hate crimes through the Department of Justice. And he intends to promote the enactment of sensible gun security laws that will break the nexus between extremism and gun violence.

Isn’t the Democratic Party hostile to Israel?

  • The short answer is an unequivocal ‘no,’ regardless of what Trump and the Republicans argue during the campaign. They will point to a small number of party members who have been less than friendly to Jews and Israel and assert that they are the “face” of the party. This is a calculated attempt to find a wedge issue for the campaign.

  • The “face” of the party is its presidential candidate Joe Biden and it is his record on Israel that really counts. In addition, over the years Speaker Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Schumer, Representative Steny Hoyer and many other Democratic leaders in Congress have consistently voiced strong support for Israel and do so as perennial speakers at all mainstream Jewish organizations, including AIPAC.

What is Biden’s record on Israel?

  • Biden has been in the forefront of reinforcing Israel’s long-term security needs. In his role as Vice President, he was instrumental in securing support for the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow-3 anti-rocket and missile defense systems that have saved countless Israeli lives. In addition, he helped shape the unprecedented $38 billion ten-year memorandum of understanding for defense assistance to Israel signed in 2016, the largest military aid package in American history. He adamantly opposes conditioning Israel’s military assistance package to changes in Israeli policy.

  • Biden has led efforts to block the delegitimization of Israel both at the international level and here at home where the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) Movement has campaigned against Israel in the community and on the college campuses. Instead of promoting the Israeli government’s annexation of West Bank territory, which can only strengthen BDS, Biden will seek to bring about a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state formula, consistent with U.S. and Israeli security interests.

  • Biden has made it clear that Iran will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon on his watch. He is committed to strengthening the JCPOA and working with our allies to mitigate Iran’s other malign activities in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.

  • Perhaps most important of all, Biden will strive to restore the bipartisanship that historically characterized American support for Israel and will reject any attempt to turn Israel into a political football. Described even by his political adversaries as a “mensch,” Biden has a proven decades long track record of bringing Democrats and Republicans together.

Didn’t the Obama-Biden administration allow the United Nations to adopt an anti-Israel resolution in 2016 (UNSC 2334)?

  • The U.S. abstained from UN Security Council Resolution 2334 declaring Israeli settlements to be contrary to international law. This resolution, which contained no sanctions, was intended to convey to Israel how harmful its settlement activity was to the goal of two states. The abstention on 2334 did not change the administration’s fundamental policy that permanent borders and the status of settlements needed to be resolved through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

  • There have been many occasions when Israel has not agreed with U.S. decisions, during both Republican and Democratic administrations. Friends can disagree without it affecting the fundamental foundation of their friendship. In this case, the Netanyahu government did not hesitate to strongly criticize the abstention. Given Trump’s sensitivity about being criticized, one wonders whether any Israeli government would feel the same freedom to publicly criticize one of the President’s decisions.

  • The strong reaction to the resolution is somewhat surprising given that many similar resolutions condemning Israeli settlement activity were adopted by the Security Council. After 2334’s adoption, the respected Jewish journalist J.J. Goldberg wrote that since 1981 there had been 29 “blatantly one-sided [Security Council resolutions] criticizing, deploring or condemning Israel and its actions.”  Some of those resolutions also characterized Israeli settlements as illegal. In terms of one-sided resolutions critical of Israel endorsed by the U.S. or allowed to pass without veto, 16 took place during Reagan’s administration, 7 during Bush the father’s administration, 3 during Bush the son’s administration, 2 during Clinton’s administration, and only 1 during Obama’s administration.

What is Kamala Harris’ relationship with the Jewish community and record on Israel?

  • Just as Joe Biden has had a strong and warm relationship with the Jewish community, Kamala Harris has had a similarly strong and warm relationship, especially with the Jewish community of the Bay Area and California.  

  • In Harris’ role as San Francisco District Attorney and then as California Attorney General, she took a strong stand against violent crime, including hate crimes. As DA she created a separate hate crimes unit.

  • Like Biden, Harris is a centrist on domestic issues and Israel-related matters. She has made several trips to Israel, the first in 2004 under the auspices of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council.

  • Harris has consistently expressed support for the U.S.-Israel alliance and for U.S. assistance to help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge.

  • Like Biden, while Harris supports a negotiated two-state outcome and opposes Israel’s annexation of sections of the West Bank, she does not support conditioning of U.S. aid to Israel to influence its policies.

  • Also, like Biden, Harris supports the U.S. rejoining the JCPOA if Iran complies with its requirements and would work with our allies to strengthen and expand the reach of the deal.

  • Harris is married to Jewish lawyer Douglas Emhoff, who, with victory in November, would become the country’s first Jewish second husband.

What does the Democratic Party platform say about Israel?

  • The platform, adopted on July 27, is strongly supportive of Israel, reflecting Joe Biden’s moderate centrist approach. The platform language states Democrats believe in a “strong, secure and democratic Israel,” as “vital” to the interests of the U.S.  In addition, it expresses an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge and to the 2016 memorandum of understanding. There is no conditionality, per Biden’s views, to the maintenance of U.S. military support.

  • On Iran, according to the platform, “Democrats support a comprehensive diplomatic effort to extend constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and address Iran’s other threatening activities, including its regional aggression, ballistic missile program, and domestic repression.”

  • Democrats, the platform asserts, “support a negotiated two-state solution that ensures Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state with recognized borders and upholds the right of Palestinians to live in freedom and security in a viable state of their own.”

  • “We oppose any effort,” the platform asserts, “to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, while protecting the Constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.”

  • The platform addresses resumption of aid to the Palestinians consistent with American law. Looking at this issue in zero-sum terms is self-defeating, and contrary to Israel’s interests in pursuing an agreement with the Palestinians that will bring an end to the century-old conflict that has produced bloodshed and tragedy on both sides.

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