Warning signs for Biden’s Jewish support as war in Gaza drags on and antisemitism rises

Alarm is rising in Democratic circles that the turmoil set off by the October 7 attack by Hamas and Israel’s bloody war launched in response is becoming yet another weight on President Joe Biden’s reelection, with warning signs flashing over Jewish voters’ support for the president.

For all the attention over how the Israel-Hamas war has endangered Biden’s standing with Arab-Americans and progressives who have taken up the cause of Palestinians in key states, Jewish Americans – who make up enough of the population to be determinative in tight battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona – have been scrambled too.

While the Biden campaign has been hosting a regular “Jewish Women for Joe” Zoom call and will soon hire a faith engagement director who will have Jewish voters as a major portfolio, several Jewish leaders complained privately to CNN that they have not seen enough direct engagement. Multiple Jewish elected Democrats and Democratic voters told CNN about being disappointed and abandoned by progressive allies, of feeling “politically homeless” both because they think Biden hasn’t done enough and because they worry he can’t control his own left.

Some of that outreach is being filled in by government work: Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a screening at the White House of a film about Hamas’s use of sexual violence, and on Sunday, second gentleman Doug Emhoff will be part of a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, site of the 2018 hate crime shooting.

Still, conversations about a possible drift toward Donald Trump, though, are evident in the several Jewish elected Democratic leaders who grimaced and ducked when asked by CNN to discuss their sense of Jewish support for Biden. Those worries are also evident in the email that megadonor Haim Saban sent to Biden advisers complaining about the president’s shift on restricting some of the munitions provided to Israel.

Talking with Jewish voters in Michigan, “I’ve had a couple of people say point blank, ‘How could any Jew vote for a Democrat?’” said Troy Zukowski, the West Michigan chair of the Michigan Jewish Democrats. “I’m not so concerned about Jews who may vote for Trump. I’m more concerned about those who may vote for third party spoiler candidates or not vote at all.”

The pain and tension erupted late last month at a White House briefing held right before the Rose Garden event celebrating Jewish American Heritage month, where Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden talked about fighting antisemitism, and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby talked about the situation in Israel.

Why, one person in the room asked Kirby, was there a NSC official who in college had been part of Students for Justice in Palestine? Why, another asked Finer, had all the references to antisemitism been removed from the president’s State of the Union address in March, pushing an unsubstantiated rumor that has been circulating for months?

The NSC official, Kirby said, is a professional. The rumor, Finer said, is not true.

“It was a very tough crowd for a room of people you have to assume all voted for Joe Biden four years ago,” said one of the people in the room who asked not to be named.

The president does have some key Jewish voices of support in important places.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, an observant Jew – he’s the first American governor ever to have a kosher kitchen prepared in an executive mansion – who leads a key battleground state, said he worries about several things: The rise in and seeming acceptance of antisemitism, what the current Israeli government is doing and the conflation of antisemitism with criticisms of the Israeli government.

But, what he does not worry about is many Jews giving up on Biden.

“They’re looking at it less through a political prism and more from a standpoint of survival and being able to live with freedom and dignity in their communities,” he said.

Shapiro urged any doubters to take another look at the president, and also to think about what he said is the way Trump conflates the topics and makes accusations of dual loyalty, arguing, “that in and of itself is antisemitic.”

“If you go back in the history of the world and look at the leadership of every dictator, from Pharaoh to Hitler to Kim Jong-un, at what point in our history when a dictator has been leading a nation has a minority group done well? Donald Trump will eviscerate the rights of minority groups, including American Jews, if he is given the power of the presidency again. History tells us that.”

But Biden faces a series of looming big questions that are not only about a ceasefire and hostage release.

Democrats are already in knots over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled address to Congress on July 24, which almost certainly will be marked by boycotts and interruptions. Big pro-Palestinian protests are expected at – and inside – the Democratic convention in August, in addition to what may become a newly fraught fight that has been had before over what to include about Israel in the official party platform, including stating that Jerusalem should remain the capital.

Then, less than a month before the election, Biden will have to decide how to mark the anniversary of October 7, amid whatever the situation in Gaza is by then.

Tension between Biden’s longtime support for Israel and his political future

Two weeks ago, Emhoff led the latest Jewish-centered outreach at a reelection fundraiser, standing near the front of a new outpost of famed Lower East Side fish purveyors Russ & Daughters and worked through an answer to a question about what gives him hope.

The night before, protesters wrapped in keffiyehs unfurled a “Long Live Oct. 7th” banner at the Lower Manhattan memorial to the people killed that day at the Nova Music Festival. Hours after, the Brooklyn home of a museum director who is Jewish was being splattered with red paint and a sign naming her a “WHITE SUPREMACIST ZIONIST.”

The room in Manhattan listening to Emhoff was full of alarm. Ben Stiller, chitchatting in line waiting to take a photo with Emhoff with both making the “Zoolander“ Blue Steel face, and comedian Alex Edelman’s darkly sarcastic introduction about how great everything was going for Jews in America, only lightened their mood so much.

The tension was reflective of the internal debate about what Biden should be doing and saying in response to the situation in Israel, and the situation’s potential to swamp his reelection campaign, which has been raging inside the West Wing and among his political advisers almost since October 8.

Few non-Jews have spent as much time over their careers talking about antisemitism as Biden. It cuts to the president’s core – as does, he often says, his commitment to Israel.

Biden often talks about how he ran for president because of his rage at Trump’s “very fine people, on both sides” reaction to the neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, calling out the “same antisemitic bile” as Hitler’s Germany.

In addition to the larger political strain over how to settle the war Biden has said now has to end, Biden has also been forced to grapple with antisemitism becoming a regular feature of many protests on college campuses and beyond. That includes when some protesters were chanting “Kill a Zionist!” outside the White House the first weekend in June.

Biden and his spokespeople have condemned many similar moments, with words like “horrifying” and “sickening” regularly appearing in White House statements about incidents that few other political leaders have called out.

Trump supporters see an opening with Jewish voters

Trump, meanwhile, is now attempting to move past his often bumbling and occasionally offensive appeals to Jewish Americans to earn their vote.

“If you want pretty tweets, vote for Biden. If you don’t want dead Israelis, vote for Trump,” said Morgan Ortagus, a spokesperson for the State Department under Trump, in a staged debate with the Jewish Democratic Council of America CEO Haile Soifer about the election in front of a crowd of hundreds at the American Jewish Committee’s conference in Washington last Tuesday.

But in one measure of how they went over, when Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan took the stage for the next session, he received two standing ovations: one before and one after two anti-Israel protesters walked up to interrupt him.

Israel has often proved to be a vexing topic for Trump to speak about during his comparatively brief political career. Trump’s support among Jewish voters in 2020, at 30% according to Associated Press exit polls, was the highest for a Republican presidential candidate in decades.

The former president is frustrated he didn’t get more support from Jewish voters for the long-sought moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem and has many times made comments like the ones he made in April, saying that “any Jewish person that votes for Biden does not love Israel, and frankly, should be spoken to.”

The Abraham Accords normalizing Israeli relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates negotiated under Trump were a significant and substantive move toward peace. But in the first weeks after October 7, Trump said Netanyahu has “rightfully been criticized” for failing to stop a “very smart” Hamas.

He has offered no substantive alternative proposals for getting to a deal or long-term post conflict plan. He has not condemned antisemitic incidents, and often talks about hostages in reference to the January 6, 2021, Capitol rioters in prison, not the estimated 120 Israelis (including five American citizens) still being held by Hamas.

But protests and the many incidents like Jews being screamed at and harassed on college campuses through the spring are what Lee Zeldin, a Jewish former GOP congressman from New York, said is where the political risk is for Biden.

“Right now, the Democratic Party is in a moment where they have to choose to successfully lead these forces instead of being led by them,” Zeldin said. “Every effort to pander to [Palestinian American Congresswoman] Rashida Tlaib and those ‘Abandon Biden’ voters in Michigan has the risk of alienating Jewish voters in the Detroit suburbs.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition, of which Zeldin is on the board, is planning to spend at least $15 million in micro-targeted support of Trump and other Republican candidates in states where Jewish voters make up more than the margins of victories in recent races. The expected central theme of that effort, according to one of the people involved, will be: As a Jewish American, do you feel safer than you did four years ago?

Crucial role for the first Jewish second gentleman

Emhoff has often spoken about how the reaction to him as the first Jew to be in his position inspired him to get more involved in Jewish life than he had been, and that the issues he has encountered on the job – including working on Biden’s national strategy to combat antisemitism, helping lead the collective response to October 7 and visiting the Jewish summer camp he attended as a child – have only made him feel that connection more.

In addition to the symbolism, like hosting an annual Passover seder with Harris and putting a mezuzah (the mark of a Jewish home) on the doorframe of their official residence at the Naval Observatory, Emhoff has thrown himself into public events and private conversations with prominent leaders of major organizations and youth leaders his office has identified.

He has been carrying this into his campaigning as the one to directly respond to Trump on the top, posting a video of him watching the former president declare that Jews who vote for Biden “should have their heads examined.” Emhoff looked into the camera: “The last person I’m going to take advice from as a Jewish person is a known antisemite, who’s had dinner with antisemites, who said there was ‘good people’ on both sides after Charlottesville.”

“It speaks volumes about his commitment to this work and how important it is to him and the administration,” said Andrew Weinstein, a prominent lawyer and Jewish community leader from Florida who helped organize the fundraiser at Russ & Daughters. “Given his platform as the first Jewish spouse of an American vice president, it’s quite significant.”

“It’s tough right now,” Emhoff said at the fundraiser, adding that part of what he is going through him is “processing my rage and how I still feel about what happened on October 7.”

“You cannot forget about those kids at the music festival. You can’t forget about those babies that were burned, those women that were raped and murdered and left on the side of the road to die,” he said. “We cannot forget any of them. We cannot forget the hostages.”

Incidents like “these so-called protesters, who were just saying the most vile and inhumane things” at the music festival memorial in New York, Emhoff said, “makes me sick.”

But that, he argued, has led to another reason he is rallying support for Biden in November.

“He’s been there for us and for me personally, especially as it relates to antisemitism and the work I’ve been doing,” Emhoff said of the president. “So, let’s now be there for Joe.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Haile Soifer.

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