(The Conversation and The Times of Israel)

The Jewish American Political Issue

Jewish voters head to the polls with a hefty decision to make.

In March, all we could talk about was Covid-19. April: It was groceries and toilet paper. May: the economic downfall caused by the pandemic. June, July, and much of August were occupied by the same worries and anxieties; preoccupation with washing hands and Cloroxing bags from Trader Joe’s and Ralph’s compounded by the daily uptick in deaths and new cases. 

Now the focus has shifted dramatically to an event that had been pushed to the back burner, an issue that normally would have been at the forefront of the nation’s mind since last February: the upcoming 2020 election. Two candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and incumbent Donald Trump, are fiercely battling it out for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Many voters have already formed their opinions on the candidates, but others are waiting for the debates to solidify their vote. 

Jewish-American voters have an added responsibility and an obligation to evaluate the nominees on an additional set of issues. They are considering which candidate will espouse desirable stances on  specific Jewish issues ranging from Israel to rising anti-Semitism in America. The answers to these questions and their impacts may in the end be up to the individual voter, but both candidates’ policies must be thoroughly examined.

An issue on the forefront of Jewish voters’ minds recently has been America’s relationship with Israel. The Democratic nominee, Biden, has a long and positive relationship with Israel and its leaders over the years. In fact, one of his first trips as a senator was to Israel right before the Yom Kippur War. He often recalls meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir when Israel was almost at war with other Arab countries. That being said, he did have a less genial relationship with former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, culminating in a fight over aid to Israel. During the argument, however, Biden never threatened to pull financial aid from Israel. To this day he has never supported withholding aid to Israel in order for them to make concessions, and Biden supported, as vice president, a Memorandum of Understanding in 2016 signed by Obama, authorizing military support for Israel worth more than $30 billion over 10 years. This was the largest financial aid package ever given to Israel. 

Biden supports a two-state-solution. “A priority now for the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace should be resuming our dialogue with the Palestinians and pressing Israel not to take actions that make a two-state solution impossible,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in May. Although Biden continues to support the Iran nuclear deal reached under Obama, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized as being harmful to Israel’s national security, he dsecribes himself as a proud ally of Israel, adopting a more liberal approach to foreign affairs and peace with bordering nations than its current government. As he said to Netanyahu, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.” 

President Trump is also an ardent supporter of Israel. Several significant events have occurred during his administration: the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem, the peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and the peace deal with Bahrain. Moving the  embassy to Jerusalem was contentious, with its supporters arguing that it was simply recognizing Jerusalem as the rightful home of the Jewish people. The move’s detractors, meanwhile, argued that it meant that the U.S. was no longer a neutral force in the Israeli-Palestinain conflict due to the religious and political controversy over Jerusalem. Despite this, Biden has been quoted saying that he would not move the embassy back if he became president, although he would not have moved it in the first place. Additionally, the recent normalization of relations between Israel and the nations of Bahrain and the UAE are also significant developments towards a more stable Middle East, though the deal’s detractors note that Israel has never actually been at war with either country, and the deals are more of an open acknowledgement of a tenuous peace than the creation of a new relationship. President Trump is a supporter and a fan of Benjamin Netanyahu, taking a more conservative stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The issue of anti-Semitism lingers fresh on the mind of many Jewish voters, as the wounds of Pittsburgh and Poway continue to fester. In recent months anti-Semitism seems to have increased in the media and on the lips of public figures, taking numerous forms, from anti-Zionism to blatant anti-Semitism. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ website includes an entire page dedicated to “Joe Biden’s Agenda for the Jewish Community.” It addresses numerous issues, from building peace between Israelis and Palestinians to Biden’s belief that “Jewish heritage is American heritage.” Within this agenda, Biden lists a specific plan to eradicate anti-Semetism within America, by “lead[ing] a comprehensive approach to battling anti-Semitism that takes seriously both the violence that accompanies it and the hateful and dangerous lies that underlie it.” It also mentions Biden’s plan to restore funding to address domestic terrorism and enact legislation that addresses the relationship between extremism and gun violence. Biden’s intention to eradicate anti-Semitism stems from the very beginning of his campaign, when he cited one of the main reasons for his running for president was the Charlottesville rally of 2017, when neo-Nazis marched in the streets, infamously shouting, “The Jews will not replace us.”

Donald Trump has not been as outspoken on his intent to fight anti-Semitism as Biden, and indeed has made some questionable comments in the past, relying on anti-Semitic tropes when refering to Jewish people. President Trump did author legislation which prohibited discrimination based on religion on college campuses, in an effort to combat anti-Semitism. This move was criticized by some who believed that this would restrict free speech at universities, but garnered support from many, due to the rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist comments directed at Jewish students on many college campuses. 

President Trump has also been widely criticized for remarks that draw on anti-Semitic tropes. At the Israeli American Council National Summit in 2019, Trump was quoted saying, “A lot of you are in the real estate business…You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me, you have no choice…You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax,” relying on the stereotype that Jews are miserly and greedy. Again in 2019, he said, “Any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” referringto two Democratic congresswomen who were barred from entering Israel over their lack of support for Israel in reference to its treatment of Palestinians. Many were angered by this quote, saying it references the anti-Semitic idea of dual loyalty by questioning the loyalty and patriotism of Jewish Americans. The president’s defenders say Trump’s remarks were taken out of context. Others, including Vice President Pence, have noted that the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her children are Jewish.

The Anti-Defamation League found that the number of acts targeting Jews specifically and Jewish institutions rose 34%  after the2016 election, and then to 86% in the beginning of 2017. Even if Trump is not overtly anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism has flourished under him like during no other administration. People who support his views on immigration have targeted Jews and outwardly white supremacists say they feel emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. 

Despite the various strengths and shortcomings of both candidates, President Trump and former Vice President Biden have marketed themselves as strong Jewish allies. Joe Biden, a Catholic, has often displayed his wide collection of kippot, and when called a “mensch” at a political event in Ohio in 2016, he joked “[I]f I’m going to switch, I know where I’m going.” Trump has said, “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” 

Many Jews are not one-issue voters. They will look at how the issues of Judaism and Israel have been addressed by Biden and Trump, but also at how Biden played a role within the Obama administration and his extensive history within the Senate, the way that the Trump administration has enacted legislation and handled, or mishandled, our current health, racial justice, and economic crises. 

As Jews, just as all Americans, head to the polls in the coming weeks, it is critical at this defining moment in our history that voters make an informed choice on who will be the next leader of our country.

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Ayla Kattler is a sophomore at ​Milken Community High School in California. ​She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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