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Steve Sheffey's Pro-Israel Political Update

Calling balls and strikes for the pro-Israel community since 2006

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August 20, 2023

Key Takeaways:

  • It's time to retire the kishkes test. Feelings, no matter how genuine, don't necessarily translate into policy that is good for the U.S. or Israel.

  • It's time to stop lauding bipartisanship. We should judge legislation on its merits, not on whether both parties, one of which has become an anti-democratic cult of personality, support it.

  • Democracy is the most important issue facing Israel and the U.S. Democracy should be the litmus test for supporting any candidate, party, or policy in either country. Democracy is the sine qua non of our system of government and therefore must transcend all other issues.

  • Supporting Israel's government and refraining from criticism is not necessarily pro-Israel and can harm both Israel and the U.S., as well as the U.S.-Israel relationship. "Pro-Israel" today means standing up for the values that underly the U.S.-Israel relationship in both countries, which includes supporting Israel's democracy movement and opposing settlement expansion, which impedes the two-state solution essential for Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic state. Both parties support Israel's external security. Only Democrats support a two-state solution and democracy here and in Israel.

Read to the end for corrections, what you may have missed last week, fun stuff, and upcoming events.

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Hi Steve,

We need to rethink how we think about Israel and what it means to be pro-Israel because the old paradigms do not work today.

It's time to retire the kishkes test. For decades, the pro-Israel community has held candidates to the kishkes test: Does the candidate support Israel in their gut; do they have an emotional connection to Israel that tells us they will support Israel no matter what? The theory is that candidates can tell us anything and once in office, maybe they'll change their mind. Or maybe they'll be exposed to facts that we haven't told them or hear different points of view. A candidate who feels it in their kishkes cannot be reasoned out of a position they have not been reasoned into. A candidate who is emotionally attached to Israel (as we are) will always take Israel's side (as many of us do) regardless of inconvenient facts.

The problem with the kishkes test, aside from its inherent subjectivity, is that--as we will see below--someone can love and genuinely care about Israel yet take positions contrary to the best interests of Israel and the United States. If we are going to have faith, let's have faith in the soundness of our positions and our ability to make the case for the real Israel. Applying the kishkes test is an admission that we don't think we can make the case for Israel on its merits. We should judge candidates by what they think, not on what we think they feel.

It's time to stop lauding bipartisanship. Look, I'm all for holding hands and singing kumbaya but bipartisanship does not indicate whether legislation is good or bad. Millions of Americans have access to healthcare because Obamacare passed with no Republican votes in the Senate and one Republican vote in the House. Thousands of Americans died in Vietnam because of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which passed unanimously in the House and with two dissenting votes in the Senate. Thousands died in Afghanistan pursuant to an open-ended authorization that passed the Senate unanimously and the House with one dissenting vote. Thousands died in Iraq pursuant to votes supported by the overwhelming majority of Republicans but opposed by most Democrats.

We should judge legislation on its merits, not on whether it garners bipartisan consensus. Do we need or should we even want approval from today's Republican Party, which has devolved into an anti-democratic cult of personality? If Congress codifies Roe v. Wade or bans assault weapons it will be on party-line votes. And I'm okay with that. You should be too.

While we're at it, let's stop paying tribute to unity. Unity often means unite with whoever is calling for unity. I'd love unity if everyone united around my position. Who doesn't want everyone to agree with them? We wouldn't need elections if everyone agreed. We should disagree civilly but it's okay to disagree. That's what happens in a free society, and in a democracy we settle our disagreements with free and fair elections.

Democracy must be our new litmus test. We all have non-negotiable issues but democracy must come first and foremost because only in a democracy can we advocate for the other issues we care about and only in a democracy are our other freedoms protected. Under the old paradigm, we could take for granted that both parties shared a fundamental commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

In 1973, Republican leaders told the leader of their party, Richard Nixon, that it was time to resign. Al Gore not only conceded an election that he probably won but presided over the certification of his defeat (as did Nixon in 1961). Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump the day after Election Day. Ninety-one felony charges later, Trump has yet to concede to Biden and he is the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination.

Only the Democratic Party respects democratic norms today, which means that only the Democratic Party deserves our support. That's not what we want to hear because it deprives us of agency. But if we support democracy then that means the GOP fails our litmus test and if we believe what we are saying, we have to vote Democratic. That's not easy to accept but it is reality.

On January 6, 2021, Donald Trump incited a violent insurrection. Hours later, 147 Republicans, including a majority of House Republicans and their leader, Kevin McCarthy, voted against certifying Joe Biden's victory. To this day, none have admitted that they were wrong.

Peter Baker wrote on August 14 that the Republican Party has not ruled out a candidate "charged with conspiring to subvert democracy, endangering national security, obstructing justice and falsifying records of hush money to a pornographic film star" (and that's just the tip of the iceberg). That would have been inconceivable 20 years ago and remains inconceivable in the Democratic Party.

Half the country is cool with Trump. But we don't have to persuade them. We have to persuade Republican leadership, and the only way to do that is to show them that they cannot win elections until they change course. We do that by turning out to vote and mobilizing our friends to vote, not by wasting our time arguing with people who think Fox News is anything but a propaganda network.

Israel's democracy is also under attack. U.S. support for Israel is based on shared values. Strategic interests come and go but values endure--until they don't. Israel's current government is undermining its democratic institutions. Israel's occupation of the West Bank jeopardizes Israel's ability to remain a Jewish, democratic state and continued settlement expansion further imperils Israeli democracy.

Our right-wing friends love to talk about double standards. Is Israel the only country in the world whose internal affairs we cannot criticize? The protesters in Israel want us to speak up. Will we abandon them?

Some of us accuse left-wing critics of Israel of being anti-Israel (or worse) but give a pass to right-wing self-described supporters of Israel, as if one cannot be too far to the right on Israel. It's time to realize that too far to the right on Israel can be dangerously, irresponsibly wrong.

"Pro-Israel" used to mean praising Israel in public and criticizing it privately: no airing of dirty linen in public. Well, the dirty linen is there for all to see. The only question is whether we will clean it up or whether others will clean it up in ways not to our liking. I am a Zionist and I support a strong, Jewish, democratic state of Israel. I think that speaking up is worth it--silence from the organized pro-Israel community is part of the reason we have reached this difficult point.

Supporting Israel's government and refraining from criticism is not necessarily pro-Israel and can harm both Israel and the U.S., as well as the U.S.-Israel relationship. Case in point: AIPAC. AIPAC has done important and invaluable work over the decades. It was once synonymous with "pro-Israel." When I was CityPAC's president in the early 1990s we used AIPAC's positions on bills and resolutions as our criteria to determine whose record was "pro-Israel" (although we made our decisions independently). I supported AIPAC for decades. But today's AIPAC is not that AIPAC.

Former AIPAC legislative director Doug Bloomfield wrote on August 17 that AIPAC is no longer the organization many of us once supported and has taken "a hard turn to the Right, embracing Evangelical Christians, hardline conservative Republicans, and election deniers whose views on everything but Israel were largely anathema to the mainstream Jewish community."

Leading activists in Israel's pro-democracy movement, including a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, wrote on August 13 that "at best, AIPAC and its leaders are stuck in the archaic notion that their job is to present to their guests an Israel that is sterile and free of controversy, while in reality the country is imploding. A less generous interpretation might be that AIPAC is – once again – siding with the enemies of democracy." They conclude that "AIPAC’s leadership is steering the organization away from its original pro-Israel mission and toward an ultra-right-wing organization."

Haaretz editorialized on August 14 that AIPAC "claims that it doesn’t take any position on internal Israeli political disputes, but in practice, it is helping Netanyahu in his battle to destroy democracy." In service of this goal, AIPAC is undermining U.S. democracy by backing Republicans, including insurrectionists.

AIPAC spent nearly $4 million to defeat Summer Lee (D-PA) in her bid for an open seat last year but only $470,000 to defend incumbent Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), who was perfect and outspoken on AIPAC's issues.

Lee won. Luria lost, 51.7% to 48.3%. Imagine what Luria could have done with an extra $4 million. Imagine what Democrats could have done with one more seat in a House that the GOP currently controls by four seats.

Eighteen Republicans represent districts that Joe Biden won in 2020. In 2024, Democrats can regain control of the House through those seats. AIPAC has already endorsed six of those vulnerable Republicans: David Schweikert (R-AZ), David Valadao (R-CA), Mike Garcia (R-CA), Young Kim (R-CA), Michelle Steel (R-CA), Don Bacon (R-NE), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).

In the 2022 election, AIPAC backed 109 candidates who voted against certifying the 2020 election hours after Donald Trump incited a violent insurrection (David Schraub debunked the arguments AIPAC made in its defense). A November 2022 poll found that 72% of Jewish American voters disapproved of AIPA endorsing members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election.

Thus far in the 2024 election cycle, AIPAC has backed at least 107 Republican election deniers. It is astonishing that with democracy in danger in the U.S. and Israel, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets demonstrating for democracy every week for months on end, AIPAC would continue to endorse candidates who voted to deny the lawful results of a free and fair election.

Pro tip: If you have trouble finding Republicans who support democracy, don't support Republicans. If AIPAC's "single issue" forces it to support enemies of American democracy then it needs to redefine its issue. How can we support democracy anywhere in the world if we don't support it at home? How can we ensure the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship without supporting democracy in Israel? Today's Republican Party is fundamentally different from the Republican Party that existed when the concept of bipartisan support for Israel, which made sense at the time, was formulated.

True to form, AIPAC is endorsing roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, but AIPAC is again putting its thumb on the Republican scale. By normalizing what should never be normal or acceptable, by endorsing Republicans who attempted to overturn a free and fair election, AIPAC is giving these Republicans its hechsher instead of deeming insurrection treif. That's the epitome of partisanship and it helps neither Israel nor America. No wonder GOP megadonors gave millions of dollars to AIPAC's SuperPAC in the last election cycle.

As Rabbi John Rosove wrote last year, "an organization that claims to care about a democratic Jewish state in Israel cannot in good faith endorse candidates for office who undermine American democracy."

Both parties overwhelmingly support Israel's security against external threats. But the parties are divided on whether to support Israel against the internal threats to its democracy and its future as a Jewish, democratic state. "Pro-Israel" organizations that fail to understand this are part of the problem, not the solution.

Think logically. If you understand the threat the Republican Party poses to American democracy, if you understand the threat Israel's current government poses to Israeli democracy, does it make sense to support Republicans? Does it make sense to support AIPAC? I have no doubt that our right-wing friends sincerely support Israel and are not trying to harm Israel. I have no doubt that they are in favor of democracy as a system of government. They feel it in their kishkes. They really do. But that's not enough. Not anymore.

Corrections. I'm entitled to my own opinions but not to my own facts, so I appreciate it when readers bring errors to my attention. In last week's newsletter I mentioned "IHRA" five times. It should have been six times but one time I misspelled it as "IRHA."

In Case You Missed It:

  • Remember that viral story and video from 2021 about a group of anti-Israel protesters rushing from a vehicle toward diners, then fighting with them, beating one to the ground? Classic left-wing antisemitism, right? Violent too. Turns out, as Rob Eshman reports, that it didn't quite happen that way.

Tweet of the Week. Larry Sabato.

Twitter Thread of the Week. Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA).

Video Clip of the Week. The March on Washington took place on August 28, 1963, 60 years ago next Saturday. Imagine if you were the person who had to speak right after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that day.

This is the newsletter even Republicans have to read and the original home of the viral and beloved 2022 and 2023 Top Ten Signs You're At a Republican Seder. If someone forwarded this to you, why not subscribe and get it in your inbox every Sunday? Just click here--it's free.

My most popular Times of Israel posts are How Not To Define Antisemitism and Pro-Israel Or Pro-Bibi? I periodically update my Medium posts on why Democrats are better than Republicans on Israel and antisemitism. You can read my most recent effort to define "pro-Israel" here (it's a work in progress, as am I).

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The Fine Print: This newsletter usually drops on Sunday mornings. Unless stated otherwise, the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of any candidates or organizations I support or am associated with. I value intellectual honesty over intellectual consistency, and every sentence should be read as if it began with the words "This is what I think today is most likely to be correct and I'm willing to be proven wrong, but..." Read views opposed to mine and make up your own mind. A link to an article doesn't mean I agree with everything its author has ever said or even that I agree with everything in the article; it means that the article supports or elaborates on the point I was making. I read and encourage replies to my newsletters but I don't always have time to acknowledge them or engage in one-on-one discussion. I'm happy to read anything, but please don't expect me to watch videos of any length--send me a transcript if it's that important. Don't expect a reply if your message is uncivil or if it's clear from your message that you only read the bullet points or failed to click on the relevant links. If you share an excerpt from this newsletter please share the link to the newsletter (near the top of the newsletter). My newsletter, my rules.

Dedicated to my daughters: Ariel Sheffey, Ayelet Sheffey, and Orli Sheffey z''l. Copyright 2023 Steve Sheffey. All rights reserved.

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