And you thought the midwinter schism between Mitch McConnell and Donald J. Trump was wide.
Steven Grossman and Joshua Katzen have lived a few blocks apart for most of their adult lives, and in recent months the debate they have been having for three decades has become even more animated. Let’s listen in to the disparate views these two Newton neighbors possess:
Grossman: Many of the things Benjamin Netanyahu has done have consistently undermined whatever prospects of peace still exist between Israel and the Palestinians. The policies on the West Bank have been harmful to the prospects of peace. You can’t continue to take more and more land and think that will help bring about peace.
Katzen: The Democrats are bad for Israel. There are a lot of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel people who are rising to prominence in the party and see Israel as colonialist. The rest of the Democrats are stuck in old thinking that has totally failed. It wasn’t until Trump came along and stopped pretending there was a peace process – Democratic dogma – that things started going right. Now under Biden, we are going back to the ridiculous nonsense of the two-state solution.
Grossman is the former treasurer of Massachusetts, the onetime national chairman of the Democratic National Committee and, from 1992 to 1996, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Katzen is a real estate developer, investor, and manager who regularly votes for Republicans and was Massachusetts chair of “Jews Choose Trump.”
Unlike Trump and McConnell, the two are on warm speaking terms – friendly but ardent defenders of two points of view that increasingly define the profile of American Jews in politics. But this divide is wide, it is significant, and it has substantial implications not only for the Jewish community, but also for American politics.
That’s because this disagreement, defined easily by the colliding views about Israel and the future of peace prospects in the Middle East, spills over onto other issues, ranging far beyond the deeply emotional question of whether to apply the terms “apartheid” or “genocide” to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. These two views also diverge on whether to support the Black Lives Matter movement, how to think about abortion and, like so much in American civic life today, how to view former President Trump.
On paper, Jews retain a strong allegiance to the Democratic Party, providing pluralities (and often far more) to the party’s nominees in every presidential election since 1920, when the Republican Warren G. Harding beat Democratic nominee James M. Cox, principally because more than a third of Jewish voters sided with the socialist Eugene V. Debs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took 90 percent of the Jewish vote in both 1940 and 1944, a feat replicated by Lyndon B. Johnson two decades later. Jews sided with Joe Biden over Trump by more than a 3-to-1 margin in November.
Even so, 22 percent of Jews voted for Trump – double the rate that supported George H. W. Bush in 1992 – and both a measure of the strong support the 45th president captured and a reminder that Jews cannot be regarded as a monolithic voting group.
Moreover, it increasingly appears that there are two distinct profiles of Jews in American politics.
On the ground and generally outside Orthodox circles, Jews remain socially progressive, prominent in the Democratic Party, and present in its left wing. In fund-raising and in lobby efforts, conservatives are flexing their muscles. AIPAC has swung right in recent years; GOP megadonor and Massachusetts native Sheldon Adelson, who died two months ago, was a strong Trump and Netanyahu supporter. Last summer Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, sent out a Tweet saying Black Lives Matter is “a Jew hating, White hating, Israel hating, conservative Black hating, violence promoting, dangerous Soros funded extremist group of haters.”
Bottom line: As some Jews lean even farther to the left as a result of the contemporary racial reckoning and fresh debates over health care, student loans, and climate change, another group is leaning even farther to the right. The result may be the radicalization of both extremes.
Writing in the online publication Tablet, Joel Kotkin and Edward Heyman identified what they called “a growing chasm between an increasingly left-wing rabbinate that dominates all but the traditionalist Orthodox denominations, and their synagogues’ often more conservative, or at least centrist, members and donors.”
Each side is astonished that the other side could hold its views.
Conservatives, for example, are troubled that Democratic Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota – who last year said “violence used by Israel against Palestinians, especially children, is shocking and abhorrent” – is the new chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Democratic partisans such as Alan Solomont, the Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts and an Obama appointee as U.S. ambassador to Spain, believe “Israel under the present leadership is driving itself off a cliff, and there are some people in the American Jewish community with their foot on the gas pedal … It confounds me that people actually believe occupying the West Bank, expanding settlements, poking the Palestinians in the eye is good for Israel. It’s the same puzzlement I feel about why people think Donald Trump is good for America.”
Jews have been arguing and disagreeing with each other since Biblical times. But this is a fundamental schism that is changing the profile of Jews in American civic life. Ordinarily divisions within a group that represents about 2 percent of the nation’s population might be the preoccupation primarily of scholars and political professionals. But these are not ordinary times – and the divisions among Jews are especially significant because they mirror divisions within the broader population.
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.