“Where do we go from here?” That’s the question Democrats must answer, and answer soon. And yet the discussions that will ensue are but one part of the beauty of America, an America that often is defined as reinventing itself in a myriad of ways.
The Democratic Party prides itself on being culturally rich and diverse with great respect for pluralism of religion and ethnicity. And the Jewish community always has played a significant role in American politics. We have a long history here — for many of us, America is our homeland. We first established ourselves in 1654, when 23 Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York); by 1776 there were approximately 2,500 Jews in America.
The Eastern European Jews who began immigrating to America in the 1880s soon proved to be more liberal in social justice issues than their co-religionist predecessors; they became the political majority of American Jewry, a distinction they continue to hold. In every American presidential election, despite Republican rhetoric, the vast majority of the Jewish electorate has voted Democratic, at times even as high as 90 percent. While that number has fluctuated, in the recent past it has never waned much below 70 percent.
In this past election, Jewish Democrats delivered the only increase in a base Democratic constituency vote. In an election that saw African-American, Hispanic, women, labor and young voters turn out in lesser percentages for the Democratic nominee than four years ago, only members of the Jewish electorate outperformed President Barack Obama’s 2012 performance. At the same time, President-elect Donald Trump grossly underperformed 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney with the Jewish electorate.
Clearly, the American Jewish community continues to be a stalwart supporter of the Democratic Party.
Our party, however, now is at a crossroads. We lost the office of the presidency, but not the people, not when the Democratic candidate for president received 2.7 million more votes than her Republican opponent. We picked up some seats in the House and Senate, but not as many as we had hoped. Now more than ever, we need to unite behind our shared values, organize, recruit candidates and score significant victories in the 2018 mid-terms at all levels of government, and then win back the White House in 2020. We must be unified, resolute, and stronger than ever.
This is why our choice for Democratic National Committee chair is vitally important. Our Democratic Party must be led by someone who can serve as DNC chair on a fulltime basis, someone who is adept at and experienced with the daunting task of unifying, organizing, envisioning, strengthening and building upon our richly and beautifully diverse, strong Democratic Party; someone who is identified with the broad spectrum of our Democratic core values. Just who that person will be in February 2017 remains to be seen.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is a strong candidate for DNC chair. And, by all accounts, he is a disciplined organizer and a forceful advocate for progressive principles. His strong stands in favor of peace, prosperity for working families, environmental sustainability, and support for civil and human rights are beyond reproach and reflect the core values of the Democratic Party. He already has promised to serve full time if elected chair.
But his past actions and comments regarding Israel and the Jewish community give pause. He neither is anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. Nevertheless, Ellison’s candidacy has become mired in controversy. If unity is a major part of our goal, then we must ask ourselves if an Ellison chairmanship could seriously divide our party and provide ammunition with which our opponents would challenge the party’s long-standing principles and commitment to Israel.
Such discord very well might greatly limit our ability to heal and move our great party forward. Reasonable minds can differ about the merits of the questions that have been raised about Ellison’s record, including his vote against emergency funding for Iron Dome, his joining 53 other members of Congress in signing a letter critical of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, and his unwillingness to condemn the Goldstone Report — all positions for which he has answers that very well might lessen our concerns, but positions that, with many, has put his candidacy as DNC chair into question.
Strong support for Israel is just as much a core value of the Democratic Party as strong support for economic justice, reproductive freedom and civil rights. At this transformational juncture, Ellison should continue to publicly address the questions that have been raised and explain how, if elected DNC chair, he will put this controversy to rest and not permit it to distract from his leadership.
It is not enough for the DNC chair to simply not be anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. The DNC chair should be someone who believes in and supports the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Ellison has stated that he shares this core value. Hopefully, he will demonstrate it before the February election should he be our choice to lead us. Israel never ever should be a wedge issue in any scenario, and particularly never in American politics. Ellison must prove that he can and will thwart effectively such attacks. It is up to him alone to allay those fears and concerns about his own position.
Between now and February, we should look forward to listening and watching, discussing and learning about all potential candidates, and continuing to engage in civil discourse about our party’s future.
The Democratic Party is the party of the people. It is and must remain the natural home of American Jewry.
Barbara Goldberg Goldman served as co-chair of the Obama campaign’s Jewish Community Leadership Committee in 2008 and 2012.