By Ryan Scott Karben
There was a political earthquake in Albany on Tuesday and its tremors reached Jerusalem.
A bill to penalize organizations at New York universities that participate in academic boycotts of Israel was yanked from consideration by the State Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education at the last minute. When I served in the Assembly, bills were rarely placed on committee agendas unless they were certain to pass; even when we discovered technical errors, the bills would often be passed in committee and amended later on.
But this bill is different: it had already passed the state senate 56-4, directed its ire at enemies of Israel in a state where Jews are 10% of the population and was sponsored by the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, who wields an absolute veto over what bills the chamber considers.
Bills opposed by the Speaker never see the light of a legislative day; bills sponsored by the Speaker pass easily and never receive the sunlight of scrutiny.
But this bill, which had already been watered down from a tougher draft that would have financially penalized the universities rather than just the groups aiding the boycotts, disappeared from consideration under pressure from the state teacher’s union and two left-wing legal groups.
Capitol watchers were stunned because of what it might say about the Speaker’s influence over the committee (no change- it remains intact). But supporters of Israel are floored because of what it says about the state of Middle East policy in American politics. And it says a lot.
Disappearing Albany bill shows shift in support for Israel
When Israeli officials speak about fighting attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state through academic and economic boycotts, they hardly think they need to start with New York’s Democratic Party. Most Democrats, in New York and across the nation, are pro-Israel. They support military and foreign aid. They roundly and genuinely condemn terrorist attacks. They sign on to congressional letters circulated by the influential American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
And many Democrats regularly support symbolic bills, like Silver’s anti-boycott legislation, which has more impact in declaring the state’s affinity for Israel than in depriving publicity-hungry anti-Israel campus groups of meaningful funding. Every Democrat in the State Senate backed the bill.
But on the flashpoints in the Middle East debate today-academic and economic boycotts of the Jewish state and harsher sanctions on Iran to stop its march to nuclearization-there is an unmistakable and growing divide. Democrats and the interest groups that fire the party’s base and fill its coffers are moving away from global pro-Israel talking points.
The political shift is dramatic and consequential.
Bill and the Bubbe express
In 1992, Jewish voters and other strong supporters of Israel flocked to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign after the then-Secretary of State Jim Baker snarkily told a congressional panel that Israel’s prime minister should “call him” if he was serious about peace. Republican candidates for Congress, already tied to the floundering first Bush administration, spent the campaign distancing themselves from Baker’s testimony.
In 2000, the Bubba express turned into the Bubbe express, as legions of Jewish grandmothers flooded Florida polling sites to support Al Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, the first Jew nominated on a major party ticket and an observant one to boot (we know how that turned out). There was no shortage of pro-Israel speeches at the party convention that year; we feasted on an endless supply of LA’s best kosher deli in Lieberman’s private skybox at the Staples Center. It was such a proud Jewish moment, I called my mother. Joe took the phone to accept her “mazal tov.”
A few months prior, I had helped organize a private coffee for Jewish women who were reluctant to support Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate bid after her infamous kiss with Yasser Arafat’s wife. If elected, she pledged to be “the pro-Israel leader” in the Senate. And she kept her word. If there was daylight between Senator Clinton and the pro-Israel agenda during her eight years in office, I never found any.
But the center of gravity in the Democratic Party on American policy in the Middle East is shifting- and fast.
How a little move can become a movement
Today, Hillary Clinton is backing President Obama’s opposition to new Iran sanctions, to the delight of more liberal Democratic primary voters and the consternation of many pro-Israel Democrats who believe the Iranian regime will never cease its efforts to acquire nuclear arms to use against the Jewish state. Bill DeBlasio, New York’s new progressive mayor and a pro-Israel stalwart, is under fire from some Democratic party activists for telling AIPAC activists that “part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel.”
Support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was dropped from the 2012 Democratic platform by the Obama Administration and restored by a staged voice vote from the party’s convention floor that no one seriously believes pro-Israel forces won.
Two years ago, when Israel strategically bombed Gazan military targets in response to ceaseless rocket fire from Hamas terrorists, 74% of Republican voters polled supported the Jewish state’s self-defense. Only 40% of Democrats backed Israel.
And yesterday in New York, the teacher’s union- one of the Democratic party’s largest donors- publicly stood up to one of the most powerful legislative leaders in America on anti-boycott legislation, raising questions about academic freedom even though the bill would have zero impact on academics. The union’s statement opposing Silver’s bill even justified academic boycotts for “issues of public concern” and contained not a single word of support for Israel’s universities, the most academically free in the Middle East and among the most open institutions in the world.
I support Palestinian statehood. I am among the many Jews anxious to end a military administration of the West Bank that places Israeli soldiers in dens of terror, sometimes forcing ugly choices between survival and humanity. But I also know that the Israeli people have repeatedly sued for peace and received a verdict of terrorism, hatred and isolation from the Arab world. Global Jewish memory is still keen to the intellectual and social boycotts in 1930s Germany that ripened the windows for Kristallnacht.
Democrats seeking nomination for President in 2016 can enhance the chance for peace by strongly making the case for America’s enduring partnership with Israel. Its strong trade unions, nationalized health care and strong environmental laws mirror what we Democrats seek for our own country.
Or Oval Office aspirants can echo the rhetoric of our party’s extreme elements and slowly retreat into the boycott-laden double-standards of Israel’s adversaries.
Israel’s government can either cling to an outdated fantasy of robust bipartisan support or make Israel’s case to liberal Democrats who are identifying more strongly with Palestinian aspirations that Israel’s multiethnic resilience and embracing a narrative that see Israel as a permanent Goliath rather than an imperfect democracy struggling to retain its values in the Middle East quicksand of terrorism and political disintegration.
Otherwise, Democratic voters’ support for Israel can disappear as quickly as Silver’s anti-boycott bill, and one small vote in Albany will look like a giant step forward for Israel’s enemies.
Ryan Karben is an attorney and public affairs consultant who served in the New York State Assembly from 2003 through 2006.