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Jewish Voters Are in Love With Hillary’s Pragmatism. What Does That Mean for Mideast Policy?

And for Jewish voters?

Armin Rosen
September 08, 2016
Brendan Smialowski/Getty
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes a statement after a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on July 16, 2012.Brendan Smialowski/Getty
Brendan Smialowski/Getty
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes a statement after a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on July 16, 2012.Brendan Smialowski/Getty

Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters is a two-story, open-office, almost-natural-light-free hive of about 500 staffers and volunteers in a nondescript high-rise across the street from the federal courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn. The average age seems to hover somewhere in the late 20s, and the place has the frantic, lived-in feel of an analog-era commodities pit or trading floor. A casual visitor gets the sense of a place where no will ever have a complete idea of who everyone else is, or which exact function everyone serves. Still, there are scattered hints of what pockets of people are supposed to be doing: A bulletin board displays an ad hoc data-analysis hall of fame; in one peripheral corner are flags from a half-dozen swing states.

Sarah Bard, the campaign’s 35-year-old Jewish-outreach coordinator, is seldom in Brooklyn, as her responsibilities usually take her to some of the presidential race’s more hotly contested frontlines. For instance, the campaign recently hired a Jewish-outreach director for Florida, which is home to more than 600,000 Jewish voters. Bard, who ran President Barack Obama’s Jewish Leadership Council during his re-election bid, says that “thousands of volunteers, community leaders, rabbis and students” are working with the campaign in targeting Jewish communities across the country.

One of the main points of contrast between Clinton and her Republican opponent can be glimpsed in the fact there is no one like Bard in the Trump campaign. Another difference is the Clinton campaign’s fastidious message control. Trump’s Israel adviser, the bankruptcy lawyer and philanthropist David M. Friedman, is disarmingly candid in discussing his skepticism about the two-state solution and his support for Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department and National Security Council staffer who is now one of Clinton’s top foreign-policy advisers, was careful in giving details about a president Clinton’s likely moves on the peace front, referring only to an invitation for the Israeli prime minister to visit Washington during the first month of her presidency.

The Clinton campaign’s careful, methodical approach to Jewish outreach is an extension of the rationalized, cautious, and generally competent-seeming nature of the entire enterprise—which, in turn, reflects a confidence that these are the kinds of qualities Americans want from their president. They are overwhelmingly what Jews seem to want—even leading conservative Jews, like the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, have either refused to back Trump or oppose him wholeheartedly (although neither is likely to be a Clinton voter). “If anything he’s really broadened the Jewish community that will be supporting the Democratic candidate this year,” said Bard of the Republican candidate. Bard noted a “remarkable cohesion and unity from the Jewish community at large in support of Hillary.”

And yet this new consensus is oddly out of keeping with the mood of the Obama presidency, which has been an especially fractious period for American Jewish political life—and which left a bad taste in the mouths of a good number of Jewish liberals. For the time being, nearly the entirety of the American Jewish political spectrum is set to unite behind Clinton (or at least against Donald Trump), with the traumas of the past few years—the Iran deal, the Bibi-Obama feuds, and anxiety over the changing makeup of the American Jewish community, or the state and standing of the so-called American Jewish establishment—subsumed into a known quantity.


So what will the Democratic candidate’s impending near-sweep of the Jewish vote mean for American Jews and the community’s concerns? Bard is careful to stress that the Clinton campaign is not taking the Jewish vote for granted. Clinton’s Jewish outreach apparatus is indeed impressive, even if it sounds like the campaign believes itself to be well ahead with this particular demographic. The campaign has rabbinic outreach and swing-state Jewish outreach, along with a get-out-the-vote effort aimed at the majority of Jews who live in securely blue states like New York and California. At the same time, the candidate herself doesn’t usually speak in public about issues of direct concern to the Jewish community.

In part, Clinton can afford to stay silent because she has a real and substantial history on Jewish issues. In the Senate, she joined with Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole (the wife of Bill Clinton’s 1996 Republican presidential opponent, then-Sen. Bob Dole) in pressuring the International Committee of the Red Cross to readmit Magen David Adom to the organization. And she took on other, much less visible matters: Menachem Genack, a prominent rabbi and Yeshiva University professor who serves as CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division and a longtime acquaintance of the Clintons, said that during the tail end of her time in the Senate, he brought to her attention potential construction threatening the graves of the 13th-century sage Rabenu Yona and the 18th-century Vilna Gaon, in Spain and Lithuania, respectively. Genack said Clinton acted on the information, forestalling any threat to the two graves.

Clinton was also attuned to the oftentimes-idiosyncratic politics of New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities, which have long offered her a base of support. “You’re talking about a community with a large number of children,” said Ann Lewis, White House director of communications during Bill Clinton’s second term and a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 senate campaign. “Hillary had an ability to talk about children and what people’s children needed, and what she can do about it. She found ways to connect that were real.”

During this year’s New York primary, Rabbi Genack acted as a kind of surrogate in New York’s ultra-orthodox communities. “The Hassidic vote in Brooklyn was an important vote,” Genack recalled. Clinton was intent on winning as much of the community as possible. “I spoke to the two Satmar elements, to Skvere and others. I told Hillary that [the Hasidic newspapers] the Yid and the Blatt both endorsed you. And she asks me: What about Borough Park?”

Each instance reveals something of Clinton’s qualities as a politician: Her cultivation of a committed and respected ally in the sometimes Republican-leaning modern Orthodox community in Rabbi Genack; her instinct for retail politics in her approach to the ultra-Orthodox; and her attention to detail and appreciation of history and symbolism in caring about two rabbinical graves thousands of miles from U.S. soil.

Clinton has an even longer and more revealing record concerning the biggest Jewish issues of all. This campaign has also produced occasional reminders of Clinton’s close proximity to the most serious negotiations Israel and the Palestinians ever held: “If Yasser Arafat had agreed with my husband at Camp David in the late 1990s to the offer then-Prime Minister Barak put on the table, we would have had a Palestinian state for 15 years,” Clinton said during an April primary debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who served as a top adviser on Israeli-Arab negotiations between 1988 and 2003 and the current Vice President of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, recalled that Clinton was briefly present at Camp David during the doomed 2000 peace summit. “I think it probably had a deep influence on her,” Miller said of her proximity to some of the peace process’s biggest developments.

Genack believes that Clinton has a sincere, personal attachment to Israel: “Where she is and where her center is, is not just pro-Israel,” said Genack, “It’s a real sympathy for Israel.”


If Clinton is generally seen as a friend of Israel by many Jewish voters, she has also made opponents on the left over the course of multiple Israel-related dustups. During that April debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders alleged that Israel had used disproportionate force during its 2014 operation against Hamas in Gaza, and he criticized Clinton for being insufficiently sympathetic to the Palestinians in her address to AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Sanders implied that Clinton would be overly deferential to her Israeli counterpart: “We are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” said Sanders. Clinton didn’t give any ground: “Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” Clinton replied, reviewing her own extensive history in dealing with the conflict as both first lady and secretary of state.

Israel, in fact, became one of Sanders’ wedge issues: He selected Cornel West, an academic and a supporter of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, to represent him on the party’s platform-drafting committee, which debated whether or not the Democrats should take the official stance that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is an “occupation.” In the end, the platform included all of Clinton’s preferred language on Israel, without any reference to Israeli “occupation” of Gaza or the West Bank. According to Ann Lewis, the debate over the platform “concluded with a total reaffirmation of what she said and believed,” adding that the anti-Israel West felt so alienated by the party that he ended up endorsing Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential candidate.

Laura Rosenberger acknowledged that there were disagreements within the party, but emphasized the importance of Clinton’s own views. “The platform process was very instructive,” said Rosenberger. “Secretary Clinton made very clear to us working on the platform that it needed to be very strong pro-Israel language, including on the two-state solution, and we went further than we had in previous platforms. There was, of course, language in there about the importance of a Palestinian state for a two-state solution. But the platform also included language for the first time on opposition to BDS and why it’s such a concern. Again, that all came straight from her. She was very clear about where she wanted to stand.” The way Rosenberger explains it, Clinton’s own principles are the most important factor in determining where the party goes: “To the extent that there are differences of views, what matters is what comes from the top, and there’s no question of where she stands.”

Clinton has one huge factor in her favor, in terms of keeping the Democrats together on Israel: inertia. If elected, she’ll probably have the lowest peace-process-related expectations of any president since George H.W. Bush in 1989. In 2016, there’s no Madrid- or Oslo-scale breakthrough to build upon, and the last real attempt at U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking ended in frustration for all sides. In June, Mahmoud Abbas was spouting conspiracy theories about rabbis poisoning Palestinian wells in front of the European Parliament, while Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been flattering Russian, French, and Egyptian attempts at regional peacemaking in order to allay any pressure to talk directly to Ramallah.

“The Israeli-Palestinian issue, which is fraught with all kinds of domestic risks and prospects of failure, is just not ready for prime time,” said Aaron David Miller. “Just keep in mind how minor an issue this appears to be against the backdrop of a Middle East that is melting down and fracturing. American Jews are invested in it, Arab Americans are invested in it, the left of the Democrats is invested in it. But it has a fraction of the interest in comparison with the other issues that compete for attention among American political actors.”

Miller accompanied Clinton to Leah Rabin’s funeral in 2000 and was struck by “how seamlessly she related to most of the Israelis, regardless of their political views, including [Netanyahu].” But Miller doubts that Clinton has convinced herself that she has a unique ability or a special destiny to resolve the conflict. In this respect, she draws an intriguing contrast to the president who came closest to actually reaching an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians: her husband. “Bill Clinton believed after [the Wye River Conference, in October of 1998] … that if he got the leaders together at a summit, he could do this,” said Miller. “Bill Clinton was motivated personally by his own sense of obligation to Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians who had invested so much in peace. She doesn’t look at it that way. She cares about the issue, but I don’t think she conflates her own person as the driving force to resolve this thing. Bill did.”

Given that the era of grandiose, U.S.-driven Middle East peacemaking is probably over anyway, it is easy for Clinton’s supporters to keep expectations grounded. Robert Wexler, a former member of Congress from Florida who appeared before the Democratic platform committee as an expert witness to represent Clinton’s views on Israel, envisions a somewhat scaled-down role for the U.S. president, and for American power more generally, over the next few years. “I do believe the approach will not be the usual bilateral Israeli-Palestinian approach with America taking the lead,” Wexler, who is also president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, said when asked about Clinton’s likely peace moves. “I think it will be more a regional effort where all sides, Israel included, seek to bring in the Egyptians and the Saudis and incorporate elements of the Arab Peace Initiative into the process. But listen, we’re talking way down the line.”


One of the biggest questions Clinton’s candidacy raises is just how different she will be from her predecessor, the president she served as secretary of state for four consequential years, and whose engineering of the Iran nuclear deal helped bring about a series of crises in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Rosenberger dropped no hints as to how or even whether Clinton could differ from Obama. Like every other Clinton supporter and potential policymaker I spoke to, and like the candidate herself, she referred to Clinton taking the U.S.-Israel relationship to “the next level,” a vague formulation that, when squinted at, might conceivably imply that there was some level to which Obama was neither willing nor able to take it.

In her discussion of Clinton’s approach to the peace process, Rosenberger talked about any potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in decidedly earthbound terms. “Hillary remains committed to the goal of a two-state solution. She was the last U.S. official to convene Israeli and Palestinian leaders for direct talks, so she knows how hard this is. And she knows what the realities are on the ground today,” said Rosenberger. “She would want to really look at the situation and think about how we can create an environment that would be conducive to progress in the peace process.” By comparison, Obama had been in office for only a little over four months when he demanded an unprecedented Israeli freeze on settlement construction.

The most important area of potential difference with Obama has to do with implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. Miller doubts that Clinton would have signed anything like the Iran deal if she had been president over the past four years. “She’ll defend the deal, but she’s likely to bring to the table a far more rigid set of stands for enforcement,” said Miller. Rosenberger discussed the deal largely in terms of enforcement as well: “Hillary has said there should be consequences for even small violations of the deal, especially in the early days,” she said. “Her view is that Iran will be seeking to test the limits and we need to be very clear that we will tolerate no violations.”

Hillary Clinton holds out the promise of a shift away from the excesses of her predecessor’s foreign policy, a record of navigating Jewish politics and Jewish issues, and a brand of sharp-eyed pragmatism that Americans are already used to calling “Clintonian.” The question is whether that will be enough to keep the overwhelming support of American Jews, or to neutralize those on the left who are pressing for change within her own party.


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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.