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The Democratic Party and American Jews must not take each other for granted

Carly Pildis
March 11, 2019
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

I am a lifelong Democrat. I believe the party stands for the principles that reflect Jewish values and will create a brighter future for every American, including American Jews, and for the world—from gay rights to access to health care to racial justice to women’s rights to the fight against poverty and for equal access to a prosperous future. The year I spent working to reelect Barack Obama—dedicating much of that time to outreach to Jewish communities on behalf of the president—was the best of my life. It was the most inclusive, diverse, respectful space I have ever worked, a place where my Judaism was not tolerated—it was celebrated. Together we built strong coalitions across communities and, I believe, a better America for all.

It is with this background and with these beliefs that I issue a warning to my friends and colleagues in the Democratic Party: Nothing in this life is promised.

Jewish-Americans are frightened, angry, and looking for leadership from the party to address a global crisis that hits us close to home. I know because I have been hearing from them, with increasing urgency. They fear that the climate of anti-Semitism in America right now is echoing 1930s Europe. They are remembering the warning signs that their bubbes whispered to them and renewing their passports. It may seem overwrought to you, but Egyptian Jews thought they would always be welcomed in Egypt. German Jews thought they would always be welcomed in Germany. This has been the story of Jews, for centuries and throughout the world.

They are frightened because they have heard silence from people they thought were friends, and worse from those they at least considered allies. They fear the Democrats are abandoning them. They say they plan to stop volunteering and donating, that they are afraid the Democratic Party doesn’t include them anymore, or won’t include them soon. They tell me how unthinkable this was for them even a month ago. But then they tell me the fears started before that. That they’ve faced growing anti-Semitism from various corners of the progressive movement for years, that they’re looking at what’s happening in the U.K. and thinking we are about to be kicked out of one more place in the long history of Jewish exclusion and disenfranchisement.

We need to see Democrats addressing anti-Semitism across the political spectrum, including from within the party and within the progressive movement. Because here is the truth: American Jews could stay home on election day. American Jews could decide their synagogue’s capital campaign for synagogue security needs their money instead. American Jews could decide our feet are tired of canvassing. American Jews are key to turning swing states blue. We are a reliable bloc of voters, donors and volunteers, but we are not promised to Democrats. Every vote needs to be earned. We need to see action, we need to feel respected, we want to be valued by the party we overwhelmingly support. We want your full-throated support during a frightening time.

American Jews need the Democratic Party to stand with us, and we need to stand with the Democratic Party. There is too much at stake.


Jews have real reason for fear in America right now. We have a white nationalist movement that is growing. There is an undeniable, global rise in anti-Semitism. It is happening in France, in England, in New York City. Hate crimes are rising across the U.S., and rising against Jews at a rapid pace. Blood has already been spilled inside a synagogue.

America is experiencing political instability, and historically that bodes badly for Jews—and we must not lose sight of how we got here. We have a president who dove into the American psyche and embraced our darkest histories and worst hatred. He launched the Muslim ban. He brought extreme anti-gay policy into the mainstream with his VP. He called African countries “shitholes.” He launched campaign ads with Hillary Clinton surrounded by Jewish stars and dollar bills. He excused and endorsed violence against protesters at his rallies—even discussing the possibility of paying legal fees of those in violent confrontations. Trump’s MAGA campaign embraced hate, viscerally and loudly, and has made many historically targeted minority groups in America feel less safe. Hate crimes began to pick up during a racially charged, frightening election season and shot upwards after his election. I know you remember the crushing, paralyzing fear and shock in the days after Charlottesville.

And language has extended to other vulnerable groups, too, and those attacks reverberated back on our community with grave consequences. He created a narrative in which refugees, including children, were somehow an existential threat to America. He claimed that there were terrorists and criminals hiding within the migrant caravan – a claim that was a lie. He spoke at campaign rallies claiming that the Democratic Party was encouraging people to “break into our country.” Republican operatives, and Trump himself, described focusing on the caravan, a group of refugees attempting to walk to safety, as a winning political strategy for the midterms. He sought to make Americans afraid of people who were in such dire straits they were attempting to travel, mostly by foot, from Honduras and El Salvador to America.

Despite the fact that Trump’s claims of potential violence from refugees was a political tactic, some took it seriously—including, tragically, the shooter who took 11 lives at the Tree of Life synagogue, who believed that because of Jewish support of refugees, especially HIAS, Jews must be killed to protect Americans from the violent threat at our border. Trump created the environment which led to emboldened white supremacists, xenophobic frenzy, and eventual violence—including violence against Jews.

You would think that this sort of behavior would inspire wall-to-wall cohesion among those who oppose the president—a commitment to working together to fight his words and actions. Instead, we have seen a tragic fracturing on the left, with sharp and painful faults opening up around Jews, anti-Semitism, allyship and Israel.

I have been deeply critical of those in the progressive movement who have fallen down on anti-Semitism, but I do not believe the failures of those activist movements are analogous to the Democratic Party. One clear example is the Women’s March. After serious allegations of anti-Semitism among Women’s March leaders were reported, the DNC pulled out of partnership with them—and while some 2020 Democratic candidates participated in local iterations of the march, not a single one attended the March in Washington.

Another is the response to Ilhan Omar’s recent comments about Israel and American Jews. Within 24 hours of her first offensive remark, Omar had been formally reprimanded by Nancy Pelosi and many senior House Democrats. And after she engaged in divisive and frightening rhetoric again one week later, Democrats passed a full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism, one that additionally reiterated their dedication to fighting against all hatred for a stronger America. That broadening reflects Jewish values of justice and inclusion, and ultimately strengthens the fight against anti-Semitism.

An additional challenge facing us is the Democratic Party’s relationship to Israel. Here’s the reality: There are forces on the left that want to create a divide between Democrats and Israel. There are people who want to see Democrats embrace BDS and anti-Zionism. This movement is small, but it has the potential to grow. Since over 92 percent of Jews consider themselves pro-Israel, this creates an obvious tension. While Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep Rashida Tlaib have been depicted as the new face of this exciting class of freshman Dems, in actuality, this freshman class is full of Israel supporters. For example, Rep. Max Rose, won a seemingly impossible race in Staten Island, a district that went for Trump by 9 points. Rep. Rose is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and lists supporting Israel as one of his top priorities in Congress. He is deeply committed to continuing bipartisan support for Israel. Rep. Elaine Luria is another freshman in Congress after unseating incumbent Republican Scott Taylor. She is staunchly pro-Israel and has already taken a bipartisan trip to Israel. She opposes the Iran deal and BDS and supported moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Former CIA analyst Elissa Slotkin also won her race in the Michigan 8th against Mike Bishop. While serving at the Pentagon, she helped finalize the 10-year Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel. These incredible new members of Congress, deeply supportive of Israel, all flipped their districts red to blue. That means they will face fierce 2020 elections when the GOP seeks to regain those seats. They need our support to continue to be strong Jewish pro-Israel voices in Congress. They shouldn’t be punished for others’ mistakes.

Additional pro-Israel freshman Dems include Ayanna Pressley, the first black lawmaker from Massachusetts. She is against BDS and enjoys a “warm and productive relationship” with her local Jewish community and the Boston JCRC. Mikie Sherrill, another veteran who flipped her seat, is also strongly pro-Israel and supports continued military aid for Israel. Beyond freshmen, examine Democratic Party leadership Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Hakeem Jeffries, all boasting impeccable pro-Israel records, to say nothing of Nita Lowey, chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

It’s also worth noting that while 92 percent of American Jews define themselves as pro-Israel, 59 percent of American Jews say they are critical of at least some Israeli policies. There should be no appetite for smears, anti-Semitic rhetoric or wholesale condemnation of Zionism, but there is plenty of room for substantive, policy focused debate.

It is true that two freshman members of Congress have chosen to engage in dishonest and ugly rhetoric about the state of Israel. I hope they take meetings with Israeli and American victims of Palestinian terror. I hope they meet with families whose kids were targeted by bomb-filled balloons in Southern Israel, and they hear what it feels like to tell your children to be afraid of balloons. I hope that they hear from Persian Jews who are messaging me telling me how angry they are to hear the country they fled compared to Israel, especially by a fellow refugee. I hope they hear from FSU Jews who are writing me telling me how dual-loyalty charges turned their family into refugees and how frightened talk of allegiances makes them. Talk to Democrats in Congress and tell them stories they have never heard and won’t ever hear without you. Tell them if they want your support, they will need to earn it.

It is true that the party has stumbled to address anti-Semitism within its caucus. It is true that we have been disappointed by many members of the Democratic Party and by their slow or inadequate response to anti-Semitism at home, around the world, and within our own movement.

But the Democratic Party is the political home of 75 percent of American Jews. I believe we can stay in our political home, where our values of justice have always lived, and create a stronger party that learns from the mistakes of the past couple of months.

And the way to do this is how Jews in America have always expressed themselves politically—by engaging those around us, especially those who claim to be our leaders. Schedule an in-district meeting. Go to a town hall. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Show up to your local Democratic Party. Call your member of Congress everyday and tell them how you feel. There are actions he or she can take right now to support our community. Tell them to pass the Anti-Semitism Envoy Act and the Domestic Terror Prevention Act—two bills that will help keep our community safer and are ADL legislative priorities. Look to your local party for action as well, especially if you live in one of the five American states with no hate-crime statutes to protect you and other communities.

We should tell them our stories. Members, especially freshmen, genuinely are moved by constituents and their stories all the time. Our stories are worth hearing. We must stand up and fight this. We must involve ourselves more and more deeply in our party—not less. We must run for delegates, vote in primaries and get involved in local party politics, and make our voices heard. Be the Democrats you wish to see in the party. The answer is not to leave—but to fight.


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Carly Pildis is the Director of Grassroots Organizing for the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and an advocacy professional based in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter feed is @carlypildis, and her website is