Five Things to Know This Week: What Did the Women’s March Mean for the Democrats?
1. Did the Women’s March teach us anything about the direction of the Democratic Party?
With thousands of participants taking to the streets across the nation on Saturday, the third Women’s March provided a defining moment for the movement, and even more so for the future face of liberals in American politics. There was a lot at stake for the Jewish community, dragged into playing a pivotal role in the controversy surrounding the movement and its leaders. Counting attendance and monitoring the event’s media coverage could give members of the Jewish community a good sense of how and where they fit in a future progressive-leaning Democratic Party.
Forced to choose sides, the Jewish community, by in large, ended up breaking with the main movement and sought out alternative, unaffiliated protests. Some walked away vocally, decrying the refusal of organizers to denounce Louis Farrakhan and their treatment of a Jewish-American co-founder of the movement. Others simply chose to either stay home, due to the weather and to a general lack of interest, or to participate in rallies organized by groups that have broken off of the Women’s March. Some, like Stosh Cotler, CEO of the Jewish progressive group Bend the Arc, chose to participate and tried to convince Jewish women to join in, while acknowledging their anxieties over accusations of anti-Semitism within the movement.
Participation levels were somewhat disappointing. Only tens of thousands came out to the main event in Washington and to smaller rallies in other cities, compared to over 3 million who attended the first march.
In final count, opponents of the Women’s March’s leaders won the day by convincing the Democratic National Committee to withdraw its sponsorship from the event. For Jewish watchers, this was a clear sign (for better or worse) that the establishment will be the establishment and that mainstream party institutions will follow the cue of mainstream organizations—including, in this case, mainstream Jewish groups. This was reassuring for moderate Democrats within the Jewish community who fear their party is turning its back on them, just as it was a disturbing turn of events for progressives in the community who had pinned their hope on a new alliance with previously marginalized groups in the Democratic voter body.
2. But there’s a bigger question: Is it Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s or Ilhan Omar’s party?
Former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz marched proudly in the 2017 rally. This year, she was just as vocal about her decision not to participate. “I cannot walk shoulder to shoulder with leaders who lock arms with outspoken peddlers of hate,” Wasserman Schultz wrote.
On the other pole of Democratic politics, newly-elected progressives embraced the march. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar shared a short video of her young daughter Ilwad stating: “We are going to the Women’s March because we are women.” New York freshman Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who spoke at the rally, passed on an opportunity to condemn anti-Semitism within the movement, telling a reporter that the conversation needs to be “centered” and that “concerns of anti-Semitism with this current administration and the White House are absolutely valid.”
Is this the kind of struggle that will now define the Democratic Party?
Some would suggest this is exactly what Democrats will be fighting about in the run-up to 2020: BDS, Israel, and what constitutes anti-Semitism.
A recent Buzzfeed report attempted to frame Israel as the defining foreign policy debate for Democrats in the coming years, noting the rise of progressive voices, including those of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who are willing to challenge the party’s monolithic pro-Israel viewpoint.
At JTA, Ron Kampeas effectively debunked this claim, arguing that Democratic leadership is far from shifting on Israel.
But the bottom line suggests this discussion is not over. Jewish voters will keep on watching closely, somewhat anxiously, the forces pulling their political home in opposite directions. And even though mainstream Jewish Democrats have little to worry about right now, the debate is likely to dominate the Shabbat dinner table in many homes.
3. Will Republicans benefit from Democratic tensions?
They will surely try to. The Republican Jewish Coalition has been quick to point out, denounce and condemn controversial statements by progressive Democrats on Israel. As elections season approaches, expect to see much more of that.
Can Jewish Republicans really cash in on the controversy? It’s too early to tell, but dedicating significant financial resources to targeted ad campaigns could help convince pro-Israel Jewish voters that the Democratic Party has turned its back on them. Still, Republicans will have to somehow make the case that Jewish voters need to overcome their feelings about Donald Trump and make a political shift.
4. Is Israel playing a role here?
Yes, though it may not be aware of it. The Netanyahu government has shielded Trump and his administration whenever claims of anti-Semitism emerge, even after the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. At the same time, Israeli representatives have been quick to speak out against signs of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments from the left. Israel has every right to draw attention to incidents within the American political debate that run counter to its interests. But at the same time, these statements—and the scarceness of similar ones directed at right-wing bigotry—could and probably will be used in the partisan debate as elections approach.
5. Where’s the Jewish establishment?
This is probably the biggest open question. Jewish mainstream groups have been trying to walk the thin line of speaking out when they feel the interests of the community or of its support for Israel are being challenged, while refraining from partisanship. The results, thus far, are less than stellar: While Jewish groups are trying to figure out how to deal with progressive Democrats, reality on the ground is changing. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, prides itself in engaging with local and state political leaders before they emerge as national players. Others have tried to follow this model. But these tactics have failed to reach the new crop of progressives Democrats, forcing Jewish groups to play catch-up.