With the majority of American Jews reliably voting Democratic ever since FDR’s first fireside chat, Jewish Democrats have not always felt the need to form their own national organizations in response to existential threats.
At least, that was the case before a group of torch-wielding white nationalists marched in Charlottesville in August 2017, shouting “Jews will not replace us!”
Around that time, the Jewish Democratic Council of America was established to serve as a voice for Jewish Democrats, according to executive director Haile Soifer. She described its mission as “advocating for Jewish values, and promoting political change that is aligned with our values.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council was a predecessor of sorts to the JDCA, but it has been inactive for several years. Its work was focused on elections and voter education, while the JDCA website promotes values such as social equality, tikkun olam and maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
The JDCA emerged after Charlottesville because Jewish Democrats like Soifer believe that the growth of white nationalism and xenophobia in recent years poses a grave threat to American democracy and the safety of Jews, as last fall’s massacre of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue suggests.
A former appointee in the Obama State Department, Soifer left her job as national security adviser to Sen. Kamala Harris to lead the organization.
In its first test, JDCA endorsed candidates in the November 2018 midterms. Soifer said her group helped flip 28 seats from Republican to Democratic, part of the blue wave that gave Democrats a 40-seat majority in the House.
“We seek to mobilize the Jewish vote,” the Michigan native said during a recent Northern California visit. “The way to do that is to energize Jewish Democrats who support our values.”
We don’t define ourselves as the opposite of the RJC… We are just advocating for our values.
Though her group differs politically from counterpart organizations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, Soifer says the two aren’t so far apart on certain issues.
“We don’t define ourselves as the opposite of the RJC nor solely as the opposite of Trump,” she said. “We are just advocating for our values. One of those is maintaining bipartisan support of the U.S.-Israel relationship. There is a lot on which we disagree, but on opposing anti-Semitism and support of the relationships, we do agree.”
That’s as polite as she gets when it comes to Donald Trump and the GOP. Soifer condemns what she calls the president’s attempt to politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship (he recently called the Democratic Party anti-Israel and anti-Jewish).
Trump’s criticism was fueled by remarks made by new House members Ilan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, whose comments have been widely viewed as anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.
“We oppose anti-Semitism wherever it occurs,” Soifer said. “We deemed remarks by [Omar and Tlaib] as anti-Semitic tropes, and we condemned them. They truly are outliers in our party in their support of BDS, and we have communicated this to Ilan Omar. There must be space in our politics for criticism of any government, but there are ways to do that without invoking anti-Semitism.”
She dismisses the claim that Republicans are siphoning off Jewish voters from the Democratic Party because of Trump’s positions on Israel and the Middle East. Soifer cites analyses that in fact show a drop in Jewish support for Trump and his party, from 24 percent of the Jewish vote in 2016 down to 17 percent in the November midterms.
“If anything, Jews are leaving the Republican Party because of Trump,” she said.
As the 2020 race gets in gear, Soifer wants to make sure the voices of Jewish Democrats are heard. In the next party platform, she hopes to see the inclusion of planks opposing BDS and supporting aid to Israel and the two-state solution.
“We can’t define ourselves solely by Trump,” she said. “You have to stand for something. We say ‘Values to victory.’ We have a positive message. And that’s how we’re going to win.”