Jews make up less than one percent of the Texas population. And yet the “Israel question” has reared its head in this year’s most-watched Senate race between up-and-coming Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke and former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, both considered by many to be the faces of their parties’ futures.
O’Rourke, El Paso’s favorite son, has gone on a journey almost every rising U.S. politician is familiar with: establishing positions on Israel, convincing the local Jewish community (and often the local evangelical community) of their pro-Israel bona-fides, voting the right way—and then, despite all that, at some point down the road when an election gets tough, getting hammered for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. O’Rourke, who experienced a meteoric rise, went through this entire process in only four years.
It began in the summer of 2014, when Israel was engaged in its latest round of fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rockets rained on Sederot and other towns along the country’s border, and the Iron Dome system, designed to shoot down short-range rockets, was running out of funds. Back in Washington, DC, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC took on the task of delivering emergency relief in the form of an immediate $225 million cash infusion for replenishing the Iron Dome rockets. Congressional support for the funding was overwhelming. In the House, 395 members voted for the bill, with only 8 voting against it. Among them was Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. A September 2014 Connie Bruck article in The New Yorker described how Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat and one of the few to consistently stand up to the pro-Israel lobby, tried to warn the El Paso freshman about the consequences of his vote. “I’m afraid he may have a tough race in November,” Moran said.
The backlash was immediate. Members of the small local Jewish community and other Jewish donors expressed their dismay with O’Rourke’s refusal to back the funding: Angry emails flooded his inbox, and local papers quoted Jewish community members questioning their future support for the congressman. O’Rourke explained that his concern was procedural: He did not oppose providing Israel with funds for the Iron Dome, but he was uncomfortable with the idea of appropriating money without a proper debate process. Already a savvy politician, he also immediately reached out to Jewish community leaders, attending a series of listening and discussion meetings with pro-Israel activists, and agreed to visit Israel.
The trip to Israel took place the next year. In the meantime, O’Rourke had become more involved in issues relating to the Middle East, and in March 2015 he joined dozens of fellow Democrats in walking out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress in which he denounced the Iran nuclear deal. And the trip was not the run-of-the-mill tour organized by AIPAC’s affiliate organization that American politicians take on a regular basis. Instead, he chose to see Israel on a tour organized by the left-wing lobby J Street. “Both sides have this problem where if they suggest anything that the other side accepts without pain, it is some kind of failure,” was one of O’Rourke main takeaways from the trip, according to an El Paso Times account of a conversation he held at a local synagogue upon his return.
In O’Rourke’s current bid to unseat Cruz, J Street PAC has endorsed him and is raising money for him, citing his support for the Iran deal and describing him as a “reliable source of support for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s PAC, on the other hand, endorsed Cruz, a “a consistent voice of moral clarity and support for Israel.” The group praised Cruz’s tough stance on Iran and claimed in a fundraising email to supporters that J Street has raised $140,000 for O’Rourke, “specifically because they fear Cruz’s bold pro-Israel voice in the Senate.” Since then, J Street donations to O’Rourke have reached more than $160,000.
The battle is now playing out on the campaign trail, as Cruz, according to the Houston Chronicle, has been “consistently bringing up O’Rourke’s 2014 vote” against the Iron Dome funding. “He has the most anti-Israel record of any Democratic Senate nominee in the country,” Cruz said, in what has become an integral part of his campaign stump speech. A conservative group even tried to produce an ad in which a voice actor playing Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani would endorse O’Rourke.
But this is where O’Rourke’s story veers from the normal path—and, in doing so, may point to a new way forward for Democrats seeking to find their footing on the Israeli-Palestinian political minefield: O’Rourke, even when asked recently, did not try to disown his 2014 vote. Instead, he doubled down on the position that had caused him trouble with pro-Israel supporters in his first term in Congress: “When asked to add a supplemental quarter of a billion dollar appropriation to the Iron Dome without debate, without discussion, without any real information, I didn’t feel that I could in good conscience vote to spend that money,” he said.
And at least so far, this tactic is paying off. Blame it on the progressive wave sweeping the Democratic Party, on the newly discovered openness among Democrats to take positions critical of Israel, or simply on O’Rourke being the skateboarding rocker candidate running against a widely disliked Republican. But O’Rourke has succeeded in offering a new model for politicians: engaging on the tricky issue of Israel, breaking with establishment conventions, and still raising just as much pro-Israel campaign dollars as his rival, if not more.