1. The 2020 elections just got their foreign policy issue
An attack that lasted less than a minute on Thursday night marked a new phase in America’s standing in the Middle East. What was until that moment a tense standoff between the Trump administration and the Ayatollahs in Tehran turned into a rapidly escalating conflict, which could lead to anything from a cycle of attacks and counter-attacks to an all-out war. The blink-of-a-second in which American missiles hit the vehicle carrying Qassem Soleimani, killing him and his entourage of senior Iranian Quds Force leaders, also provided a new narrative for the 2020 election cycle, which, thus far, was void of any real foreign policy debate.
Just as the attack was sudden, decisive and aggressive, so were the political responses. It took no more than a couple of hours after the news broke for Democrats to react. First came Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, setting the critical tone toward Trump’s decision to target Soleimani. Soon after almost all Democrats, from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to all top presidential candidates, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, weighed in with warnings and doomsday prophecies.
Democrats focused on two issues: Trump’s ignoring Congress before making a decision that could lead to war, and the actual merits of the decision, which they said could turn out to be more harmful to American interests than letting Soleimani go on with his attacks on American personnel and assets in the region.
Trump, meanwhile, rounded up his loyal troops, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dispatched to the front lines of Sunday morning news shows, and Senator Lindsey Graham echoing the administration’s claim that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks on U.S. troops and civilians and had to be stopped right away.
However, within these dividing lines, there are some key differences, mainly in the Democratic camp.
While all candidates, except perhaps Michael Bloomberg, expressed their displeasure with Trump’s decision-making process, if not with the decision itself, it was Bernie Sanders who turned it into a defining moment in his campaign.
Sanders made no qualms about his opposition to Trump’s move, criticizing the wisdom behind it, and noting its deadly and possibly costly consequences. He is, after all, best positioned to do so: Sanders voted against the Iraq war (the only other senator in the race who served at the time, Biden, voted in favor); he has a proven record of speaking out, and voting against, funding of overseas military operations; and he has a powerful audience within the Democratic electorate of progressives who are averse to American involvement in faraway wars.
With his outspoken stance against the U.S. targeted assassination of Soleimani, Sanders has not only separated himself from the Democratic pack but has also taken the debate to Trump’s court. After all, just like Sanders, Trump campaigned on an anti-intervention platform and has spoken out against the investment of American blood and dollars in “endless wars” in the Middle East. If Trump’s gamble on Soleimani fails and the move draws America into deeper military involvement in the region, Sanders will have an effective weapon against Trump in the general elections. (That is, if he wins the nomination.)
2. Will the American Jewish vote split over Iran?
Making Iran into a major campaign issue could be a no-brainer for many Democrats, but not for many in the pro-Israel Jewish community.
On the one hand, just like any other liberal Democrat, Jewish voters’ views on foreign wars were etched, at least for those of the post-Vietnam era, by the trauma of the Iraq war. They view it as a major debacle, as a blunder brought about by a reckless leader pushed by ideologues promoting a fantasy of a new Democratic Middle East which will rise from the rubble of the Iraqi dictatorship.
Some in the Jewish community feel extra-sensitive about the Iraq war, because of the role played by Jewish neoconservatives who supported the war (a role later exploited and misrepresented in anti-Semitic circles) and the false claims that the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC had advocated for the war.
But Iran is different.
As the nation posing the most serious security threat to Israel, Iran is largely viewed by American Jews as a looming problem that needs to be dealt with. And while the community strongly opposes Trump on many issues and was split over the 2015 nuclear deal, it is hard to find in the mainstream pro-Israel Jewish establishment much sympathy toward Iran, or criticism of Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani. AIPAC praised the move, as did the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
So far, Iran has not yet risen to a major issue for Jewish Democratic voters. But what if a military confrontation does break out? In that case, pro-Israel centrist Jewish Democrats are likely to work much harder to get a candidate of their liking as the party’s presidential nominee. In other words, this could be Biden and Bloomberg’s moment with Jewish voters.
3. The neo-con disclaimer
According to a New York Times report detailing the closed-door deliberations preceding Trump’s decision to attack Soleimani, Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence pushed the president to take the most extreme option presented to him and order Soleimani’s assassination. This may seem insignificant, but it is somewhat of a vindicating moment for neoconservatives.
For the past two decades, the American public was presented with an equation, in which war = neocons = Jewish.
Well, it turns out you can be hawkish and support belligerent moves in the Middle East, without being Jewish.
4. Jewish solidarity actually matters
Some 25,000 mostly-Jewish, mostly-New Yorkers took to Brooklyn Bridge Sunday to protest the rise of anti-Semitism and show their solidarity and support for those victimized by the attacks. Much of the crowd out on the clear yet brisk day were the usual suspects–from Senator Chuck Schumer to members of the city’s largest Reform and Conservative synagogues. But the power of this march, which gathered at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to Camden Plaza Park, was in its diversity. Dozens of groups co-sponsored, endorsed and participated, from the Zionist Organization of America to the New Israel Fund, from Stand with Us to T’ruah. Jews, who disagree about almost everything that has to do with politics, acknowledged that the battle against anti-Semitism is a bigger cause. (And sure, some Jewish groups and individuals felt either left out or put off by the diverse makeup of the crowd, but the majority is what counts in this case.)
It’s more than a feel-good moment for the Jewish community. It may also mark the beginning of an understanding that anti-Semitism has been politically weaponized for too long, and that it may be time to accept the fact that hatred comes in many colors and from many directions, each of which needs to be confronted by all.
5. Crossing the bridge
The march also served as a much-needed act of embrace of the Orthodox and Hassidic Jewish communities which have been at the forefront of this specific type of anti-Semitic attacks.
In the days after the Monsey stabbing attack and after a week of increased incidents in Brooklyn, discussions took place between local Orthodox activists and the New York UJA/Federation about organizing a solidarity rally. The federation leaned toward holding it in Manhattan, while the Orthodox leaders argued the event should take place where Jews are being attacked: Brooklyn. A very-Jewish compromise was reached, starting in Manhattan and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.
And it was an important symbolic moment, a moment sorely needed by kippa-wearing Jews of New York, who had finally gotten the recognition, and the sympathy, they’ve been craving from their more liberal, but less visibly identifiable, Jewish brothers and sisters.