WASHINGTON — Everyone started by praising the American Jewish Committee. But in their video greetings to the group’s annual policy forum here, 13 Democratic candidates proceeded to demonstrate a party grappling with what story they should tell to one of its most important demographics: Jewish voters.
Some candidates started by decrying anti-Semitism. Others started by holding up the US-Israel relationship. A couple didn’t mention Israel at all. Some remarks lasted under a minute, one went over six minutes.
Then there were the backgrounds, from the Capitol to a hotel room interior to what appeared to be the exterior of a shipping container. Bernie Sanders posed in front of a poster touting the band the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Taken together, the 13 videos show a field of Democratic presidential candidates united in a determination to combat right-wing extremism, but divided in their interpretations of the US-Israel alliance.
The AJC invited most of the 24 declared candidates to contribute a video and 13 complied. Candidates who are leading in the polls or who have had longstanding relations with the group had their videos streamed during plenaries. People attending the conference and others streaming online were directed to AJC’s YouTube channel to watch all 13.
Participating were Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The governors were Jay Inslee of Washington and former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
Former Vice President Joe Biden shared a video, as did Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
AJC asked President Donald Trump to contribute a video. He did not. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, prerecorded an interview with AJC CEO David Harris, but spoke mostly about foreign policy, and did not campaign for his boss.
Here’s what the candidates shared and how they differed:
The rise of the extreme right
Every one of the 13 candidates noted the rise of the extreme right and at least alluded to the two deadly attacks since October on synagogues, in Pittsburgh and in Poway, near San Diego.
Some spoke of the threat in general, almost vague terms.
“We’ve got a lot of issues that we need to work on in this country, combating anti-Semitism here in the US and abroad,” Ryan said. “We’re seeing it pop up periodically all over in communities around the US.”
Others spoke in personal terms. Inslee recalled attending a memorial service after the Pittsburgh attack at a synagogue in his home state, and Sanders describing his meeting with the Tree of Life rabbi.
Gabbard devoted a chunk of her video to describing the discrimination she has faced as a Hindu American — in particular, in the form of biased expressions from Republicans in her home state.
Harris, whose husband is Jewish, said: “No one should have to worry about their children’s safety when they drop them off at the JCC,” she said.
Biden noted Trump’s response following the deadly neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017, echoing his attack on the president in the video he released in April launching his campaign.
“We are in a battle for the soul of our nation,” he said.
Sanders identified Trump with rising authoritarianism worldwide.
“We see political leaders who exploit people’s fears by amplifying resentments stoking intolerance and fanning ethnic and racial hatreds among those who are struggling,” Sanders said.
“We see this very clearly in our own country it is coming from the highest level of our government.”
Only Delaney alluded to allegations of anti-Semitism on the Democratic Party’s left wing, including in Congress, where Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes.
“We can’t enable it, we can’t brush it aside, we have to call it out, we have to call it out on the left and we have to call it out on the right,” he said.
Israel or anti-Semitism first?
Sanders, Delaney, Inslee, Gabbard, Biden, Booker, Gillibrand and Ryan started with decrying the rise of anti-Semitism. Hickenlooper, Warren, Bennet, Harris and Buttigieg started by touting their pro-Israel credentials.
Booker and Gabbard did not mention Israel at all. Gabbard has accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of spurring the US to war with Iran.
How to assign blame in the Middle East
Republicans have sought to depict Democrats as soft on the threats Israel faces and of becoming estranged from the country. Democrats have little love lost for Netanyahu, seeing him as having exacerbated tensions with President Barack Obama and of embracing Trump too closely.
That has created a minefield for Democrats, and how each candidate crossed it reflected intraparty tensions. Here were some of the approaches, advanced at times by the same candidate:
The “b” word: Harris, Bennet, Biden and Buttigieg all offered some version of saying that support for Israel must remain “bipartisan.” The word has become a code for a perception that the party is drifting from Israel.
The “c” word: Criticizing Israel does not mean one is not pro-Israel, a number of candidates asserted. That can be interpreted as “friends sometimes disagree,” or placing part of the blame for any rift with the Democrats on Netanyahu. Cue Sanders, Warren, Hickenlooper, Biden and Buttigieg.
“The relationship has never been about individual leaders it’s been about the kinship, the values,” Biden said. “We also have to tell each other the truth and that includes offering criticism on polices that are counterproductive to peace.”
Warren was the only candidate to start her video referring to the US-Israel alliance and also to argue that it was OK to have differences.
“In a world of complicated threats and challenges, America is stronger when we work with our allies,” said Warren, a progressive who sharply criticized Netanyahu for intimating that he might annex parts of the West Bank. “A candid expression of concerns does not diminish our friendship.”
Sanders was the most explicit in taking on Netanyahu.
“As someone who believes absolutely and unequivocally in Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, who as a young man lived in Israel for a number of months [and] as someone who is deeply concerned by the rise of global anti-Semitism, we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu does not make anyone anti-Israel,” he said.
Hickenlooper was the only candidate to mention confronting Iran, the country Israel sees as its direst enemy. He and Delaney were also the only ones to explicitly reject in their videos the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement targeting Israel.
Of the 11 candidates who mentioned Israel, only Hickenlooper did not include a commitment to bringing about two states.
Biden talked up the Obama administration’s record on Israel.
Harris, by contrast, said, “a resolution to this conflict cannot be imposed by outside parties.” That comes across as a rejection of the approach of previous Democratic presidents (and some Republicans) who pushed hard for a resolution. It’s might also be salvo in advance of Kushner’s plan.
Tale of the tape
Longest video: Sanders, at 6:45.
Shortest: Booker’s, 1:07.
Sanders, who would bristle ahead of the last election when asked about his Jewish heritage, launched right into it on his video.
“As many of you know I am Jewish and very proud of my heritage. My father emigrated from Poland to the US at the age of 17 to escape the poverty and widespread anti-Semitism in his country,” said Sanders, who raised Jewish eyebrows in the last election when he referred to his father as Polish, without adding Jewish.
“Anti-Semitism is not some abstract idea for me, it is very personal, it destroyed a good part of my family.”
Biden mentioned his friendship with Golda Meir. Booker, who has studied Jewish texts and led a Jewish society at Oxford, mentioned Hillel’s encomium beginning, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” and threw in a “yashar koach,” Hebrew for “more power to you.”
Some candidates took care with their presentations, above all Gabbard, who appeared to be in her office, and used professional lighting. Harris and Bennet went for the old reliable Capitol background.
Hickenlooper, the top of his head cut off, spoke in an empty warehouse.”
Ryan posed in front of a corrugated metal wall (the outside of a container?).