ZOA’s Mort Klein Quoted in Wall Street Journal: Israel and the Democrats
News Op-Ed ZOA in the news
April 2, 2024

RFK Jr. and John Fetterman buck the party by standing up for the Jewish state.

By William McGurn

(April 1, 2024 / WSJ) Ever since President Harry S. Truman became the first world leader to recognize Israel in 1948, supporters of the Jewish state have considered the Democratic Party their political home. But the war in Gaza is laying bare a rift over Israel’s standing in modern American liberalism.

It says something that today liberalism’s most vocal champions of Israel are Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman and independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Mr. Fetterman is best known for wearing hoodies and shorts. Mr. Kennedy is a descendant of Democratic Party royalty.

Each is a man of the left, which has become increasingly hostile to Israel. Pressure from the left has led both President Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) to temper support for Israel with unprecedented public criticism of the country’s elected government and its war effort. The criticisms are striking because they come on the eve of an offensive in Rafah that Israel deems essential to root out the Hamas leadership and destroy its ability to inflict another attack like Oct. 7.

Messrs. Fetterman and Kennedy might have been expected to succumb to progressive pressure. But they didn’t. The question for a post-Joe Lieberman Democratic Party is whether the Fetterman-Kennedy resistance marks a restoration of support for Israel to its place in American liberalism—or a dying last gasp.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Mr. Fetterman dismissed the near mystical faith among progressives that a ceasefire is the solution in Gaza. “We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized,” he tweeted. He’s also signaling that pressure on him to bend—demonstrations outside his office, an open letter from former campaign workers, the resignation of staffers—won’t work.

And he keeps speaking. When Vice President Kamala Harris said that the planned Israel Defense Forces assault on Rafah would be a “huge mistake,” Mr. Fetterman pushed back.

“Hard disagree,” he tweeted. “Israel has the right to prosecute Hamas to surrender or to be eliminated. Hamas owns every innocent death for their cowardice hiding behind Palestinian lives.”

Mr. Fetterman hasn’t paid a political price for his stand. Yes, those former campaign staffers accuse him in their letter of a “gutting betrayal.” But a Quinnipiac poll from January showed 26% of Pennsylvania voters saying they have a more favorable view of Mr. Fetterman because of his position on Israel—against 14% who have a less favorable view. What the Fetterman polling also suggests is that voters respect a politician who doesn’t fold in the face of loud protest.

Mr. Kennedy is in a somewhat different position. His support for Israel has also been clear and unequivocal, though these views haven’t attracted nearly the same attention as his stance on Covid vaccines. Like Mr. Fetterman, Mr. Kennedy hasn’t backed off an inch.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Mr. Kennedy expanded on his views. He says he saw no need for a ceasefire, the No. 1 demand of those at odds with the Jewish state. “Israel was in a ceasefire on Oct. 7, so what would be different this time? I think Israel understands that for everybody to progress, Hamas has to be destroyed.”

But in contrast to Mr. Fetterman, Mr. Kennedy may not benefit from this split with progressives. His appeal skews to the young and passionate, and anti-Biden protesters such as those carrying “Genocide Joe” signs would appear ripe for the picking. But in a recent piece for New York magazine, Ed Kilgore writes that Mr. Kennedy’s unvarnished support for Israel is “a huge obstacle” to any hopes he might “become 2024’s pied piper of progressive youth, much as his dad became 56 years ago.”

It’s telling that the Fetterman/Kennedy position today makes them political gadflies. A generation ago, they would have been mainstream liberals firmly in the Democratic orbit. Then again, Lieberman lost his last Democratic primary to a candidate who ran to his left on foreign policy, and he died promoting the centrist No Labels party.

Like Mr. Fetterman, Mr. Kennedy says he doesn’t care if his position costs him votes because taking it is the right thing to do. And like Mr. Fetterman’s friends, those who know RFK Jr. say no one should be surprised.

“What is so shocking about a decent and principled man siding with a democratic state that respects human rights and is defending itself against Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that just massacred and raped 1,200 mostly Jewish Israelis and kidnapped 250 more, while promising to commit this inhuman horror again and again?” asks Morton Klein, a friend of Mr. Kennedy and president of the Zionist Organization of America.

“What is shocking is that Joe Biden is aiding the Hamas terrorists by attempting to reward them with a Palestinian state and demanding a ceasefire against Israel’s wishes, enabling Hamas to regroup and rearm.”

This op-ed was originally published in the Wall Street Journal and can be viewed here.

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