Leading Democrats launch group to counter Israel disenchantment on the left

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Prominent Democrats are launching a pro-Israel group to counter a drift away from Israel on the party’s left.

The Democratic Majority for Israel will be led by Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic Party pollster who has been active in the pro-Israel community.

“Our mission at Democratic Majority for Israel is to strengthen the pro-Israel tradition of the Democratic Party, fight for Democratic values and work within the progressive movement to advance policies that ensure a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mellman said in a release he sent JTA.

The story was first reported by The New York Times.

“Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel and we want to keep it that way,” Mellman told The Times. “There are a few discordant voices, but we want to make sure that what’s a very small problem doesn’t metastasize into a bigger problem.”

A centrist pro-Israel Democratic group, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, already exists and fundraised for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, although its ambit was broader than Israel issues, extending to domestic policy. Additionally, more than half the Democratic caucus in the House and Senate has accepted the endorsement of J Street, a group that defends Israel’s existence but encourages robust criticism of its settlement policies.

Polls have shown declining support for Israel among younger Democrats. This year for the first time, two freshmen Democrats, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., have embraced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. Leading Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have robustly criticized Israel, particularly its treatment of the Gaza Strip.

Joining Mellman in the leadership will be Jennifer Granholm, the popular former governor of Michigan; Henry Cisneros, a Housing secretary under President Bill Clinton; Ann Lewis, chief of communications under Clinton and a longtime leading supporter of Hillary Clinton; Todd Richman, a J.P. Morgan executive who is also a major donor to the party; Paul Begala, a former top Clinton adviser who has become a leading cable TV combatant for Democrats; and Shelley Berkley, a former congresswoman from Las Vegas.

Mellman, Granholm, Begala and Lewis are regulars at American Israel Public Affairs Committee events. Richman is a former AIPAC staffer who in 2016 lashed out at fellow Democrats for criticizing the lobby for hosting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Mellman told The Times that the group is independent of AIPAC.

The group plans to launch a political action committee to protect friendly Democrats from primary challenges; Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a moderate who is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and who according to reports faces a challenge from progressives, said he welcomed the new group.

“I look forward to working with the Democratic Majority for Israel as it advances the unbreakable US-Israel bond into the future,” Jeffries said in the group’s release.

Other lawmakers welcoming the new group include Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader; Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the chairman of the House Middle East subcommittee; Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee; and freshman Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.