Jewish Currents / April 25, 2023
As other Democrats level criticism at Israel’s judicial overhaul plan, the House minority leader is doubling down on his relationship with the Jewish state.
Over the weekend, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, landed in Israel as the Jewish state prepared to mark Independence Day. As the nearby conferences of the World Zionist Congress and Jewish Federations were roiled by protests against the presence of Israeli politicians responsible for the country’s controversial judicial overhaul plan, the Brooklyn Democrat led a delegation of 11 other House Democrats to meet with US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The group discussed “the need to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons” and Israel’s normalization of ties with Arab states, according to a press release from Netanyahu’s office.
Jeffries’s visit to Israel is hardly unprecedented. Israel has long been a favored travel destination for members of Congress from both parties because of the centrality of Israel to US foreign policy and the close ties Israel-advocacy groups have cultivated with lawmakers. Jeffries himself has traveled to Israel five times on AIPAC-sponsored trips since arriving to Congress in 2013, according to congressional travel records. This trip, however—which was funded by the US government—has added significance: It is his first foreign trip as leader of the House Democrats, a position that makes him responsible for securing Democratic votes for the US aid package to Israel and other Israel-related initiatives.
Amid a rare wave of Democratic criticism of the Netanyahu government’s attempts to curb the power of the Israeli judiciary, and recent polling suggesting that Democratic voters for the first time sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis, Jeffries is solidifying his reputation as a reliable backer of the Jewish state. “The trip presents an opportunity for him to prove his commitment to holding the pro-Israel line within the Democratic Party and to draw a contrast with progressives in the party who have been more outspoken,” said Yousef Munayyer, a writer and a scholar at the Arab Center Washington DC. “He can say, ‘I stuck by Israel, even when many people in my party were being extra critical.’”
Longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf told me that Jeffries’s trip will be helpful in shoring up the party’s fundraising prospects among pro-Israel donors. His ability to raise money will help determine whether the party can make enough gains in 2024 to win back the House. “You need a lot of money to stay in power. Hakeem Jeffries is out reestablishing his credentials with Jews, particularly donors,” said Sheinkopf, who has advised a wide array of New York Democrats. “They know that the Democrats’ shift on Israel is real. The trip is a signal to Israel advocacy groups that they don’t have to worry about Hakeem.”
A Black Democrat who represents New York’s 8th Congressional District—the 15th most Jewish congressional district in the country as of 2020—Jeffries has long been a stalwart supporter of the US–Israel relationship. He came to the attention of Israel advocates in 2012, when he ran for Congress against Charles Barron, a New York City Councilman who called Israel “the biggest terrorist in the world” and denounced Israel’s blockade on Gaza by likening the territory to a “concentration death camp.” “Barron was really awful on the issues. So the decision was easy to support [Jeffries] and get him through the primary process,” said Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC, which donates money to pro-Israel politicians. “After that, he’s been very reliable.”
Jeffries—who is fond of quipping that “in New York City we consider Jerusalem to be the sixth borough”—has rarely stepped outside the pro-Israel consensus of American Jewish establishment groups like AIPAC and the Jewish Federations. He supports a two-state solution (with the provision that any future Palestinian state should be a “demilitarized” one), opposes conditions on US aid to Israel, and reliably backs Israeli bombing campaigns in Gaza. “Jeffries is not in the far right wing of the caucus on Israel. But he’s also pretty clearly not taking his political direction from [liberal Zionist lobby group] J Street. He’s more in the traditional AIPAC lane,” said Hadar Susskind, the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. In response to Amnesty International’s February 2022 report arguing that Israel operates an apartheid system, Jeffries released a statement insisting that Israel was a democracy, and saying Amnesty’s accusation was “designed to isolate Israel in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the world.” He is also an opponent of international pressure on Israel: In 2017, he joined 342 House colleagues in condemning the Obama administration’s decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlements. The only time Jeffries has taken a position out of step with the American Jewish establishment was in 2015, when he backed Obama’s Iran deal. However, Chouake says he doesn’t see this as a ding on Jeffries’s “pro-Israel” credentials, attributing it to Jeffries’s desire to support the leader of his party. “He’s a party guy,” said Chouake. “Obama was the party’s banner carrier, and the first African American elected to the presidency. It’s hard, in Jeffries’s situation, to buck that.”
Jeffries’s record on Israel has given him access to pro-Israel donor networks—not just for the party, but for his own political career. In 2022, Jeffries raised $440,000 from Israel-advocacy groups, making him the sixth-highest recipient of pro-Israel donations that election cycle, according to OpenSecrets. This isn’t the only lobby he has successfully courted: He is also the beneficiary of donations from other powerful industries central to Democratic fundraising efforts, including finance and real estate. In 2022, he raised nearly $600,000 from the financial industry and $365,000 from real estate interests.
Despite being a member of the Progressive Caucus who is particularly outspoken on the need to combat racism, he has aggressively criticized party progressives, chiding the “extreme left” for being out of step with Democratic voters. “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” he vowed in 2021. “Jeffries believes that progressives are alienating key donor communities that currently donate to the Democratic Party, whether it’s Amazon or pro-Israel special interest groups or Wall Street,” said Waleed Shahid, the spokesman for Justice Democrats, a group that works to elect progressives and dislodge centrist Democrats from power. “He doesn’t believe it’s strategic to alienate those powerful communities, even if that might be at odds with commitments he has to causes like racial justice.” At the same time, since becoming House Minority Leader, Jeffries has courted progressives—mentoring Rep. Jamaal Bowman and setting up meetings with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—despite differing views on a range of issues, including Israel. “Leader Jeffries has a tremendous talent in balancing and assessing the different points of view within the Democratic Party,” said Robert Wexler, a prominent Jewish Democrat who served in Congress from 1997 to 2010. “He’s anchored in a strong pro-Israel position. But he has the ability to navigate the different parts of the party, so as to bring people together.”
Yet Jeffries’s task of keeping the Democratic Party wedded to the traditional pro-Israel line has gotten harder as Israel’s human rights abuses targeting Palestinians have alienated Democratic voters and some elected officials. While the Democratic Party has long stood by as Israeli governments of varying political character have denied equal rights to Palestinians, Netanyahu’s close alliance with the GOP and, more recently, his push to gut the Israeli judiciary have earned him unprecedented criticism from some members of the party. Some of that criticism has even come from Jewish Democrats who are typically the guardians of the party’s pro-Israel consensus like Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who along with 15 other Jewish Democrats, signed a letter to Netanyahu in March expressing fear that the judicial overhaul “could fundamentally alter the democratic character of the State of Israel.” Wasserman-Schultz and Rep. Sara Jacobs, who also signed the letter, are accompanying Jeffries on his Israel trip.
Until the trip, Jeffries had stayed silent on Israel’s judicial overhaul, a stance Wexler attributed to his new role as leader of the House Democrats. “The leader of any party in Congress . . . should not be jumping on to letters on contested issues,” said Wexler, since doing so “would limit that person’s ability to help find consensus amongst diverse parts of the caucus.” In meetings with Israeli officials this week, though, Jeffries’s delegation “raised concerns about the proposed judicial reforms that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have protested in the streets” and “urged all parties to find a resolution that protects the rule of law and independence of the judiciary,” the minority leader wrote in an Instagram post. Jeffries also said the delegation “reaffirmed our strong commitment to a safe and secure Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. #SpecialRelationship.”
Still, anti-occupation activists believe that Jeffries raising concerns over the controversial judicial plan doesn’t go far enough. “The only appropriate US response to this government would be meaningful consequences,” said Eva Borgwardt, the political director for the advocacy arm of IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-occupation group. “Instead, Jeffries handed Netanyahu a photo-op with Democrats.”
Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents