The uproar over the efforts of the new Emergency Committee for Israel to highlight the record of Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania, is getting nasty. Sestak and his supporters are hoping to manufacture a backlash against the congressman’s critics that will not only change the subject from his record but will also cause Pennsylvania Jews to rally around the Democrats as the victims of what they are calling a sleazy smear campaign that is wrongly politicizing the issue of support for Israel.
The notion that the Republicans are trying to politicize Israel played a part in the previous two election cycles, during which large-scale efforts by the Republican Jewish Coalition to raise the issue of left-wing disaffection from Israel were treated with similar scorn. In 2006 and 2008, Republican ads highlighted the anti-Israel records of various prominent Democrats, such as Jimmy Carter, and left-wing activist groups, such as Moveon.org. As with the reaction to the ECI campaign, those comments seemed to center less on complaints about the content of the ads than on the premise that judging a Democratic candidate on his stand on Israel was itself illegitimate. They argued then, as they do now, that any effort that uses Israel as a wedge issue turns it into a political football and that this process undermines the broad coalition that has made the U.S.-Israel alliance a fact of American political life.
But this is a false argument that has more to do with the needs of partisanship than it does with maintaining a pro-Israel consensus. What the Democrats want is not more civility but rather to remove Israel from political debate. Given their existing advantage among Jewish voters, who are already overwhelmingly Democratic, this would certainly be to their advantage — especially because the greatest current threat to the pro-Israel consensus is the rising tide of hostility to Jewish self-defense and Zionism on the political left. But in doing so, Democrats are effectively relieving our politicians of any accountability on Middle East issues.
If we can’t judge politicians like Sestak on their positions concerning Israel and related issues, then it is the Democratic argument that Israel is off-limits for discussion — and not the anti-Sestak or Republican Jewish Coalition ads — that signals the end of the pro-Israel consensus. If a member of Congress can, with impunity, speak at a CAIR fundraiser without confronting that group over its origins and positions, or if he can sign letters aimed at heightening pressure on Israel and undermining its right of self-defense, then advocacy groups might as well close up shop; no one will have any reason to believe that the pro-Israel community means what it says when it seeks — as any group in a democracy will do — to support its friends and oppose its foes.
So long as the parties and candidates are actively competing for pro-Israel votes — and one suspects that there are more Christian pro-Israel votes in play here than Jewish ones because for many of the latter, partisan loyalty trumps their affection for Zionism — then we have reason to believe that the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus is safe. That means that both Democrats and Republicans must confront members of their party who are unsupportive or lukewarm toward Israel instead of giving them blanket immunity on the issue.
It is certainly legitimate for Sestak to spin his record or to argue that we must judge him by other things he has done in an attempt to prove his pro-Israel bona fides. But it is not legitimate for Sestak or any Democrat — or any Republican, for that matter — to say that their record on Israel is off-limits for discussion.