Losing Iowa
Tue, 09/21/2010

Iowa may be the Achilles' heel in the fabled power of the Israel lobby. Unfortunately, Jews are losing the state.

There are about 6,000 Jews in Iowa according to the latest Statistical Abstract of the United States. That means only one in 500 Iowans is Jewish. By comparison, New York, California, and Illinois have 1.6 million, 1.2 million, and 278 thousand Jews, representing 8.3 percent, 3.3 percent, and 2.2 percent of their respective state populations. The challenge to maintain basic religious services in Iowa leaves little leadership to defend Israel and the Jewish people.

And yet, contrary to the coastal view of America, Iowa has a disproportionate impact on national politics. Iowa has led most of the nation in allowing interracial marriage, ending segregation, opening public universities to women, striking down anti-sodomy laws and allowing same-sex marriage.

Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses give it disproportionate political attention. Any serious presidential candidate must make multiple visits to the state to be viable. The lack of a significant Jewish presence in Iowa presents a problem for Jews in this country.

Pro-Jewish and pro-Israel forces rely heavily on support originating with local Jewish community organizations. The only Jewish Community Relations Council in Iowa is part of the Des Moines Jewish Federation and it is the smallest JCRC in the country. AIPAC, the ADL, and other pro-Israel groups rely entirely on Iowa’s Jewish base for their continued activity in Iowa. Christians United for Israel does put on a significant event to raise money for Israel each year, but that support has yet to translate into significant new political support for Jewish interests - particularly in areas where such interests are being brushed aside.

Anti-Israel forces in the state, however, are very active.

Mainline church activist groups, anti-war groups, and pro-Palestine groups focus heavily on their anti-Israel efforts. Several members of Rachel Corrie's family live in Iowa and are activists against Israel.

Furthermore, they create a culture of Jew-hatred in their wake. For several years, a regular protester on Shabbat plagued the Iowa City synagogue. Antiwar rallies frequently attract antisemitic slogans. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian organization that employs anti-Jewish rhetoric, has twice held major conferences in the state.

Most importantly, anti-Israel activists seek legitimacy for their efforts to delegitimize Israel. This legitimacy-seeking activity provoked candidate Barack Obama to say during the 2008 presidential campaign, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." One of the leading anti-Israel activists in Iowa set the trap with a question and Obama stepped into it. The Des Moines Register dutifully reported the story without important context that would have undermined the anti-Israel framing.

In his nuanced style, Obama blamed the Palestinian Arab leadership, particularly Hamas, for such suffering. He defended the "special relationship" with Israel. However, anti-Israel activists quickly raised up their trophy and this context was not reported. Although the Obama campaign quickly provided the fuller context, The Des Moines Register did not report these details until weeks later.

Most of the Iowa Jewish leadership knew the context and refused to deal with the story as framed. However, when the Des Moines Register published a single Jewish letter writer who asked for clarification, many claimed that Jews were trying to squelch criticism of Israel. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, pushed this view aggressively in print and public appearances throughout Iowa less than one month later. When everything settled, the anti-Israel narrative won the day and Jews were cast as censors.

In the interceding two years, nothing has improved.

Caucuses require in-person attendance. In 2010, Iowa's caucuses were moved to Saturday, thereby excluding Shabbat-observant Jews. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs organized a letter that condemned the decision because it "disenfranchises members of the Jewish community" and "is utterly inconsistent with the values of our pluralistic democracy." Among the 18 signatories were the National Jewish Democratic Council, Republican Jewish Coalition, Anti-Defamation League, Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism, and United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism.

When the Iowa Democratic Party considered an amendment to its constitution this year at its state convention to prohibit holding caucuses on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, the amendment was easily defeated. As a practical matter its failure harmed only Jewish interests. There has never been discussion to hold the caucuses on Friday or Sunday.

The Republican Party in Iowa remains solidly pro-Israel and receives the benefit of a growing CUFI presence in the state. But anti-Israel activists are pushing hard for the Democratic Party to abandon its support. Iowa leans blue and Democratic Party politics are the critical battleground. In both 2008 and 2010, efforts by anti-Israel activists placed one-sided criticism of Israel in the draft state Democratic Party platforms - platforms that never criticized any other state in the world. Fortunately, pro-Israel activists removed the language at the state conventions. In 2008, coordinated opposition to the language fairly readily defeated it. In 2010, however, the language was only very narrowly defeated.

The immediate threat from this trend is that delegitimizing rhetoric aimed at Israel will become normal and politicians will inadvertently support it. In fact, two of the three Democratic US Senate primary candidates this year attended anti-Israel events during their primary campaigns.

In 2012, the caucuses will focus heavily on the Republicans. In the absence of a strong run by someone like Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan, there will be few opportunities for the enemies of Israel. Republicans are not likely to turn against Israel in the short term. However, on Jewish issues like Shabbat caucuses, Republicans may do no better.

That changes in 2016, when Democrats have a contested presidential election. Democratic candidates will be pushed harder to take anti-Israel positions. While top candidates might have a national strategy that more heavily considers later votes from more Jewish places, it will not change the fact that candidates are made or broken in Iowa. Jews throughout America should be concerned about this fact.

James Edward Johnson is an active member of Iowa's Jewish community and Democratic Party.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

It has always been easy for a faction to bulldoze their way through the Iowa caucus. What we experienced in 2008 and 2012 was the imposition of the will of a minority. Mainstream Democrats felt excluded by the platform. As an Iowa Jew, I would make a distinction between what happens in the caucus, and the political environment that most of us live in.

The way this article is written suggests that if a candidate is pro-American, pro-Constitution, pro-sovereignty, and anti-war, they are anti-Jewish! This is absurd! America is broke- we can't afford to police the world and give out foreign aid anymore. No one is anti-Israel, some of us just believe it's time to treat Israel like any other nation. Besides, we all know that the Israeli lobby works outside of the electoral process: the media, through very political front groups, and philanthropic efforts. The ADL, along with Potok and the SPLC, is absolutely anti-American in nature. They try to undermine the first and second amendments to our Constitution. They demonize any grassroots movement to restrain the federal government. How does anyone justify this? It's subversive to the popular will of the people! Jewish Americans must support this country before getting bent out of shape about policy towards Israel.
Excellent article!! Unfortunately, it's true. However, I would not take the small percentage of Jews in Iowa as a negative, in terms of impacting candidates and parties. Because of the "retail" nature of presidential campaigning in Iowa (and New Hampshire), I can cite many instances where Iowa's "1st in the Nation" status has benefited the Jewish community, as well as other minorities. In the past, when candidates visit a synagogue (or black church or other minority gathering), the give and take is reported and spread throughout the nation by the Jewish news media (or other minority news media). So the low percentage of Jews and other minorities in Iowa is largely irrelevant. Most presidential candidates know this: that they are speaking to a larger audience and beyond just the Iowa caucus. We Iowa Jews are, in a sense, "delegates" for Jews across the country. The give and take: questioning, voicing of concerns, etc. that go on in a long campaign in Iowa is impossible in larger states where "retail politics" has to give way to a media campaign, with, at best, contrived town hall meetings. However, unlike the candidates, the Iowa Republican and Democrat parties seem oblivious to their national role, as James Johnson point out in his article. They are parochial to hold caucuses on Saturday, and without a means of absentee or proxy voting. Besides religiously observant Jews, Seventh Day Adventists and others observing a Saturday Sabbath, other Iowans disenfranchised include our Iowa men and women serving in our military overseas or just out of state, Iowans who work or otherwise have to be out of state that day, handicapped or elderly who cannot go the the caucus location, or simply Iowans who work the shift during the time of the caucus. As an "Iowa Booster," I think the nation a whole benefits from the positive points I cited first. However, the negative points I cited second leave Iowa subject to the criticism of other states, which would like to replace Iowa as "1st in the Nation." I think Iowa and the country would be poorer, if that happened. Finding a way for all eligible voters in Iowa to participate -- or at least vote -- in the caucuses should be the first priority. It is time for the Iowa Republican and Democratic parties to wake up.
It seems that Mr. Johnson is confounding anti-Israeli occupation rhetoric with anti-Jewish rhetoric. They ae not the same as there are thousands of Jews (myself included) who know that Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine is its biggest existential threat, not the Palestinians.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.