WASHINGTON — With the 2018 mid-term elections approaching, Jewish Democrats are scrutinizing Republican vulnerabilities with Jewish constituencies throughout the United States. At a time when 77 percent of American Jews disapprove of US President Donald Trump, that might not be so hard. But they think they’ve found a new line of attack.
Tablet Magazine recently revealed that the Charles Koch Institute, the policy wing of the industrial tycoon known for his massive donations to conservative and libertarian causes, is now giving $3.7 million over five years to a joint Harvard-MIT project headed by someone notoriously hostile toward Israel.
The Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Fellows Program is led by Barry Rosen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist, and Stephen Walt, a Harvard University political scientist. The initiative will grant graduates a post-doctoral fellowship to pursue their research.
Walt is best known for a book he co-authored with John Mearsheimer, “The Israel Lobby.” Upon its 2007 publication, the book was highly controversial for its contention that the pro-Israel and Jewish lobbies work to steer US foreign policy toward Israel’s interests and away from America’s.
Critics cast it as seething with anti-Semitic resentment for Jewish political enfranchisement while inflating the influence of organizations like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League on US foreign-policy makers.
Now that that one of the Koch brothers — who own Koch Industries, the second-largest privately-owned company in the US — is teaming with Walt, mainstream Jewish Democrats think the association could hurt Republicans who take money from the Kochs. (The two brothers plan to spend more than $400 million in 2018.)
In short, these operatives think they can attack Republicans who take money from the Kochs the same way conservatives slam Democrats who take money from George Soros.
Koch gives hundreds of millions of dollars to GOP candidates every election year, just as the Holocaust-survivor billionaire Soros gives generously to Democratic candidates and liberal causes, including NGOs that are critical of Israeli policies, some of which support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
“Most Republicans have ties to the Koch brothers,” said Ron Klein, who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “They take money from them, they take messaging from them. A lot Republicans follow their lead because they’re pretty powerful in Republican circles.”
Klein, a former Florida congressman, insisted that he doesn’t want to undermine bipartisan support for the Jewish state. But at the same time, his group plans to assail GOP figures who associate with the Koch brothers, pinpointing their funding efforts that discredit US-Israel ties.
“I’m not attacking Republicans who back Israel, I’m attacking organizations and candidates and elected officials who don’t support Israel,” Klein said.
“If the Koch brothers are funding think tanks and doing things that create messaging and policies that are against the relationship between the United States and Israel, I’m going to call out the Kochs and I’m going to call out anyone who takes money from the Kochs,” Klein said.
So they take money from the Kochs. So what?
Others think the association is less significant, and not at all indicative of any change in Republicans’ views toward the Middle East.
“A lot of Republicans get donations from Koch brothers right now and the Republican Party is still fervently pro-Israel,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “Obviously, it’s not making an impact.”
Virtually all GOP elected officials in the nation’s capitol are firmly, some would say unconditionally, supportive of Israel and US President Donald Trump’s policies toward the country. Since taking office, Trump has gone where none of his predecessors would — recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. He also followed the lead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
One leader of a DC Jewish organization thinks that most of the Republicans who take money from the Kochs clearly understand their isolationist inclinations, but are unaware of their recent relationships with academics whose output is anathema to the pro-Israel community and traditional GOP foreign-policy thinking.
“I was shocked to learn that the Kochs would be funding such extreme anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, in some cases anti-Semitic, work under the guise of academia,” said Josh Block, who heads The Israel Project.
“I would imagine that governors and senators and other mainstream Republicans would be similarly shocked to learn that the Kochs are spending their money to undermine and isolate America’s closest ally in the Middle East and the only Jewish state in the world,” Block added. “I would hope they would object to that and express quite clearly that they expect them to end that kind of work or reconsider their association.”
Yet there are even non-Democrats who think that, if tactically implemented, an attack campaign against candidates in districts with large Jewish and pro-Israel constituencies who accept Koch money could be effective.
“If I were a candidate in a close race and my opponent was taking a lot of money from someone close to people part of the movement to destroy Israel, people expressing ideas that are offensive to Jews and the vast majority of Americans who believe in a strong US-Israel relationship, you can be sure I would use it in my campaign,” said one leader of an American Jewish group.
“At a minimum, it becomes a distraction for candidates who have to distance themselves from something like that — or then go out and assert their own bona fides in order to inoculate themselves from these attacks.”
Klein recognizes that Israel might not be the number one priority for the Koch brothers, who are known more for their interest in domestic policy. But their libertarian bent has driven them to advocate that the United States keep away from the political affairs of other parts of the world, which, he argued, has implications for Israel.
“It’s an isolationist policy that Israel gets drawn into,” Klein said. “And for those of us who support Israel, isolationist policies don’t work well.”