The night the Democrats lost control of the Israel message

Proposed changes regarding Jerusalem and the mention of God are met with boos by convention delegates

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa calls for a vote to amend the platform the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa calls for a vote to amend the platform the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

It all started as a Twitter gimmick by the Republican Party’s Jewish outreach arm.

The Republican Jewish Coalition began tweeting differences between the Democratic Party’s 2008 and 2012 platforms on Monday. By Tuesday morning, Republican activists were shopping those differences to reporters.

The differences were significant enough to justify stories in some Jewish outlets. While the platform still contained strongly pro-Israel language, Democrats had dropped all mention of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cut the explicit call for Palestinian refugees to return to a future Palestine rather than to Israel, and more.

The story quickly spread to political blogs and from there to major American papers. By Tuesday night, Democrats had a real crisis on their hands.

One indication of the scale of the concern was the surprise and anger among Democratic leaders themselves as they heard about the platform changes, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Senator Chuck Schumer appearing bewildered and saying they knew nothing about them, and Congressmen Eliot Engel and Howard Berman issuing statements expressing anger and opposition to the new text.

According to CBS News, corroborated by National Jewish Democratic Council head David Harris, President Barack Obama, too, was surprised and upset by the changes, and immediately ordered a voice vote reinstating language into the platform that affirmed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (Never mind that the Obama White House formally refuses to name Israel’s capital when asked.)

But the damage was not yet done.

In calling for the voice vote from delegates to reinstate the term “God” — in an excised phrase from 2008 that “gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential” — and the sentence about Jerusalem as Israel’s capital into the platform on Wednesday, Democratic leaders were taken aback by vociferous shouting of “boos” and “noes” in the half-empty Time Warner Arena in Charlotte.

The vote had to be taken three times before convention chair Antonio Villaraigosa could declare the changes passed.

The “boos” surprised not only Democrats, but reporters as well. CNN and other outlets ran special reruns of the moment in their prime-time news broadcasts from the convention.

Not only had Democrats neglected to place Jerusalem as Israel’s capital into the 2012 platform — apparently for the first time in 40 years — but they appeared on national television to be booing the restoration of the clause.

Democrats were hard at work Wednesday night playing down the incident.

“What I do know to be factually true is that the party platform is one of the strongest on Israel’s security in history,” said David Harris.

He added that the incident was unlikely to impact the election in November. “I find it very hard to believe that the average American Jew is going to look backward 63 days to one minute of television,” he said of the news networks’ coverage.

He contrasted that moment of television with the Democratic Party’s and Obama’s positions supporting unprecedented military assistance for Israel, and taking positions on a large number of social issues — “choice, the social safety net, Medicare” — that are in step with the views of a large majority of Jewish voters.

Harris may be right about the final outcome. But even a pessimist would be hard-pressed to imagine a worse hiccup for Democratic efforts on Israel.

It’s worth recalling that the Democratic convention began with a workshop for Democratic Jewish activists about how to rebuff Republican assaults on Obama’s Israel record.

At that gathering, Ira Forman, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council and now the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach director, said a drop of just 10% in Jewish support could translate into as many as 83,500 votes in Florida, a state won by George W. Bush in 2000 by just over 500 votes.

Polls of likely Jewish voters have been few and far between, but a Gallup poll from last month seemed to show precisely that 10% decline from the whopping 78% support President Obama enjoyed from the Jewish community in 2008, according to exit polls at the time.

While Democrats remain confident of winning a large majority of Jews in November come what may, they are increasingly aware that just a small drop — even in voter turnout — could swing the election.

And while Democrats can point to a long list of accomplishments stemming from the Obama White House’s support for Israel — massive US investment in Iron Dome and other systems, a US veto of the unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood at the UN, and more — Democrats just aren’t in control of the story.

On Wednesday, what began and could have ended as a partisan spat on the opinion pages of Jewish communal papers became, for a moment, the centerpiece of national prime-time television news shows.

Few Jewish voters saw the Republican Jewish Coalition’s tweets or press releases on Monday. But few Jewish voters could have missed the boos and embarrassment from the convention floor Wednesday night.

The Democrats lost control of the story Wednesday. It will take more than a convention workshop to regain their footing and get their own message to millions of Jewish voters.

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