WASHINGTON — Spurred by the white power rally in Charlottesville, 18-year government veteran Halie Soifer decided to transition from policy to politics.
Soifer had spent almost two decades in government service, including two years in the Obama administration. In 2017, she became a national security adviser to California Senator Kamala Harris. But a year into the job came Charlottesville, and she decided it was time to redirect her focus.
“I realized that I could do a lot more trying to change the composition of Congress than working for one member,” Soifer told The Times of Israel. “So I really sought out to do something that would meaningfully help to elect those who shared my values — and they all just happen to be Democrats.”
Soifer is now the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), a position she’s held since for almost a year. Through the organization, she is leading the advocacy arm of Jewish Democrats through unprecedented waters.
From myriad objectionable comments by US President Donald Trump to turmoil inside the American left over how the US should approach Israel, the longtime national security expert often finds herself in the middle of the some of the most heated controversies of this political moment.
She’s been a vigorous critic of the president’s management of the peace portfolio, his walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, and his cozy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But her own party isn’t spared her scorn, including Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has fiercely castigated the US-Israel relationship, saying that pro-Israel activists were pressing her to have an “allegiance” to a foreign nation, which some characterized as accusing American Jews of having “dual loyalty” to the United States and Israel.
With an American president disliked by a vast majority of American Jews, according to several polls, and a Democratic Party with key constituencies becoming increasingly sympathetic of the Palestinian cause, Soifer aims to is focused on the dual task of keeping Democrats pro-Israel and keeping pro-Israel Americans Democrats.
In an extensive interview with The Times of Israel, Soifer discussed how she’s looking ahead to 2020 and how JDCA plans to navigate and leverage what will undoubtedly be a roller coaster political season.
What’s your organization’s strategy for 2020? How do you plan to make an impact?
JDCA is still a relatively new organization. It was formed in the aftermath of Charlottesville. We endorsed 57 candidates in the midterms, 84 percent of them won, and we plan to do much more in 2020 elections in terms of Democrats running for the House, Senate, and of course whoever is the presidential nominee — mobilizing the Jewish electorate strategically to support Democrats, assuring that Jewish Americans continue to go to the Democratic Party as their political home, but continuing to ensure that the Democratic Party represents Jewish values.
We plan to play a role in the [Democratic National Committee’s] platform drafting process, as we get closer to the summer of 2020. We will not take a role specifically in the primary. We’re not going to endorse one candidate over another, but whoever is the nominee, we will support.
There was a dispute between the Clinton and Sanders camps over Israel in the 2016 platform drafting process. Sanders wanted more of an acknowledgement of Palestinian positions. What are you expecting to be the fault lines on this issue in 2020?
On Israel, this has been one of the more contentious issues over the last four years. If 2016 is any guide, we know that this will be an issue of debate. But just as ’16 ended with the platform taking a strong stance against BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel], for example, we think we landed in a place that was consistent with our values in terms of a two-state solution, support for military aid to Israel and opposition to BDS. We’re confident that that will occur again in 2020.
But what about anti-BDS laws? There’s a strong resistance to those by most 2020 Democratic candidates and key progressive advocacy groups? Do you think there will be a push to put in the platform opposition to laws that target the First Amendment rights of BDS supporters?
It’s important to not conflate [opposition to BDS with] the opposition of some Democrats over how to legislate this issue. There has been some disagreement given some very legitimate First Amendment concerns versus the other issue which is just general opposition to the BDS movement, of which there is near consensus in the Democratic Party with the exception of two freshmen members of the House. All the Democratic presidential candidates, all the Democrats in the Senate oppose BDS. There is a consensus. I’m confident that that message will continue to be clear in the platform.
How much has Ilhan Omar complicated your job?
I actually think that we should not overstate her role. She is a freshmen member of Congress; she has been there a little over five months now. She is one of 62 freshmen Democrats. Yes, she has made statements that we have publicly disagreed with. By the way, even before she was elected to Congress, JDCA took a public stance on some of her statements regarding Israel. Since she’s been in Congress, we have called it out for what it has been in some cases, which is a form of anti-Semitism. But she doesn’t represent the Democratic Party.
We know that even among the freshmen class, there are champions of the US-Israel relationship whose views are very different from those of Ilhan Omar. I just think it is a mistake to overstate her role. She is one of 240 Democrats in the House and she doesn’t represent the mainstream on this issue or speak for Democrats on this issue.
But there is a vigorous activist base behind her on the progressive left. Do you think there is a growing insurgency among liberals who agree with her criticisms of Israel and the Israel lobby, and that this will keep bubbling closer to the surface over time?
I think that we will continue to hear voices on all sides of this issue and there has to be space for a range of views with regard to US government policy — just as there is with regard to the policies of the Israeli government — and there are ways to have those conversations without invoking anti-Semitic tropes.
We hope after all Democrats came together to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination in February that she’s gotten that message. I think there will continue to be a discussion on this issue but I don’t think this is going to change the ongoing commitment to US-Israel relations that remains within the Democratic Party.
What do you think about Trump’s peace plan, which the administration plans to unveil this summer? This is something that could bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict front and center at the early stages of the primary.
Well, first of all, there is no peace plan. I mean, we haven’t seen anything. I think most Jews are quite skeptical that this administration is going to put forward something that actually could lead the two parties to peace.
I think Jewish voters want to see a two-state solution. We know that based on polling, but this administration is only speaking to one side. They’re not talking to Palestinians. I don’t envision a scenario in which they could bring the two sides together.
I think it’s also important not to assume that this is even going to come out in the next few weeks because Israel may be heading toward elections. [Since this conversation, new elections have been called for September.] So the political dynamics in Israel may very well complicate the timing of this so-called peace plan.
After the Omar controversies and the anti-bigotry resolution, Trump started saying that Jews are leaving the Democratic Party. Polling indicates that’s not the case, but why do you think he’s saying that? What’s he trying to accomplish?
To the contrary, if you look at polling, Jews have actually left the Republican Party since he’s been in office. If you compare the numbers in the 2014 midterms, 33% of the Jewish support went to Republicans. In the 2018 midterms, 17% went of the Jewish vote went to Republicans. It’s actually been halved.
What is his goal? Like on so many other issues, his goal is to confuse the public with “alternative facts,” to quote Kellyanne Conway. Like everything else on his Twitter feed, I’ve called this an assault on decency and truth. Of course, it’s not true, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the president.
Did you see the reporting from Michael Wolf’s new book — how Trump said “Jews always flip” after his former attorney Michael Cohen made a plea deal?
I did see it. I think it is entirely consistent with what we know about the president holding discriminatory views, whether it’s been past allegations of him being racist or him repeating conspiracy theories about Jews, like accusations that George Soros was funding the so-called caravan in advance of the midterm elections, which is something that the Pittsburgh shooter repeated. He clearly has views that are discriminatory.
In this case, I don’t think it matters. People say, “Well, Jared and Ivanka are Jewish, so how could he be anti-semitic?” I don’t think it matters if he’s anti-Semitic or not. Anti-Semites think he’s anti-Semitic. White nationalists and Neo-Nazis think he is their ally. That’s what matters. He has emboldened them. So this statement that he has made according to Wolff is consistent with both what he has said in the past and what we know based on his record.
So tell me, how did you get into this work?
This is actually my first job out of government. For 18 years, I worked on national security. I focused on the Middle East, mostly Israel. I was the Jewish vote director in Florida for Obama in the 2008 campaign and then in all of my jobs — most recently as national security adviser for Kamala Harris — but before that in the Obama administration, I was always helping with engagement with the Jewish community because I understood the issues that community cared most about.