This week, President Joe Biden led a White House tradition dating back to the Truman administration but rumored to have originated at Lincoln’s holiday meal. “First of all, the votes are in. They’ve been counted and verified. There’s no ballot stuffing,” he quipped, standing over two fortunate turkeys. “There’s no “fowl” play. The only red wave this season is going to be if a German shepherd, Commander, knocks over the cranberry sauce on our table.”
Puns aside, Biden had the best midterm election for a president in more than half a century, with Democratic lawmakers maintaining a narrow lead in the Senate and losing only nine seats in the House. Having survived past challenges to her leadership from her party’s left flank, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, 82, announced her departure as the chamber’s leading Democrat. “The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect,” she said in her speech on the House floor. “We must move boldly into the future.”
Her successor is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, whose district stretches from Bed-Stuy and East New York to Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. The district includes a sizable Jewish constituency in those latter neighborhoods, along with Canarsie, Starrett City, Marine Park, and Mill Basin.
Shortly after Pelosi announced her support for Jeffries as the next House Democratic leader, it became clear that he was not the choice of progressives within the party. Their disappointment relates to his support for Israel. Raised in Crown Heights, he spoke of it as a “tough neighborhood” and compared Israel’s location in the same terms. “Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength,” he said at a rally in 2014. “The only thing that neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength.”
Two years later, he broke ranks with President Barack Obama for his administration’s refusal to veto an anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council.
At AIPAC gatherings, he spoke of continuing unconditional military aid for Israel, and maintaining its “qualitative military edge.” He also went outside of his district to campaign for pro-Israel Democrats in primary races against progressives, supporting Shontel Brown’s victory over former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner.
“I’ve known Rep. Jeffries since before he was an elected official,” Met Council CEO David Greenfield wrote. “He loves the Jewish community, supports Israel, and has deep friendships with Jewish leaders.”
AIPAC Northeast Region Political Director Jason Koppel also tweeted support for the Brooklyn lawmaker. “His support for a strong US-Israel relationship comes from the heart.”
Among his leftist opponents, State Sen. Zohran Kwame Mamdani of Astoria, a supporter of BDS, compared the first Black party leader in Congress to segregationist George Wallace for his declaration, “Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever.” Such a comparison would have been universally condemned if it were not coming from an outspoken leftist who seeks to define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in racial terms.
While the House Democratic leadership is undergoing a generational change, on the state level the leadership of the party is uncertain. Following the loss of Congressional seats on Long Island and the Hudson River Valley, and Assembly seats in southern Brooklyn, progressives are calling for the removal of Jay Jacobs as the state party chair.
Publicly, he has the support of Gov. Kathy Hochul and most of the party’s county leaders across the state. Privately, there is speculation on where his potential successor would be satisfactory for progressives, while retaining support for the party among Latino, Asian, and Jewish voters, among whom the Republicans have been peeling away votes.
Outside of the social media bubble and liberal opinion columns, there is recognition that the Democratic Party is successful when it stays close to the center, responsive to concerns about crime and the economy, rather than reshaping society based on grievances. As for this country’s relationship with Israel, it is most effective when support is firmly rooted in both parties. Hopefully, that support will remain strong on the state and local level, where future members of Congress are building their political careers.
By Sergey Kadinsky