A measure of the shrinking caucus is that it’s not at all clear yet which member will succeed Waxman in convening occasional informal meetings of Jewish members, according to congressional insiders.
A number of younger Jewish members are rising through the ranks – Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) succeeded Ackerman in helming Democrats on the Middle East subcommittee.
“We need to encourage more Jews to run,” Schakowsky acknowledged.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), one of the lead Israel champions in the House, said support for Israel was undiminished. He noted the overwhelming vote last month to add $225 million to existing funding for Iron Dome, the anti-missile system that protected Israelis during the recent Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
“Look at the Iron Dome vote,” he said. “Four Republicans and four Democrats voted against. Support for Israel is at a very high level.”
Nonetheless, pro-Israel groups have noted the tendency among Democrats in particular – and Jewish Democrats among them – to criticize Israel in tougher tones than was imaginable a decade ago.
During the recent Gaza war, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who is Jewish, told MSNBC, “I fail to see what an Israeli incursion into Gaza, how that’s going to solve the long-term problem. Gaza is itself a problem and the Palestinians are essentially quarantined there; that’s the polite word.”
In that July 26 broadcast, he called the civilian deaths in Gaza a “tragedy of enormous proportions.”
Even among Jewish lawmakers not known for directly challenging Israel, there has been a change in tone. Last week, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) met with Yair Lapid, the Israeli finance minister who has been critical of Netanyahu’s recent settlement expansion bid, and on Twitter aligned himself with Lapid – and by implication Obama.
“Agree w/Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid on need to return to negotiations & being against any swift changes in the West Bank right now,” Nadler tweeted.
Yarmuth, in an interview with JTA , said support for Israel – including his own – was unassailable but more “nuanced,” in part because of support for members by J Street, the Jewish lobbying group that forcefully backs U.S. involvement in bringing about a two-state solution.
“American Jewry has become more nuanced in its opinions on the Middle East with regards to opinions on Israel and the Palestinians,” said Yarmuth. “J Street reflects that diversity.”
How best to pitch Israel to liberals and Democrats has been the focus of pro-Israel groups in recent months. Most recently, Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant and pollster who has worked with centrist pro-Israel groups, last week addressed a monthly meeting of Jewish professionals and noted with alarm what other pollsters have found: Israel is hemorrhaging support among traditional Democratic constituencies, including women and minorities.
In a Powerpoint presentation obtained by JTA, Luntz – famous for shaping the language that brought Republicans to congressional power in 1994 –suggested progressive-friendly phrases when making Israel’s case. Among “words to use,” he suggested “mutual understanding and mutual respect.” Among “words to lose,” he derided “Israel is not stalling” and “Peace takes two.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), another lawmaker endorsed by J Street, said the long-range view on Israel among Jewish lawmakers was the same, regardless of whether they were more ideologically aligned with AIPAC or J Street.
If Jewish members are divided, he said, it is over “different ideas over how to make Israel viable for eternity.”