As high-profile endorsements rolled in for Bernie Sanders after his debate performance on October 15, one group of Democrats bristled. Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a lobby group filled with Washington insiders, struck back at the outsider who’s been rattling the Democratic establishment with his popular progressive agenda.
In a statement, Mark Mellman, the group’s president and CEO, said DMFI found it “deeply disturbing” that Sanders had surrounded himself with “endorsers who hate Israel”—a reference to Representative Ilhan Omar, who had just endorsed Sanders, and Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American activist who is an official surrogate for the Sanders campaign.
DMFI said it had raised these concerns directly with Sanders when Sarsour joined the campaign in September. But, DMFI complained, “the only responses we have received from the Senator are more hostile choices on his part.” About two months later, after Sarsour criticized Israel at an early December conference by saying that the country was built on Jewish supremacy, DMFI again complained about her role in the Sanders campaign, writing that it was “deeply saddened and completely appalled” that Sarsour remained with the presidential campaign.
DMFI is not widely known outside the tight constellation of pro-Israel lobby groups. One year ago, it didn’t even exist. But the press releases point to the group’s central purpose: It wants to make sure increasingly bold progressive criticism of Israel’s military rule over Palestinians—criticism that figures like Sanders, Omar, and Sarsour have amplified—doesn’t gain a stronger foothold within the Democratic Party. Founded last January by a group of Democratic Party insiders with close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Israel lobby giant, DMFI is on a mission to make sure the party remains, as it’s been for decades, a reliable backer of the US-Israel alliance.
DMFI doesn’t need to panic just yet. The Democratic Party is led by pro-Israel stalwarts who are loath to pressure the Jewish state on its policies toward Palestinians. In July, 209 House Democrats—out of a total of 235—voted to harshly rebuke the movement to boycott Israel.
“The vast majority of elected Democrats support Israel. We’re here to keep it that way,” Rachel Rosen, a DMFI spokesperson, told The Nation.
But the traditional guardians of the American consensus on Israel are facing a new political reality. While the Democratic Party establishment is stuck recycling talking points about Israel as a democratic ally, Israel’s leaders—most notably, Benjamin Netanyahu—have been taking their country in an increasingly authoritarian direction. They’ve been stoking anger among the Democratic base with a rash of antidemocratic actions, including detaining Palestinian children and barring critics like Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Omar from visiting Israel. And members of Congress like Tlaib, Omar, Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are raising critiques of Israel that were once largely confined to street protests, not the halls of power.
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These pointed critiques are also being raised on the presidential campaign trail, most notably by Senator Sanders. In October remarks at a conference organized by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, Sanders suggested that some of the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the United States gives to Israel should go toward a different purpose: addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave that has been under a devastating Israeli land, air, and sea blockade for more than a decade and is subject to frequent Israeli air assaults.
The result of all this criticism of Israel, say advocates for a more balanced US foreign policy, is a newly fractured and complex Democratic Party landscape. It’s also an increasingly anxious establishment, desperate to reassert the old status quo.
“It’s a clear demonstration of political panic amongst traditional Democrats on pro-Israel issues—that the Democratic Party is going to break what they view as the long-held consensus,” said Joel Rubin, a former Obama State Department official and former political and government affairs director at J Street. “[But] the Democratic Party already has. That’s old news.… The consensus is broken.”
DMFI emerged with flair, complete with a January 2019 New York Times article announcing its formation and featuring positive quotes from Democratic stars like Hakeem Jeffries of New York and a list of prominent names affiliated with the group. Among them: their founding president Mark Mellman, who served until recently as a strategist for the hawkish-centrist Israeli Blue and White party, and board members Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan governor, and Ann Lewis, a former Clinton aide. (Granholm stepped down from the board shortly after the group’s founding. Her executive assistant, Pearl Dekker, told The Nation Granholm had to resign because she’s chair of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, “and they don’t get involved in any Democratic primaries.”)
It’s unclear who is funding DMFI. Asked by The Nation who is giving money to them, Rosen, the DMFI spokesperson, would only say, “We will be disclosing them as per legal requirements.”
They have emerged onto an already crowded scene of pro-Israel lobby groups that in recent years has splintered more and more along partisan lines, a product of Israel’s slowly becoming part of the partisan tug-of-war in Washington. Representing the liberal line that Israel has to end its occupation to remain a Jewish and democratic state is J Street. Hanging on to the fraying center-right line of support for a two-state solution while opposing criticism of Israel is AIPAC. And on the resurgent right are groups like the Zionist Organization of America, the Sheldon Adelson–backed organization that has risen in influence in the Trump era and which is staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state and an end to Israel’s military occupation.
Still, members of the pro-Israel establishment see space for a Democratic-focused group to curb progressives in the party who are voicing harsh critiques of Israel’s human rights record.
“We need an organization that sort of mirrors the [Republican Jewish Coalition] and concentrates on Democrats,” said Ben Chouake, president of the New Jersey–based NORPAC, a pro-Israel lobby group that raises money for both Republicans and Democrats.
DMFI has also attracted attention for something the group doesn’t want to highlight: its close ties to AIPAC, the flagship Israel lobby group that has sought to make inroads into the progressive community but has failed at doing so. AIPAC’s ability to influence the Democratic Party, a power based on its ability to marshal campaign donations as well as its long-standing personal relationships with top Democrats, has been damaged by its slide to the right and its opposition to President Barack Obama’s Iran deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of a president beloved by Democrats. Critics of DMFI argue that the group seems to be AIPAC’s attempt to maintain its power within the Democratic Party without the suspicion that the AIPAC brand evokes among Democrats who remember its role in stoking criticism of Obama.
DMFI denied any connection to AIPAC, telling The Nation that “we are a completely independent organization and have no affiliation with AIPAC.”
Still, the links to the group are many. A Forward article from earlier this year pointed out that 11 of DMFI’s 14 board members have worked at, volunteered with, donated to, or spoken at AIPAC. Todd Richman, a DMFI board cochair, is on AIPAC’s national council and used to be AIPAC’s Northeast regional deputy director. Mellman worked as a consultant for Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an AIPAC-funded organization formed to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran. Ann Lewis, a board cochair, has led AIPAC delegations to Israel. Another board member, Sam Lauter, was chair of AIPAC’s Northern California branch.
“It’s a rebrand for AIPAC, which has been losing progressives over the past decade,” said Emily Mayer, the national coordinator for IfNotNow, a progressive anti-occupation group.
IfNotNow has been among the groups with which DMFI has feuded. Last summer, after IfNotNow successfully got Elizabeth Warren to say she would pressure Israel to end its military occupation, DMFI sent a memo to all the presidential candidates, warning them of IfNotNow’s tactics. They advised the candidates to stick to a script if pressured by IfNotNow. “I strongly support a two-state solution,” the script read, according to a copy of the memo published by HuffPost. “That solution must give Israelis security and Palestinians a state, but it must also be negotiated directly by the parties, not imposed by outsiders.”
Whether DMFI wants to build an organization that would rival the influence AIPAC once had with Democrats, or whether it’s aiming for something more modest, it’s got a lot of work to do. So far, much of what it’s done has been issuing press statements harshly slamming people like Tlaib and Omar while also dispensing criticism of President Trump’s more outrageous policies and comments—for instance, his comment that Jews are “disloyal” if they vote for the Democratic Party.
DMFI doesn’t have the same grassroots network that either progressive groups like IfNotNow, or right-wing players like Christians United for Israel, have. Its plan to organize volunteers in key primary states to make clear that Democrats support the US-Israel alliance has garnered little attention, though it has hired organizers to work in Iowa and New Hampshire. DMFI did, however, help pro-Israel Democrats in California beat back proposed resolutions at a 2019 state convention that were critical of Israel.
The group’s political action committee is currently raising funds, DMFI said, but it’s unclear how much it has raised because its first report to the Federal Election Commission won’t be filed until early next year. A DMFI spokesperson said the group would raise money for pro-Israel Democrats facing primary challengers in 2020.
There will be plenty of opportunity for DMFI if it wants to get directly involved in the 2020 Democratic primary season. Rashida Tlaib could face a primary challenger, while pro-Israel hawks in the party like Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) are facing progressive upstarts.
“If they don’t use that political action committee, it will just be hot air,” said Tom Dine, the executive director of AIPAC from 1980 to 1993. “To be an influential group in the policy discussion, it’s got to show that it has financial and political clout, and they sort of go together. They have to step up.”
Mellman, the group’s head, has rankled some Democratic Party leaders with his statements taking aim at Democrats who are critical of Israel. In June, Jewish leaders gathered with Senate Democrats in Washington for an annual meeting. Mellman used his speaking opportunity at the meeting to criticize Democratic presidential candidates for not publicly condemning Palestinian rocket attacks targeting Israel the month before, according to two sources familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity to talk candidly about an off-the-record gathering. (Three low-polling candidates—John Hickenlooper, Cory Booker, and Michael Bennet—did condemn the rocket salvos.)
Mellman’s comments upset Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, because Mellman, a prominent member of the Democratic establishment, was going after his own party, the sources told The Nation. (Schumer’s office did not respond to requests for comment.) The comments also appeared to annoy presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, who explained that she didn’t need to respond to every political development in Israel. (Klobuchar’s office refused to comment on the record in response to this account.)
DMFI told The Nation this account of the meeting is “not accurate,” though a Jewish Telegraphic Agency newsletter reported in June that “some hackles were raised when Mark Mellman, who founded Democratic Majority for Israel, complained that he had to push Democratic presidential campaigns to condemn the intensified Hamas rocket fire on Israel last month.”
“Mark has known and worked with leader Schumer for decades and with Senator Klobuchar since she has been in the Senate,” said Rosen, the DMFI spokesperson. “He enjoys a great relationship with both but does not discuss private meetings publicly.”
If DMFI has yet to consolidate its position within the party, it does represent a current of real concern among many Democratic donors and officials that the party’s rank-and-file are drifting away from its leadership’s decades-long, full-throated support for Israel. Poll after poll of Democrats has shown that the party’s base has turned away from the Democratic establishment’s stance of hardly ever criticizing Israel as it deepens its military occupation. Netanyahu, who all-but-openly campaigns for the GOP, is intensely disliked by Democrats. A 2019 Pew poll found that only 26 percent of Democrats viewed Israel’s government favorably, though 56 percent viewed Israelis as a people positively. Another 2019 poll, conducted by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, found that a majority of all American voters, and 71 percent of Democrats, support conditions on US military aid to Israel if the country continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Imposing such conditions is an action that no one in the still staunchly pro-Israel Democratic establishment is even contemplating.
DMFI, then, is going to find it difficult to sell brand Israel to a party in which progressives are increasingly winning influence, Palestinian rights advocates say.
“The job of trying to sell apartheid is an impossible job in the 21st century,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “Their jobs are impossible because the values that the Israeli government is representing fundamentally clash with the values the Democratic Party at least claims it aspires to.”