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Will rising antisemitism, Israel conflict help (or hurt) only female Jewish US senator?

Republican Sam Brown is hoping to convince voters he’s the best candidate on Israel and on antisemitism, despite facing the nation’s only female Jewish senator.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Election 2024Elections

When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on Israel to host new elections and criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as having “lost his way” in March, Sam Brown, the Republican front-runner to take on Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), was quick to tie his opponent to her party leader’s rhetoric.

“It takes courage to be a leader — to stand up for what’s right even in the face of criticism from your own party,” Brown wrote on X. “Jacky Rosen has shown she’s unwilling to take a stand and be a leader.” 

Rosen told Jewish Insider later that day that she disagreed with Schumer. But Brown has continued to proclaim his support for Israel and concern over rising domestic antisemitism, joining a chorus of Republican candidates nationwide who have continually attacked Democrats over pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses, arguing that the left is enabling chaos and mistreatment of Jewish students.   

Brown’s strategy vis a vis Israel is standard for Republicans in 2024, but the dynamic in Nevada is complicated by Rosen’s position as the only Jewish woman in the Senate and as a former synagogue president. Rosen’s faith has been a core tenet of her political identity since she first announced she was running for the House in 2016, saying she was inspired to run by the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, or repairing the world — a phrase that still crops up frequently in her fundraising appeals

An otherwise under-the-radar first-termer, Rosen’s reputation as a staunch supporter of Israel is among her best-known qualities nationally. She was one of five senators to travel to the Jewish state in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack and has maintained that aid to Israel should be unconditional — even as fellow Democratic senators have begun to question Israel’s approach to the war in Gaza. 

While Rosen has been supportive of funding and delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza, neither Brown’s nor Rosen’s approach to Israel is representative of voters who believe Israel’s treatment of civilians is inhumane and violating global human rights standards — a group that includes some Jewish voters, even if they are a minority. Polling of American Jews affirms that majorities do feel close to Israel, but sometimes find it difficult to support the actions of its government.  

As the founder and co-chair of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, Rosen has long been engaged on the issue, including introducing new legislation in April to create a White House-level position focused on implementing the administration’s strategy to fight antisemitism. She was quick to denounce campus protests as well.

If Brown is the nominee — by no means guaranteed amid a crowded GOP primary that includes Jeff Gunter, a former ambassador who has spent millions on television ads and is Jewish himself — Rosen’s Jewish identity and legislative record create a unique dilemma: How does he win over Jewish voters — already a difficult task given their status as one of the most consistently liberal identity groups in the U.S. — when their current senator shares their faith?

“This is an issue that needs to be approached with respect and acknowledg[ment] that Sen. Rosen is working to try and be a leader and an ambassador for the community,” Brown said in an interview with The Nevada Independent on Monday. “But my concern [is] that there's a difference between saying something and doing something.” 

As an example, Brown cited Rosen voting with all Senate Democrats in November to table House Republicans’ Israel aid bill, which would have funded security assistance to Israel — but not Ukraine or other White House priorities — as well as cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Democrats rejected that approach over fears that funding Israel on its own would imperil any future Ukraine assistance and that attaching IRS cuts amounted to conditioning the aid. Rosen voted for a bill with both Ukraine and Israel funding in December, but Senate Republicans blocked that effort.

Brown said Rosen’s approach in that instance favored partisan loyalty.

“That's concerning and confusing for me [as to] why that sort of thing occurs,” he said. “Why, seemingly, does partisan politics end up defining the result of a vote like that, as opposed to what's right?”

Ultimately, the Senate passed a national security package that included $26 billion for Israel in late April, which Rosen voted for. Brown has not said how he would have voted on that particular bill, but he has been critical of Ukraine funding.  

Rosen’s campaign pointed out that the senator has stood up to members of her party in defense of Israel, including the president, and listed 30 actions she’s taken in the Senate to support Israel and push back against antisemitism, including screening footage of the Oct. 7 attack for fellow senators, launching the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus and introducing multiple pieces of legislation expanding Holocaust education.

“As the only Jewish woman and former synagogue president serving in the Senate, Senator Rosen has never shied away from how her faith has shaped her values, her strong support for Israel, and her opposition to antisemitic hate,” a Rosen spokesperson said in a statement. “Senator Rosen takes a back seat to no one when it comes to her ironclad support for Israel’s right to defend herself and an unbreakable U.S.-Israel relationship, even when it means standing up to her own party.” 

Nevada’s Jewish voting trends

Jewish voters made up about 3 percent of the Nevada electorate in 2020, according to exit polls, and supported then-candidate Joe Biden by a margin of 76 percent to Donald Trump’s 22 percent. In a state where the Jewish population, though small, is larger than the margin that Democrats have won recent elections by, Republicans’ goal is not to outright win the Jewish vote but instead make a dent in the typically lopsided figure.

A Monday poll of registered Nevada voters from The New York Times suggested Republicans may be onto something. Though only 2 percent of polled voters identified Israel and the Middle East as their top issue, when asked who they trust more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 52 percent of voters said they preferred Trump, with only 32 percent picking Biden. 

Sam Markstein, the political director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, acknowledged that Rosen has a record of supporting Israel, but said that the “D” next to her name on the ballot might speak louder to voters.

“You can't hide from the divisions in the Democratic Party, and that's what she's trying to do,” Markstein said. “Her inability to speak in a forthright way reflects that the Democratic Party is in fact tearing itself apart over these issues of antisemitism and the war in the Middle East.”

A successful Republican candidate, Markstein said, will call out Rosen for not going to UNLV to denounce protesters the way Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Republicans did at Columbia University. Students have protested in support of Palestinians at UNLV and UNR, but neither school has contended with encampments or police violence like other universities have. 

Rosen has been actively attempting to combat antisemitism on college campuses through her role in the Senate. She’s urged the Department of Education to get involved and called on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to host hearings on the issue in the education committee he chairs.

On the Democratic side, allies think Rosen’s actions over the past year have only strengthened her position among Nevada’s Jewish voters. Margy Feldman, the Nevada chapter lead of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said Brown is “barking up the wrong tree” if he thinks he can use Israel as a wedge issue to peel off Jewish support in Nevada.

While state-specific data about partisanship among Jewish voters is lacking, Feldman said that anecdotally, she believes Nevada has a higher percentage of Jewish Republicans than other states because of the late Sheldon Adelson’s longtime Republican activity in the state. Rosen’s positions on issues of domestic antisemitism, in particular, could push even more Jewish Nevada voters towards her, Feldman said.

“[I] think about waking up right after Oct. 7 [and] seeing my senator in Israel, and then being rushed to a bomb shelter,” Feldman said. “She's so proud of who she is and who we are, that I actually think it might go the other way.”

And it’s not just Democrats who appreciate Rosen’s efforts. Republican political consultant Elliot Malin, who is Jewish, said that Rosen is even more active than Schumer, the highest- ranking Jewish official in U.S. history, on issues such as Holocaust education and combating antisemitism. While he believes frustration over rising antisemitism might affect the presidential race, he does not believe Brown’s rhetoric will resonate.

“The Jewish community knows her and knows what she's doing and knows how vocal she is,” Malin said.

Rosen’s campaign efforts will be aided by groups like Feldman’s and the state Democratic Party, which has a dedicated Jewish Caucus. On the Republican side, the RJC has proven a significant spender in past cycles through its super PAC and has chapters in Nevada, creating a landing place for Republican Jewish activism that other minority groups lack in the GOP.

One complicating factor — Feldman and the RJC’s Markstein’s predictions for the Jewish vote are assuming voters also support Israel to the same extent. 

For Nevadans — Jewish or otherwise — who oppose Israel’s conduct in the war and believe sanctions are appropriate, there may not be a mainstream candidate in the Senate race who they feel speaks for them. In the NYT poll, 36 percent of registered Nevada voters sympathized more with Israel, 27 percent said they sympathized more with Palestinians than Israelis and an additional 19 percent weighed both sides equally. Sympathy for Palestinians was higher among younger voters and minority voters — groups that make up significant chunks of the Democratic electorate.

Editor’s note: This story is part of Indy Elections, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2024 elections. Sign up for the newsletter here.

This story was updated at 7:00 a.m. on 5/15/24 to include Jeff Gunter's religion.


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