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Column: From Sderot to Somerton: Israel War Could ‘Trump’ Other Issues In My Backyard

My neighbors in Northeast Philly’s Somerton section could play a key role in this year’s elections. It could even tip the presidential election in conjunction with other conservative Jews in the Philadelphia area.

Pennsylvania native David McCormick, who as a Connecticut Republican cannot get arrested in his home state, now guarantees that the Israel-Gaza war will command attention until November as he attempts to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Casey. Both are their parties’ presumptive nominees in the coming Pennsylvania Senate race.

Both Casey and McCormick must be nominated by their respective parties this spring before they can face each other. As well, President Biden and former President Trump must be renominated before they can battle it out in their rematch. Though born and raised in Pennsylvania, McCormick has lived in Connecticut for years. Casey is a popular senator and a lifelong resident of Scranton.

Quoting an Orthodox rabbi, McCormick wrote in a campaign letter, “Israel needs America’s firm and unequivocal support. Hamas must be destroyed. The lesson of October 7 is clear – the Middle East respects strength and that is why Israel must win. America’s mission must be to help Israel win. It’s that simple.”

McCormick charged Casey and President Biden of “appeasement” of Iran, referring to Casey’s support of the Iran nuclear deal which President Obama helped devise in 2015, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer; Biden was vice-president at the time. Critics claim that the original pact financed Iran’s reign of terror through proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

The 2024 elections have been ugly for the last four years, since the 2020 elections ended, and the elections got chaotic after Oct. 7. McCormick’s choice to bring the Israel-Gaza war as an issue into my backyard is irritating. As the Inquirer reports, he predictably hopes to convince Jewish Pennsylvanians to vote Republican.

Nothing is wrong with treating Israel as a campaign issue. The Middle East conflict is fair game, but McCormick will be exploiting the situation if he distorts the facts or gives short shrift to a wide range of issues such as education, near-daily shootings, health care, threatened service cuts in transportation and high rents.

I feel safe to attest that the Middle East is not on the minds every moment of most Pennsylvanians, including pro-Israel Jews like myself. Many of us certainly concur that Israel must do what is necessary to defend itself, but we question the Israeli government’s tactics in its response to Oct. 7.

McCormick’s campaign is likely to bolster Donald Trump’s election for president far more than his own. If Israel is employed as a statewide issue, it will probably promote Jewish defections from the Democratic Party to the Republicans, at least in the presidential race between Trump and Biden. The state’s sizeable Jewish population could tip the election in a close election. A very close election, that is.

Any switch in the Jewish vote would factor into a curious collaboration to return Trump to the White House – that of Jewish conservatives and anti-Israel blocs who will skip the ballot line for president. Israel-bashers will certainly not vote for Trump, but they are so angry because they view Biden’s efforts as insufficient to restrain Israel’s response to Hamas’ initial Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel.

Hamas’ invasion of Sderot and neighboring towns left 1,400 Israelis dead and they kidnapped 240 Israelis. Israel’s military drive has reportedly caused the deaths of 25,000 Gazans. One-hundred Israeli hostages have since been released.

The left-leaning voting segments who will most likely vote for neither Biden or Trump comprise anti-Israel activists, Arab-Americans antagonized by the bombings and Black voters who identify with the Palestinian cause, whatever that means, or are frustrated by lack of Democratic progress on domestic issues.

Such a move would deny Biden votes that would help him get re-elected, not to mention damaging the prospect of Democrats winning control of Congress.

On the other side, the addition of Jewish votes would obviously increase votes for Trump, giving him hope of winning Pennsylvania. Possibly a small segment of Jews will change course because they fear that Biden has done too little to help Israel. Usually, two-thirds to 80 percent of Jews vote for Democrats because they support the party’s position on domestic issues. In 2020, Trump received 41 percent of Florida’s Jewish vote.

Between these two forces, Trump could win pluralities in swing states that have mostly elected Democrats during the past few decades. The three states most vulnerable to these outcomes are Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which Trump narrowly won in 2016. All three states are home to large cities with substantial Black populations that could reduce turnout in the Black community, notably Detroit, Milwaukee and, yuck, Philadelphia, where I live.

Michigan suffers from a unique problem for Democrats that makes presidential politics far more obnoxious than that which already exists. The largest Arab/Muslim community in American is centered in Dearborn, Mich., where residents are infuriated by civilian casualties in Gaza. They are livid that Biden supported Israel’s relentless pounding of Gaza and are expected to sit out the presidential race even though they have been reminded that Trump will be worse for Arab-Americans.

The Somerton neighborhood is located in the midst of the most substantial Jewish population in Pennsylvania. It stretches north to the convergence of Philadelphia, Bucks and Montgomery counties in the city’s immense Northeast Philly section. Jewish communities can be found throughout parts of Bucks and Montgomery counties, mostly close to the Philadelphia border.

The Northeast’s Jewish population has dwindled during recent decades, and Somerton could well be the most politically conservative Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Somerton is largely peopled by refugees from the former Soviet Union who are known to be very conservative. Most voters probably do not need McCormick’s coaxing to vote for Trump.

A pro-Israel candidate who will make a priority of the Israel-Gaza war will presumably spend a disproportionate amount of time in Jewish communities. Perhaps McCormick will be tearing along Somerton’s main drag, Bustleton Avenue, which continues north to lower Bucks County and connects with Lower Moreland Township in Montgomery County, all gateways to large Jewish communities.

Bustleton Avenue and its adjoining highways are congested on a daily basis, and McCormick’s events will compound the present level of congestion.  There goes the neighborhood?

It will be ironic, but not unexpected, if Casey is re-elected while Trump ekes out a winning plurality statewide because McCormick persuades even a sliver of Jewish voters to switch parties for 2024.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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