Jews may be the Democratic Party’s second most reliable constituency (after African Americans), but by the mid-1980s Jewish Democrats were beginning to feel insecure as Republican outreach to their community intensified and as the Democrats drifted further away from support for Israel. There was a palpable fear that such a potent combination could portend a Jewish exodus from the Democratic Party. To quell Jewish alienation from the Democratic Party, a group of concerned activists led by Morton Mandel of Cleveland decided to organize a Jewish voice within the party, and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) was founded in 1990. Mandel became founding chairman; other initial organizers include Sheldon Cohen of Washington, D.C., Monte Friedkin of Florida, and David Steiner of New Jersey.
Ronald Reagan’s early presidency brought a new wave of Jews into the Republican Party; dubbed neo-conservatives, many had been followers of Democratic senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Neo-conservatives were ardently pro-Israel and hawkish on Cold War issues but were also domestic liberals, who nonetheless saw their party moving too far to the left and increasingly critical of Israel’s hardline Likud-led government.
The Democrats’ problem was compounded by the growing influence of the two-time Democratic presidential nominee Rev. Jesse Jackson, an African American civil rights activist. Jackson’s hostility toward Jews–he privately referred to them as “hymies” and New York as “hymietown”–his open sympathies for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian cause, and his avid courtship of Arab-American support were sources of great concern for the Jewish community.
The Republican Party exploited rifts within the Democratic party, as well as new pro-Israel voices within it to draw Jewish defectors. What became known as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) was founded in 1985 to build support for the Republican party and its candidates in the Jewish community. However, Republican outreach to the Jewish community had little impact on Jewish voting habits, despite growing Republican support for Israel during the Reagan years and again under President George W. Bush, whose hostility toward Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and sympathy for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won praise from some hardline pro-Israel groups.
In the closing years of the 20th century and the early 21st both Democratic and Republican administrations were pro-Israel, and the majority of Jews (est. 70 percent) voted Democratic because of the conservative domestic agenda of the GOP, and particularly the enormous influence of the party’s right-wing evangelical Christian base, widely seen as the Jewish community’s most powerful adversaries on church-state issues. Both partisan groups seek to build Jewish support for their party. The RJC focuses overwhelmingly on Israel-related issues, including the war on terror, while the NJDC stresses a much broader agenda, particularly emphasizing the deep differences between the parties on domestic issues, such as civil liberties, reproductive freedom, the environment, gun control, and privacy rights.
The NJDC was open about its ties to the Democratic party, while its rival group was initially reluctant to advertise its partisan identity. In an apparent appeal for Jewish support and to appear neutral to Democratic voters, the RJC initially called itself the National Jewish Coalition.
NJDC is aligned with the Democratic Party and its agenda, but it is not formally linked to the party itself. Legally, it (like RJC) is independent. NJDC, with Democrats’ larger and less fragile Jewish voter base, is more likely than its counterpart group to criticize members of its own party who are seen as acting hostile to Israel or the Jewish community’s interests. NJDC coaches candidates and politicians on how to deal substantively as well as politically with the Jewish community, and it trains grass roots advocates to work and organize at the local level. A special emphasis has been on developing a new generation of Jewish Democratic leaders around the country. NJDC also stages “get out the vote” efforts for each election and organizes debates among competing candidates or Jewish spokesmen for the two parties. NJDC also works with the Congress and the Jewish and national media in support of its agenda. It sponsors trips to Israel for leading political figures to better educate them on the views and concerns of Jewish voters back home.
The group began to lose donors and was forced to defend itself against a defamation lawsuit filed by Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Though it ultimately won the lawsuit, the group had disintegrated by 2016.