Channeling his inner Mondale: Minnesota DFL’s Pro-Israel history foretold Biden’s passion

October 23, 2023 5:30 am
Former Vice President Walter Mondale with then-Vice President Joe Biden

Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with former Vice President Walter Mondale during an event to honor the former VP at George Washington University Oct. 20, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

A lot of younger people I talk to today scratch their heads at the notion that, as President Joe Biden argues, the State of Israel is a liberal cause. After all, Republicans support Israel with more uniformity and fewer reservations than Democrats do.

The long roots of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s  pro-Israel history help us understand Biden’s passionate embrace of Israel — which has sources that go deeper than his visceral revulsion at the atrocities committed by Hamas against Jews in southern Israel on October 7. Biden, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, was also embracing his inner Fritz Mondale.

The two great national political figures who emerged from Minnesota in the 20th century’s third quarter were Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his successor in the U.S. Senate, Walter Mondale. Both men were white Protestants who formed tight bonds with Jewish Democrats and absorbed fully the Zionist devotion of those Jewish comrades. In those years, Jews rose to prominence in the Democratic Party, standing near the center of a rising liberal bloc. Everyone in that coalition embraced pro-Israelism as a form of anti-antisemitism, linking it to support for Civil Rights in America. Nowhere was that formula more potent and influential among Democrats than in Minnesota, despite its small Jewish population.

In 1946 Carey McWilliams called Minneapolis “the capital of antisemitism in the United States.” U.S. Sen. Henrik Shipstead was an open antisemite; U.S Sen. Ernest Lundeen, another Minnesotan, until his death in 1940 had been a secret Nazi collaborator. The most prominent clergyman in the state, Baptist William Bell Riley, was a raving Jew-hater. In this environment, liberals who were repulsed by this wide streak of hatred and who saw it as the sign of fascism made the fight against antisemitism central to their politics. No one made this clearer than did Humphrey, elected as Minneapolis mayor in 1945. His protégé Arthur Naftalin later would become the first Jew to hold that office.

The main Jewish newspaper in the state, the American Jewish World, had published since the 1910s, begun by the Reform Rabbi Amos Deinard with a strong Zionist commitment. As Reform had been the major branch of Judaism least friendly to Zionism, this showed how basic Zionism was to the Minnesota Jewish community well before Israel’s founding in 1948.

Loving Israel came naturally to someone like Humphrey. He thought Israel represented a progressive, pro-American future in the Middle East. His closest political supporters included Geri and Burton Joseph, pillars of Minnesota’s Jewish and Zionist community. Geri Joseph, a political reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, became deeply involved in Humphrey’s campaigns and eventually sat on the Democratic National Committee. In 1964 she and Mondale together served on the credentials committee at their party’s national convention, wracked by controversy over racial segregation. Burton Joseph, meanwhile, an agribusinessman, became national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League in the mid-1970s, a time when the organization was shifting to the right and began to agitate against sharp criticism of Israel as a “new antisemitism.”

Mondale carried on Humphrey’s torch for Israel. He was especially close to Rabbi Bernard Raskas of the Temple of Aaron, a Conservative synagogue in St. Paul. Raskas and his wife, who bought burial plots in Israel and owned a second home there, shepherded the Mondales on tours of the Jewish state.

In the 1970s the Democrats were still more pro-Israel than the Republicans. The demand to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a poke in the eye of the Palestinians who had lived under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1967, started as a Democratic Party proposal, first appearing in its 1976 platform. The Republicans didn’t endorse the idea for another twenty years.

After President Jimmy Carter showed what was perceived to be excessive sympathy for the Palestinians, he suffered defections from Jewish voters, who gave Republican Ronald Reagan an unusually large 39% of their vote in 1980. Mondale, Carter’s vice president, was determined to get these votes back as his party’s presidential nominee in 1984. He pushed Reagan to commit to moving the Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem. Reagan demurred, and Mondale restored the traditionally large Jewish majority for the Democrats — while losing the election badly.

Biden came of age in Mondale’s Democratic Party, and it shows.

Today, religious minorities are overrepresented among national political leaders from Minnesota, most dramatically among Democrats. Of the four DFL U.S. House members from the state, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips is Jewish, and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is Muslim — even though each community comprises only about 1% of the state’s population; U.S. Rep. Angie Craig is a Lutheran in an interfaith marriage to a Jewish spouse; U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum is Roman Catholic. All four Minnesota GOP U.S. House members are Catholic. The 75% of the state’s population that is Protestant have to be satisfied with Craig plus our two U.S. Senators for representation.

McCollum and Omar embody two newer waves in the Democratic Party, as both have been outspoken and determined in their advocacy for the Palestinian people and highly critical of Israel’s behavior over the years. 

McCollum has long battled Aipac, the infuential Jewish-American lobby group. She once banned Aipac lobbyists from her office, and as recently as 2020 accused the group of “weaponizing antiemitism to incite followers by attacking me.” She continues the social-justice Catholicism of her mentor, the late U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento, who witnessed against U.S.-inspired wars in Central America during the 1980s. 

Omar represents the cutting edge of the changing demography of Minnesota politics, speaking the language of anticolonialism with a special concern for those in Africa and the Muslim world. 

McCollum and Omar may foretell further changes in how Democrats see the conflict between Israel and Palestine. 

For now, however, Biden is giving us some of that old-time religion.

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Doug Rossinow
Doug Rossinow

Doug Rossinow is professor of history at Metro State University in St. Paul, and the author of many works, including "The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s," published in 2015.