Jonathan S. Tobin | JNS
In the last decade, seemingly every formerly unbreakable rule of American political life has been broken by former President Donald Trump or his opponents. But perhaps nothing that has occurred would be quite as remarkable as what would happen if the Republican Jewish Coalition gets their way in a race that is the group’s top priority in the 2022 midterms.
In a packed Philadelphia hotel ballroom with local and national media present, the RJC rolled out its campaign last week to help elect Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Muslim and Turkish American to an open Pennsylvania Senate seat. In doing so, they hope to play a part in making history for American Muslims since if he wins, Oz would be the first member of his faith to serve in the U.S. Senate. It would also boost their party’s chances of winning back the Senate. At the same time, they will also be assuring that the seat will be held by an ardent supporter of Israel.
RJC head Matthew Brooks and David Friedman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Trump administration and was an interlocutor at the event for Oz, sought to frame their support for the candidate in the context of the expanding circle of peace between Jews and Muslims that rests at the core of the Abraham Accords. It didn’t hurt that the event came on the same day that it was announced that Turkey and Israel will resume full diplomatic relations after rising tensions between the two countries due to the support that the Islamist government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has given to the Hamas terrorist movement.
Oz, who narrowly won a GOP primary largely due to an endorsement from Trump, is a citizen of both the United States and Turkey, and currently trails his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, in the polls. Republicans have to hold this seat in order to have a chance to tip the balance in a 50-50 Senate that is currently controlled by the Democrats due to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
Though he was born in Delaware to immigrants from Turkey, he went back to his parents’ homeland and served in the Turkish Army in his 20s in order to preserve his dual citizenship. He then returned to the United States, where he earned degrees from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania before going on to a career as a professor at Columbia University and as a widely respected heart surgeon. But he is best known as the host of the “Dr. Oz Show,” a daily daytime talk program devoted to medicine and health topics that was launched by the production company owned by TV superstar Oprah Winfrey, on whose own show he had been a frequent guest.
As a TV host, Oz was no stranger to controversy as his endorsement of various weight loss and anti-aging products of dubious efficacy was denounced by many doctors. He was also bitterly criticized for giving opponents of vaccinations a hearing on his show. During the coronavirus pandemic, he was similarly condemned by the medical establishment for saying that keeping the schools closed as part of lockdowns was doing more harm than good, though in retrospect, that seems reasonable given the educational and mental-health damage done to children who were at low risk from the virus.
Democrats think the association with Trump and having an extremist at the head of the GOP ticket in the form of Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, will doom Oz. But he’s hoping that appealing to pro-Israel sentiment will win him votes.
It is customary for candidates to try to curry favor with American Jews by speaking of their support for the Jewish state. But those who turned out for the RJC event were not given the usual pro-Israel boilerplate. There were elements of the familiar in Oz’s attempts to link his family’s past to Jewish history and his talk about how a trip to Israel left him deeply moved.
Yet he minced no words about the U.S.-Israel relationship and whether or not Washington should, as Muslim and liberal Jewish groups often urge, pressure the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians. To the contrary, he staked out a position that is actually closer to that of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Trump. Instead of endorsing a two-state solution, as far as Oz is concerned, Israeli territorial concessions are a bad idea.
“I don’t believe that Israel should give up any territory,” he declared to the cheers of those in attendance, who were handed out signs saying “Pro-Israel, Pro-Oz,” “Jews for Oz” and the doctor’s name printed in Hebrew and English, as well as some declaring that Fetterman was aligned with the far-left, anti-Israel congressional “Squad.”
Bashing Fetterman for being endorsed by the left-wing J Street lobby — even though the Democratic candidate backed Israel’s right to self-defense, as reported by JNS — Oz said the criticism of Israel that has become commonplace among left-wing Democrats was due to intersectional beliefs that lead them to oppose anyone with “power.” He said he admired Israel’s power, without which correctly pointed out “there would be no Israel.” He opposes any limitations on aid to Israel and denounced the Biden administration’s efforts to appease Iran.
These are the sorts of things we’re used to hearing from evangelical Christians who are, if anything, more vocal in their hardline support of Israel than most liberal Jews, who are often uncomfortable with the Jewish state’s positions. But it is heady stuff coming from a self-described “secular Muslim” whose skills as a speaker were on display at the RJC event.
Indeed, Friedman saw Oz’s support for Israel as in keeping with his own experiences helping to broker normalization agreements with Arab and Muslim countries. If, as he said he recently told Trump, “it is easier to get a kosher sandwich in Dubai than in Washington,” it stands to reason that an American Muslim could be just as comfortable in supporting that expanding circle of peace for a secure Israel as anyone else.
That is not the message that groups like the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which was founded as a front for Hamas in the United States but now claims to be a civil-rights organization, supports. CAIR is virulently antisemitic, yet it is widely assumed by the mainstream media to speak for most Muslims. Their opinions are echoed by others on the left who have denounced Oz as not fit to be the first Muslim U.S. senator because he is supported by Trump.
Like most other non-Jewish politicians who may think backing Israel is a path to Jewish support, he’s about to learn that this is a myth. The overwhelming majority of Jews in Pennsylvania are, like elsewhere, liberals and loyal Democrats who don’t prioritize Israel as conservative and Republican Jews do.
If Oz faces an uphill struggle to win in November, it is due to concerns about his retaining his Turkish citizenship (which he says he will renounce if he wins); the fact that he spent most of his life living outside Pennsylvania, as well as the notoriety he earned as a television personality who backed products most doctors shunned; and some gaffes that make him look out-of-touch with voters, not his foreign-policy positions.
Still, win or lose, the fact that the first Muslim-American to have a reasonable shot at winning a Senate seat is someone who has placed unquestioned support for Israel among his priorities ought to be viewed as an encouraging sign by all those who care about the Jewish state. In much of the Muslim world, there is still strong resistance to normalization with Israel that is rooted in pervasive antisemitism. That’s why even Democrats who won’t vote for Oz should be cheering the idea that a Muslim candidate is willing to speak up for the Jewish state. If the Abraham Accords truly represent the future, we are going to need a lot more moderate Muslims like Oz who, whatever their political affiliations, are willing to stand with the Jewish community in support of Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.