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Don't Misinterpret the Jewish Vote

October 23, 2008 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Although the presidential election is still two weeks away, and no one should assume the outcome, it is safe to say that Democratic candidate Barack Obama has secured the lion's share of American Jewish votes.

This is despite the dedicated efforts of supporters of Sen. John McCain to increase the number of Jews who vote Republican and an aggressive ad campaign by the Republican Jewish Coalition that has driven Democrats up the wall.

While some in the GOP had spoken optimistically of McCain matching, or even exceeding, the nearly 40 percent of Jewish votes that Ronald Reagan received in 1980, it was wishful thinking that Jews would forgo their longstanding commitment to the Democratic Party.

Conservatives may dismiss the persistent affection of the majority of Jews for the Democrats as being rooted as much in nostalgia for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as in the merits of their successors. But Republicans know too well that Jews are second only to African-Americans in their dogged refusal to vote for anyone but a Democrat. And, in what must be considered one of the most partisan moments in American history, their expectation that a sizable number would bolt across the aisle was unrealistic.

Myths About Jewish Voters
Chief among the reasons why the Republicans have failed to create a political realignment was that their wedge issue -- support for the State of Israel -- is not the only item on the list of Jewish concerns.

Domestic issues, particularly those related to the separation of church and state, and social issues, such as support for abortion rights, are seen as matters of profound personal concern. On a deeper level, most Jews have traditionally interpreted Judaism's imperative for social justice as a mandate for liberal politics. Conservatives may jibe, not without justice, that the faith of liberal Jews may be defined as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, but there's no denying the power of these ideas.

That said, Republicans were poised to make some gains. McCain's strong stands on Israel and Islamist terror gave the GOP reason for hope. Also helpful to the GOP was the victory of Sen. Barack Obama, a virtual political unknown, over Sen. Hillary Clinton who had strong support among Jews. Obama's long association with a radical anti-Semite like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright rightly troubled many voters.

However, by late September, GOP optimism fell victim to the panic on Wall Street. But more important at sounding the death knell, at least among the Jews, was the Sarah Palin factor.

Though Palin's presence on the ticket has energized the Republican base, her identity as a social conservative and Evangelical Christian has had the opposite effect on most Jews, because their views on domestic matters run contrary to hers. The hostility that she has generated among liberal Jews, especially women, is visceral. Whether or not their fears about Palin are justified, there's little doubt she is going to cost McCain some Jewish votes.

So, no matter who is sworn in next January, the Democratic dominance of the Jewish vote will almost certainly remain unshaken. Unfortunately, that has already led a few pundits to jump to some unjustified conclusions.

In the October issue of Harper's Magazine, writer Bernard Avishai, an Israeli who is a strong critic of the way American Jews fervently support his country, states his belief in an essay titled "Obama's Jews," that the unwillingness of Jews to vote Republican, despite their supposed superior record on Israel, means that they are indifferent to such appeals. He blithely assumes that this Democratic majority is sticking with its party's candidate precisely because it has rejected the mantra of down-the-line support for Israel.

Ironically, his view seems to echo the laments of Jewish Republicans, who fear that the vote for Obama means that Jews no longer care about Israel. That is a particularly bitter reflection for them, because conservatives have long held that, sooner or later, American Jews would switch parties because they were bound to eventually conclude that the Democrats were inherently unreliable on Israel.

It is no secret that there is a large element of the American left that is inherently hostile to Israel and Zionism. They wield proportionally more influence among Democrats than that portion of the American right that is similarly hostile to Israel (think Pat Buchanan). To the extent that any Democrat can be identified as a clone of former President Jimmy Carter, whose view of Israel as an apartheid state has thoroughly discredited him as a mainstream figure, the Republicans do gain.

Yet, as the results of 1980 proved, when Jewish voters are presented with a Democrat who is perceived as hostile to Israel, they will vote for his or her opponent. In that election, Carter (whose animus for Israel wasn't nearly as pronounced as it has since become) received a record-low Jewish vote.

But, contrary to the conclusion of Avishai and the pessimistic Republicans, if Democrats have held their own among the Jews since then, it is not because they have chosen to flout the sensibilities of supporters of Israel, but because they have never allowed themselves to be wrong-footed on Israel as they were in 1980.

They Do Care
In line with this insight, throughout this year's campaign Obama has wisely never allowed much daylight between his positions and that of the pro-Israel community. His goal was not to prove that he had a better record than McCain, but to show an inherently sympathetic audience of Jewish Democrats that his pro-Israel stance was plausible enough to allow them to vote for him, and against his opponent, on the basis of other issues.

In response, the RJC ad campaign has focused on branding Obama as a radical who is hostile to Israel. But, if it fails to move voters, as it appears to, it will not be due to the fact that Jews think Obama is weak on Israel and don't care. Rather it will be because the majority of Jews who are Democrats believe the assertion to be false.

Growing assimilation is altering the demographics of the Jewish community, and most American Jews are still more afraid of Pat Robertson than they are of Hamas, Hezbollah or even Iran. But it would be dead wrong to think that most don't care about Israel.

Republicans may question Obama's sincerity, and point to his personal history and waffling on issues, such as Jerusalem, to back up their cynicism. But his consistent statements of support for Israel have effectively parried the claim that he is another Carter, which is all he really needed to do to hold on to the Jewish vote.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. Should a President Obama prove his critics right and go back on his word on Israel, he will discover that Jewish voters, including many Democrats, are every bit as capable of punishing him as they were Jimmy Carter 28 years ago.  

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